PINE RIDGE, S.D. — If you’ve seen the movie, you know Little Big Man was a
doozy of a tall tale. No one this side of Hollywood could have hunted
buffalo as a boy, hobnobbed with white men, fought Gen. George Armstrong
Custer, taken Jesus as a savior, survived an Army massacre or two — and
lived for a century.
Nobody except Dewey Beard, that is.
A Minneconjou Lakota, Beard was everything the movie’s white hero, Jack
Crabb, was cracked up to be. As a youngster he rode his pony up Medicine
Tail Coulee and killed a trooper at Little Big Horn. In his 30s, he took
two bullets at Wounded Knee and saw almost his entire family killed. In his
late 90s, still scrapping for a fight, he was telling off Congress about
the latest Washington land grab in Lakota country.
He was a Ghost dancer, a homesteader, a trick rider, a movie actor, a
buckskin ambassador — and a Catholic convert. And there are still people
in Lakota country who knew him.
One of them is Beard’s great-granddaughter, Marie Fox Belly. She tells of a
spry old man in moccasins, a childhood companion who seemed, to an
impressionable young girl, like he just stepped out of another age.
“I sat on his lap and felt that scar in his leg where he was shot” at
Wounded Knee, Fox Belly recalled, savoring a favorite childhood memory. “I
could put my hand in where the muscle was torn away. I put my ear to his
chest, and I could hear his heart beat. I could feel his breath on top of
Fox Belly spoke of “Grandpa Beard” with something close to awe. As a girl,
she watched and followed his every move. “I knew my grandfather. I talked
to him. I trailed him. I sat by him. When I was smaller and growing up, I
didn’t quite have all my teeth, so he would chew my meat for me and set
[the pieces] on the table beside my bowl.
“His hands were big hands, and I thought, ‘Geez, this man held his child, a
newborn baby, and he held weapons of war.’ But he also shook hands in
friendship.” At 99, said Fox Belly, his hearing was as good as hers, and he
had a full set of teeth. And he could ride a horse like a man half his age.
When he died in 1955, Time magazine said Beard was living in a “tar paper
shack.” Fox Belly, who visited him often, remembers that “shack” fondly. It
was one room, spare and simple, with a kitchen on one side and a sleeping
area on the other. That’s the way most people lived on the reservation 50
There was a reason Beard’s death was written up in papers like The New York
Times and The Washington Post. He was the last survivor of the Battle of
the Little Bighorn. And Beard, short for Hawk Beard, Fox Belly said, told a
bundle of stories about the battle.
They were camped on the Little Big Horn with Crazy Horse that day in 1876.
All of a sudden the soldiers attacked the camp and killed a young boy. That
made the Lakota and Cheyenne so mad they “went out and cleaned them up,”
Beard later told National Geographic. Almost 20 years old at the time, he
jumped on the first horse he could find and rode to the sound of the guns.
There’s a funny thing about that horse, said Leonard Little Finger, a
family descendant from Oglala. Little Finger, whose grandfather was Beard’s
younger brother, listened avidly to Beard’s stories as a teenager. Beard
told him he had a battle horse outfitted with a mouth bridle that day, he
began, warming to the story.
He jumped on the mount, and Beard’s father “hit the horse in the butt, and
the horse took off, and he’s trying to sit on it and not fall off,” Little
Finger recounted. “An old lady with a cane is standing there looking at the
noise, and the horse is going fast, and Beard hollers, ‘Watch out, grandma,
I can’t stop the horse!'”
The horse hit the old woman, tossing her in the air, and she fell in the
water. Then Beard rode across the river and into history.
By the time he got to the battlefield, the action was almost over. With
time enough to shoot only one arrow, his aim was true, killing a
blue-coated soldier armed with a six-shooter.
A strange thing happened then, Little Finger said. Before the firing
stopped, Beard saw a soldier cowering on the ground surrounded by a group
of laughing women. A man rode up with his son draped over his horse,
singing a death song. When he saw the group, he stopped, jumped off his
mount, pulled his pistol out, and walked up to the soldier and shot him
“That’s the story I know,” Little Finger said.
A Lakota language and culture teacher at Loneman School in Oglala, Little
Finger has some bittersweet memories of his grandfather. He recalled the
time Beard invited him along to visit the Little Big Horn battlefield when
they were at a pow wow in nearby Wyoming. But his father told him he had to
stay and dance. “There’s things in your life you regret,” Little Finger
said wistfully. “In my life, that was one of them.”
Beard left the battle with some souvenirs, including an Army-issue bugle
one of his nephews later used as a toy.
But the Custer victory had been in vain. As Beard himself would say later:
“They got the Black Hills anyway, so what’s the difference?”
After the battle, the Army set out to punish the victors. Some, under Crazy
Horse, signed the famous surrender ledger and went in to the agencies.
Others, under Sitting Bull, refused. Dewey Beard proudly counted himself
among the latter.
Iron Hail (Wasu Maza), as he came to be known, was going into exile. It
would take Custer’s 7th Cavalry another 14 years to catch up with him.