One of the wittiest and shrewdest of the
Sioux chiefs was American Horse, who
succeeded to the name and position of an uncle, killed in the battle of Slim
Buttes in 1876. The younger American Horse was born a little before the
encroachments of the whites upon the Sioux country became serious and their
methods aggressive, and his early manhood brought him into that most trying and
critical period of our history. He had been tutored by his uncle, since his own
father was killed in battle while he was still very young. The American Horse
band was closely attached to a trading post, and its members in consequence were
inclined to be friendly with the whites, a policy closely adhered to by their
When he was born, his old grandfather said: "Put him
out in the sun! Let him ask his great-grandfather, the Sun, for the
warm blood of a warrior!" And he had warm blood. He was a genial
man, liking notoriety and excitement. He always seized an
|opportunity to leap into the center of
In early life he was a clownish sort of boy among the boys an expert mimic and
impersonator. This talent made him popular and in his way a leader. He was a
natural actor, and early showed marked ability as a speaker.
American Horse was about ten years old when he was attacked by three
warriors, while driving a herd of ponies to water. Here he displayed native
cunning and initiative. It seemed he had scarcely a chance to escape, for the
enemy was near. He yelled frantically at the ponies to start them toward home,
while he dropped off into a thicket of willows and hid there. A part of the herd
was caught in sight of the camp and there was a counter chase, but the Crows got
away with the ponies. Of course his mother was frantic, believing her boy had
been killed or captured; but after the excitement was over, he appeared in camp
unhurt. When questioned about his escape, he remarked: "I knew they would not
take the time to hunt for small game when there was so much bigger close by."
When he was quite a big boy, he joined in a buffalo hunt, and on the way back
with the rest of the hunters his mule became unmanageable. American Horse had
insisted on riding him in addition to a heavy load of meat and skins, and the
animal evidently resented this, for he suddenly began to run and kick,
scattering fresh meat along the road, to the merriment of the crowd. But the boy
turned actor, and made it appear that it was at his wish the mule had given this
diverting performance. He clung to the back of his plunging and braying mount
like a circus rider, singing a Brave Heart song, and finally brought up amid the
laughter and cheers of his companions. Far from admitting defeat, he boasted of
his horsemanship and declared that his "brother" the donkey would put any enemy
to flight, and that they should be called upon to lead a charge.
It was several years later that he went to sleep early one night and slept
soundly, having been scouting for two nights previous. It happened that there
was a raid by the Crows, and when he awoke in the midst of the yelling and
confusion, he sprang up and attempted to join in the fighting. Everybody knew
his voice in all the din, so when he fired his gun and announced a coup, as was
the custom, others rushed to the spot, to find that he had shot a hobbled pony
belonging to their own camp. The laugh was on him, and he never recovered from
his chagrin at this mistake. In fact, although he was undoubtedly fearless and
tried hard to distinguish himself in warfare, he did not succeed.
It is told of him that he once went with a war party of young men to the Wind
River country against the
Shoshone. At last they discovered a large camp, but
there were only a dozen or so of the Sioux, therefore they hid themselves and
watched for their opportunity to attack an isolated party of hunters. While
waiting thus, they ran short of food. One day a small party of Shoshones was
seen near at hand, and in the midst of the excitement and preparations for the
attack, young American Horse caught sight of a fat black-tail deer close by.
Unable to resist the temptation, he pulled an arrow from his quiver and sent it
through the deer's heart, then with several of his half-starved companions
sprang upon the yet quivering body of the animal to cut out the liver, which was
sometimes eaten raw. One of the men was knocked down, it is said, by the last
kick of the dying buck, but having swallowed a few mouthfuls the warriors rushed
upon and routed their enemies. It is still told of American Horse how he killed
game and feasted between the ambush and the attack.
At another time he was drying his sacred war bonnet and other gear over a small
fire. These articles were held in great veneration by the Indians and handled
accordingly. Suddenly the fire blazed up, and our hero so far forgot himself as
to begin energetically beating out the flames with the war bonnet, breaking off
one of the sacred buffalo horns in the act. One could almost fill a book with
his mishaps and exploits. I will give one of them in his own words as well as I
can remember them.
"We were as promising a party of young warriors as our tribe ever sent against
any of its ancestral enemies. It was midsummer, and after going two days'
journey from home we began to send two scouts ahead daily while the main body
kept a half day behind. The scouts set out every evening and traveled all night.
One night the great war pipe was held out to me and to
Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses. At daybreak, having met no one, we hid our
horses and climbed to the top of the nearest butte to take an observation. It
was a very hot day. We lay flat on our blankets, facing the west where the cliff
fell off in a sheer descent, and with our backs toward the more gradual slope
dotted with scrub pines and cedars. We stuck some tall grass on our heads and
proceeded to study the landscape spread before us for any sign of man.
"The sweeping valleys were dotted with herds, both large and small, of buffalo
and elk, and now and then we caught a glimpse of a coyote slinking into the
gulches, returning from night hunting to sleep. While intently watching some
moving body at a distance, we could not yet tell whether of men or animals, I
heard a faint noise behind me and slowly turned my head. Behold! a grizzly bear
sneaking up on all fours and almost ready to spring!
"'Run!' I yelled into the ear of my companion, and we both leaped to our feet in
a second. 'Separate! separate!' he shouted, and as we did so, the bear chose me
for his meat. I ran downhill as fast as I could, but he was gaining. 'Dodge
around a tree!' screamed Young-Man-Afraid. I took a deep breath and made a last
spurt, desperately circling the first tree I came to. As the ground was steep
just there, I turned a somersault one way and the bear the other. I picked
myself up in time to climb the tree, and was fairly out of reach when he
gathered himself together and came at me more furiously than ever, holding in
one paw the shreds of my breechcloth, for in the fall he had just scratched my
back and cut my belt in two, and carried off my only garment for a trophy!
"My friend was well up another tree and laughing heartily at my predicament, and
when the bear saw that he could not get at either of us he reluctantly departed,
after I had politely addressed him and promised to make an offering to his
spirit on my safe return. I don't think I ever had a narrower escape," he
During the troublous times from 1865 to 1877, American Horse advocated yielding
to the government at any cost, being no doubt convinced of the uselessness of
resistance. He was not a recognized leader until 1876, when he took the name and
place of his uncle. Up to this time he bore the nickname of Manishnee (Can not
walk, or Played out.)
When the greater part of the Ogallala, to which band he belonged, came into the
reservation, he at once allied himself with the peace element at the Red Cloud
agency, near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and took no small part in keeping the
young braves quiet. Since the older and better-known chiefs, with the exception
of Spotted Tail, were believed to be hostile at heart, the military made much
use of him. Many of his young men enlisted as scouts by his advice, and even he
himself entered the service.
In the early part of the year 1876, there was a rumor that certain bands were in
danger of breaking away. Their leader was one Sioux Jim, so nicknamed by the
soldiers. American Horse went to him as peacemaker, but was told he was a woman
and no brave. He returned to his own camp and told his men that Sioux Jim meant
mischief, and in order to prevent another calamity to the tribe, he must be
chastised. He again approached the warlike Jim with several warriors at his
back. The recalcitrant came out, gun in hand, but the wily chief was too quick
for him. He shot and wounded the rebel, whereupon one of his men came forward
and killed him.
This quelled the people for the time being and up to the killing of
In the crisis precipitated by this event, American Horse was again influential
and energetic in the cause of the government. From this time on he became an
active participant in the affairs of the Teton Sioux. He was noted for his
eloquence, which was nearly always conciliatory, yet he could say very sharp
things of the duplicity of the whites. He had much ease of manner and was a
master of repartee. I recall his saying that if you have got to wear golden
slippers to enter the white man's heaven no Indian will ever get there, as the
whites have got the Black Hills and with them all the gold.
It was during the last struggle of his people, at the time of the Messiah craze
in 1890-1891 that he demonstrated as never before the real greatness of the man.
While many of his friends were carried away by the new thought, he held aloof
from it and cautioned his band to do the same. When it developed into an
extensive upheaval among the nations he took his positive stand against it.
Presently all Indians who did not dance the
Ghost Dance were ordered to come
into camp at Pine Ridge agency. American Horse was the first to bring in his
people. I was there at the time and talked with him daily. When Little was
arrested, it had been agreed among the disaffected to have him resist, which
meant that he would be roughly handled. This was to be their excuse to attack
the Indian police, which would probably lead to a general massacre or outbreak.
I know that this desperate move was opposed from the beginning by American
Horse, and it was believed that his life was threatened.
On the day of the "Big Issue", when thousands of Indians were gathered at the
agency, this man Little, who had been in hiding, walked boldly among them. Of
course the police would arrest him at sight, and he was led toward the
guardhouse. He struggled with them, but was overpowered. A crowd of warriors
rushed to his rescue, and there was confusion and a general shout of "Hurry up
with them! Kill them all!" I saw American Horse walk out of the agent's office
and calmly face the excited mob.
"What are you going to do?" he asked. "Stop, men, stop and think before you act!
Will you murder your children, your women, yes, destroy your nation today?" He
stood before them like a statue and the men who held the two policemen helpless
paused for an instant. He went on: "You are brave today because you outnumber
the white men, but what will you do to-morrow? There are railroads on all sides
of you. The soldiers will pour in from every direction by thousands and surround
you. You have little food or ammunition. It will be the end of your people.
Stop, I say, stop now!"
Jack Red Cloud, son of the old chief rushed up to him and thrust a revolver
almost in his face. "It is you and men like you," he shouted, "who have reduced
our race to slavery and starvation!" American Horse did not flinch but
deliberately reentered the office, followed by Jack still flourishing the
pistol. But his timely appearance and eloquence had saved the day. Others of the
police force had time to reach the spot, and with a large crowd of friendly
Indians had taken command of the situation.
When I went into the office I found him alone but apparently quite calm. "Where
are the agent and the clerks?" I asked. "They fled by the back door," he
replied, smiling. "I think they are in the cellar. These fools outside had
almost caught us asleep, but I think it is over now."
American Horse was one of the earliest advocates of education for the Indian,
and his son Samuel and nephew Robert were among the first students at Carlisle.
I think one or two of his daughters were the handsomest Indian girls of full
blood that I ever saw. His record as a councilor of his people and his policy in
the new situation that confronted them was manly and consistent.
Sioux Indian Chiefs |
Siouan Family History |
Oglala Teton Sioux
Indian Heroes and
Native American Nations