OGLALA, S.D. — Dewey Beard was the last survivor of the Battle of the
Little Big Horn: a warrior, rancher, actor and respected elder. His
eventful life, which spanned a century, is still remembered by friends and
The more Leonard Little Finger read the letter, the less it made sense. His
grandfather, Joseph, had written to his brother, Dewey Beard, that they
needed to record their experiences of the “battle” of Wounded Knee.
That stumped Little Finger, a teacher of Lakota history and culture at
nearby Loneman School.
“Battle?” he said, looking a little perplexed over his kitchen table in
Oglala. “Wait a minute. I know it as a massacre” — what is practically an
article of faith on the Pine Ridge Reservation. “But the more I began to
look at it, it was, from their perspective, a battle for their life.”
As Beard’s grandnephew, Little Finger has thought a lot about what happened
that day on Wounded Knee Creek. Years of studying — and being — Lakota
hadn’t prepared him for Joseph’s words. “It opened my eyes. I finally got
to understand what he really meant: They fought to survive.” And their
fight wouldn’t end any time soon.
How Dewey Beard got to Wounded Knee in the first place is a story in
Soon after the Little Big Horn, Beard followed Sitting Bull’s band into
exile. They walked across the “medicine line” into Canada and, a few years
later, trudged a good part of the way back, with promises from the U.S.
Army that they could live in peace.
Beard and his family put away their war paint. They lived in cabins and
hauled hay along the Cheyenne River. His brother Joseph studied English in
school. They even went to the white man’s church, said great-granddaughter
Marie Fox Belly.
But crop failure and ration cuts came. Desperate, the Lakota joined the
dancers in the summer of 1890. Beard danced too, though suspicious of the
claim that the painted shirts would stop the bullets of the wasicun.
“The Ghost Dance was a dance of life,” affirmed Fox Belly, recalling the
enthusiasm of the troubled time. That fall, Beard’s wife bore him a child,
a son named Wet Feet who would not survive the winter.
Chief Big Foot’s band of about 300 men, women and children — Beard’s
family among them — hurried south to Pine Ridge after Sitting Bull was
killed. They averted a skirmish before camping under military escort at
Wounded Knee. That night his father, Horn Cloud, had a premonition, Fox
Belly said — he told the family it would be better to die together than
The next morning, Dec. 29, Wounded Knee Creek ran red.
A shot from an Indian gun was answered by a volley of Army rifle and cannon
fire. “The soldiers’ shots sounded like firecrackers and hail in a storm,”
Beard said later.
He watched, helpless, as his own mother sang her Death Song, her side
ripped open by a bullet. He tried in vain to revive his brother William,
felled by a gunshot wound to the chest. All they could do was shake hands
before he died.
Beard fled down the ravine toward the creek, picking up discarded guns and
firing back at the soldiers. Bleeding profusely from his own wounds, he was
saved when Joseph, the only member of his family to survive unscathed, rode
up on horseback and rescued him.
The toll was ghastly: Beard lost his mother, father, two brothers, wife and
infant son in the massacre. Wounded in the back and left leg, his bloody
clothes frozen to his skin, he hobbled to Pine Ridge and was treated by an
Indian doctor with a dose of “bear medicine.” Years later, Wasu Maza, as he
was known in Lakota, didn’t hide his feelings about that day when asked by
a white reporter: “They murdered us.”
When the survivors and descendants tried to obtain compensation for
damages, the government refused, and refused (1938), and refused again
“I think more than bitterness, he mourned deeply for his parents,” said Fox
Belly, whose own grandson is named Wasu Maza. Even so, Beard told her
mother, Celane Not Help Him, never to let her boys enlist in the Army,
reminding her that “it’s them that killed your grandparents.”
But the massacre — or battle — wasn’t over yet. The history books would
make sure that Beard’s family, the Horn Clouds, who had lived in a cabin
and sent a son off to school, would be called “hostiles,” said Little
Finger. And the Ghost Dancers, a peaceful group, would be tarred by
officials as members of a “messianic craze.” Once it’s written down, said
the Lakota teacher with a shrug of his shoulders, “it becomes true.”
But there was another lesson, too, Little Finger said.
The day before Wounded Knee, Beard had walked up to an Army cannon and
shoved his arm down the barrel, daring the soldiers to act. But his leader
chose to fly the white flag instead. “Big Foot was a treaty signer,”
explained Little Finger, “and Beard wasn’t. Big Foot didn’t want to violate
For that, Little Finger said, he paid a very heavy price. All his followers
did. “Wounded Knee has many, many different connotations, but one of them
is that if I say it, I keep my word. That’s what Lakota is.”
Today, the monument at Wounded Knee facing the mass grave is officially
credited to Joseph Horn Cloud. But Fox Belly, a former president of the
Wounded Knee Survivors Association, said “they all did it,” selling horses
and other possessions to raise money for the stone memorial.
After Wounded Knee, Dewey Beard enrolled at Pine Ridge, but as far from the
agency as possible. He settled near Kyle with other Minneconjou, saddled
now with a fierce and abiding mistrust of the government.
Behind him lay a trail of fighting. But his battle to survive had just
begun. Though already in his 30s, Beard had nearly the traditional “three
score and ten” years still ahead of him.