This Date in Native History: On March 25, 1879, Chief Little Wolf, Northern Cheyenne, surrendered but succeeded in bringing his people home.
According to the Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine, light skinned men with beards would come, so many they could not be counted. They would kill the buffalo and introduce cattle and horses, and disease. They would take the children and enforce new ways. The prophecy would be remembered and Sweet Medicine’s medicine bundle would be carried for years to come. One who carried that bundle was Chief Little Wolf.
In 1877, after more than a decade of wars, bands of Northern Cheyenne and other tribes straggled into the Red Cloud agency and Fort Robinson in Nebraska to surrender. There, the tribes were pressured to relocate to Indian Territory, in areas now known as Kansas and Oklahoma. The Northern Cheyenne were against the move, and vowed to remain in their homelands.
There was shock and surprise among the Northern Cheyenne when the elected spokesman, Standing Elk, announced to U.S. officials that they would indeed move to Indian Territory. Though they saw the announcement as a betrayal, they agreed to go.
On May 28, 1877, 937 Northern Cheyenne left the Red Cloud Agency and began their 77-day trek to Indian Territory. Only two months after their arrival, two-thirds of their people fell ill with a coughing sickness, and 40 had perished by the end of the first winter. The attending physician had no medicine, and the government sent only enough food to last nine months of a year. Without buffalo or game to hunt, their numbers dwindled from sickness and starvation.
The band longed to return home. In the book, Sweet Medicine, author Peter Powell reported, “An old northern woman, dying of malaria, whispered, ‘Up north the pines make a rustling sound in the wind, and the trees smell good.’ Then she fell back and died.”
By September 1878, many could no longer endure the situation, and of the 284 people who chose to leave, almost 200 were women and children, with less than 90 warriors. While Little Wolf would carry the Sweet Medicine bundle, many of the other important medicine people chose to remain, leaving those who would go with many concerns for their safety, Powell wrote.
Little Wolf was described in The Fighting Cheyennes by George Bird Grinnell, as “the military architect of the Cheyenne Exodus,” but he was also the carrier of the sacred Sweet Medicine bundle, so it was also important that he strive to maintain peaceful relations.
Powell wrote, “Among medicine chiefs, it was the Sweet Medicine Chief whose position was the most sacred. His seat represented the heart of the world. Among some Cheyennes his office was considered to be the holiest in the tribe, carrying the root that represented Sweet Medicine himself.”
Two days after the Northern Cheyenne left Indian Territory, an Arapaho scout arrived, preceding an attack by cavalry troops, calling Little Wolf to come back to Indian Territory. The scout promised the safety and well being of his people, but Little Wolf said he would not fight, but that they would be returning to their homelands in Montana.
Over the remainder of the trip, the Northern Cheyenne suffered attacks by soldiers, and themselves made raids upon horses and cattle to provide food for the trip. Little Wolf told his warriors to fight the soldiers, but not to attack first or attack civilians.
In one instance Powell wrote that soldiers attacked in force, but “Little Wolf was said to have calmly sat smoking his pipe, his medicine bundle under his arm.” He told his warriors, “Do not get excited. Keep cool and listen to what I say to you.”
Tangle Hair, a dog soldier said about the incident, “Little Wolf did not seem like a human being. … He seemed without fear.” Later that night, Little Wolf again urged the people to avoid fighting as much as possible, “Or we may all be killed. We must all go faster,” he is quoted in the book, Sweet Medicine.
Keeping the young men of the tribe in line was not easy. Eager to count coup, and angry at their situation, they were less interested in peace and killed settlers along the way, taking horses, guns, cattle, blankets, and other goods. Little Wolf was unhappy but was unable to stop them, Powell wrote.
The traveling, fighting, and raiding continued for a month until finally, as they approached the Red Cloud Agency, the attacks ended. Chief Dull Knife and Little Wolf made a decision to separate, which later Little Wolf said he regretted, though the end result was for the best.
Little Wolf’s group had dwindled to 126 people. By October 2, 1878, they stopped and wintered safely in Niobrara, Nebraska, where game was still plentiful. In March, when they reached Yellowstone, they were met by Lieutenant. W.P. Clark, known to Little Wolf and others as White Hat, who encouraged Little Wolf to surrender.
Grinnell wrote that after resting a few days, Little Wolf agreed to surrender under certain conditions, which were negotiated at Fort Keogh, near present day Miles City, Montana. General Nelson Miles approached Little Wolf after the surrender, asking the band of Northern Cheyenne to fight with the U.S. against the Sioux. Little Wolf stated he was tired, and he was not interested in fighting anymore.
Eventually, many of the group became scouts and soldiers for the army. Richard Little Bear, president of Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana said, “They had to keep food on the table and one way was to become scouts for the cavalry. It sounds like a happy story but there was a lot of pressure, and they had to ‘do what they wanted you to do.’”
The surrender was not in vain as Little Wolf’s goal was realized. Littlebear said, “The outcome of the surrender is that we have a Northern Cheyenne Reservation. General Miles had said to pick out where they wanted the reservation to be, although the proposed reservation was a lot larger.”
Unlike most other reservations, Littlebear said the reservation was established by a presidential executive order rather than through Congress. “Through Little Wolf’s leadership and perseverance, he managed to make it to Fort Keogh without major battles, and that’s what has been minimized because of subsequent events,” he said.
Those “subsequent events” resulted in Little Wolf’s isolation and loss of stature after he killed tribal member Starving Elk for inappropriate thoughts and actions towards Little Wolf’s wife and daughter, Grinnell wrote. Though Little Wolf lost all he had gained, there was no denying, without him, the Northern Cheyenne might never have experienced the return of their homelands.
This story was originally published March 25, 2014.