Around 1874, the United States discovered there was gold buried in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. When this information was made public, prospectors and fortune-seekers poured into the region in search of wealth, all the while disregarding the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), in which the U. S. recognized Sioux and Arapaho authority over the region. The United States government did not want to forcibly remove the prospectors from the Black Hills, so they instead offered to purchase the territory from the tribal leaders. When the natives refused to sell, and the gold-hunters continued to arrive, the U. S. finally issued an ultimatum, decreeing that all the Native Americans who did not return to their reservations by late January of 1876 would be considered hostile combatants. When the deadline passed, the military was sent into the Dakota territories to suppress the remaining dissident Native Americans—mainly the Lakota Sioux leaders, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Among the many natives following these two charismatic leaders was a thirteen-year-old boy named Black Elk (1863-1950), who would grow up to be one of the most important figures in Native American religion and mysticism.
In Black Elk Speaks, a pseudo-autobiography narrated by Black Elk, but transcribed and edited by John Neihardt, Black Elk talked about some of the first battles he witnessed or participated in. He stated that his first skirmish occurred when he was thirteen. Black Elk’s family was traveling with a small band of Oglala Lakota Sioux and Cheyennes who were all traveling to join the forces of Crazy Horse. They camped near the Bozeman Trail (probably around May 1876) and spotted a United States wagon train heading their way. The convoy also spotted the Native American scouts and began shooting. When the gunshots started, the Sioux and Cheyennes gathered their weapons and attacked the wagons. Black Elk hesitated only for a moment, then equipped his six-shot revolver that was given to him by his sister and joined in the attack.
When the caravan noticed there was a threat, they made a defensive circle with their wagons, providing shelter for themselves and their animals. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors began circling around the wagons on their horses, firing shots at the people who were crouching behind their defenses. Black Elk said that he and the warriors kept inching ever closer to the wagons as they rode round and round. Nevertheless, they could not break through the defenses. The warriors finally decided to withdraw and resume their journey to meet with Crazy Horse.
Black Elk also witnessed, and may have participated in, the famous Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, when he was still only thirteen years of age. He was living in a camp village made of various tribes who decided to fight alongside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse against the United States. The camp at Little Bighorn (known to the natives as the Greasy Grass) is thought to have been populated by as many as 8,000 people, with more than 1,500 warriors.
The battle occurred when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer camped his 7th Cavalry force of around six hundred men at Wolf Mountain, near the Little Bighorn River. His main objective was to scout out the hostile encampments, and possibly to push the Native Americans into a larger ambush planned by General Terry. Yet, Custer’s men (or his own Native American scouts) were spotted, causing the people of the camp village to panic. After being discovered, Custer decided to attack the enemy immediately.
Custer divided his already outnumbered 7th Cavalry force into three fighting divisions, not including those men handling the supply line and ammunition. Lt. Col. Custer kept one division for himself, and divided the rest between Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno’s division crossed the Little Bighorn River and attacked the Native American camp from the south. Custer took his troops and threatened the camp from the north. Meanwhile, Benteen hovered with his troops near the center of the enemy camp.
Major Reno’s attack was disastrous. He was outflanked and the Native Americans chased his men down as if they were hunting buffalo. The survivors of the Reno division found their way back to Benteen’s force and they ended up being besieged on a hill until June 26th. Lt. Col. Custer’s division, however, was attacked from multiple angles by forces led by the Sioux leaders, Crazy Horse and Gall (battle leader of the Hunkpapa). Custer and his men were surrounded and were massacred. The rest of the 7th Cavalry were only saved when the Native American force withdrew after they heard that General Terry was approaching with reinforcements.
Black Elk stated that he did not participate in the battle, itself, but he did help the warriors execute the wounded. He scalped at least two soldiers that day. Black Elk commented on one particularly gruesome scalping: “He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp” (Black Elk Speaks, Chapter 9). Like any proud kid, the thirteen-year-old Black Elk took his new trophy and proudly displayed it for his mother, who let out a huge cheer.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Black Elk Speaks, narrated by Black Elk and recorded by John G. Neihardt. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.