STURGIS, 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
Corliss Besselievre can never forget the day she and her husband were given
It was the afternoon of his funeral. Under a stack of odds and ends, Dewey
Beard’s widow, Alice, had hidden a bear claw necklace owned by his
grandfather, a beaded deerskin shirt and leggings, an eagle feather fan, a
medal from the St. Louis World’s Fair and more.
“That just about floored us,” said Besselievre: “We had no idea” the
family, acting on Beard’s own wish, would bestow such a treasure. She and
her husband, Paul, had toured the Midwest with the Beards during the last
years of Dewey Beard’s life, promoting South Dakota tourism and honoring
the survivor of the Little Big Horn. A fast – and deep – friendship ensued.
But it was many years before they would know what to do with their gift.
Long before he ever met the Besselievres, Dewey Beard had made a home for
himself on Pine Ridge. He ran a large herd of horses and cattle on several
allotted sections near the Badlands, where he and Alice raised his children
and made peace with the reservation. He was even baptized a Catholic,
adopting the name “Dewey” from Admiral George Dewey, the Spanish-American
War hero he met on a trip back East.
Through it all, Iron Hail (Wasu Maza, as he was known in Lakota) never
bothered to learn English. When he went to Washington to advocate
reparations for Wounded Knee, he took an interpreter with him and signed
his testimony with a thumbprint.
But language skills didn’t keep him from appearing as a movie actor in the
silent film era. In 1913, “Buffalo Bill” Cody came to Pine Ridge to film a
re-enactment of the Wounded Knee massacre, casting actual survivors in the
production. Because it would shed light on an event whitewashed by the
military – and paid $1.50 a day and hay for horses – Beard signed up, as
did hundreds of others, and got some of the top billing among the Lakota.
Other Indian people criticized the project, saying it was sacrilegious to
film at the actual site. Both praised and panned, the film disappeared into
thin air under suspicious circumstances soon after it opened.
Beard worked the land as he had learned on Cheyenne River. And it was
natural for a warrior who had ridden from the Niobrara to the Red River to
make horses his business. Things were going fine until 1942, when the
military came looking for him – again.
This time they had B-17 bombers. Beard’s allotment had been condemned by
the government to become part of an aerial gunnery range. He and his family
were moved off the ranch with a month’s notice.
A lot of the bucking horses were sold and shipped East, said Marie Fox
Belly, Beard’s great-granddaughter, and some of those left behind became
moving targets for the airplanes.
Compensation, offered in small installments, wasn’t enough for a down
payment on other property. Run off the land they’d worked to develop, Dewey
and Alice Beard moved to a shantytown in Rapid City.
In spite of fortune’s turn, Beard found celebrity as a Custer survivor. He
appeared on television and radio, and in several Hollywood movies. Still,
he was unrepentant about the old days, telling the Rapid City Journal in
1948 that he had no remorse about Custer and that “I would like to kick the
whites out of here.”
Everyone has a favorite Beard story, even if those who knew him have
dwindled in number. Mario Gonzalez, former attorney for the Oglala Sioux
Tribe, recalled Beard – a relative on his mother’s side – attending Pioneer
Days in Kadoka in full regalia in 1955. Gonzalez was a young boy at the
“He was old and couldn’t get his foot up to the stirrups. So my mother had
me run out there with a chair and set it up for him. He got on his horse
and he left, and that’s the last time I saw him.”
When he died later that year, Beard was still landless. It was a long
journey for a man who called Crazy Horse his uncle, walked to Canada with
Sitting Bull, survived Big Foot’s disaster, and was a friend of such big
shots as Gen. Nelson Miles and Buffalo Bill.
He died in the fall. Fox Belly saw them prepare the body for burial. They
washed him with herbs and fixed his hair the traditional way. The casket
was made of wood and covered with a velveteen gray cloth. The service was
held at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, north of Kyle.
Robert Lee, a friend and longtime reporter for the Rapid City Journal, was
given Beard’s peace pipe at the giveaway afterward. “It was a very quiet
ceremony, and they loaded the coffin on the back of a pickup to the open
grave,” Lee said. “As soon as that first shovel of dirt hit that coffin,
the women started keening.”
It was some years before the Besselievres decided what to do with Dewey
Beard’s treasure. They gave the items on loan to the Old Fort Meade Museum
in Sturgis, where they are still proudly displayed. Even the bugle Beard
picked up at Little Big Horn, the name of his brother – White Lance –
scratched on the handle, is on view.
Fox Belly is thankful Beard’s possessions are around at all. She would like
Indian people to be able to see them, too. Crazy Horse Memorial would be
the best place to display his effects, she thinks, since the famous warrior
was Beard’s uncle. “That’s where I would like to see the bugle. That’s
where I would like to see the shirt.”
Indian or non-Indian, those who remember Dewey Beard agree on one thing.
Besselievre, echoing a common sentiment, called it a “privilege” to know
“He was tough, healthy,” Fox Belly remembered with a sad smile. “I guess
that’s because my grandfather was born free.”
His grave at St. Stephen’s Cemetery is unmarked.