Friday, 5 September 2014

One Who Walks with the Stars at Little Big Horn: the sources

One Who Walks with the Stars was an Oglala Lakota woman recorded as having killed two of Custer's soldiers during the Battle of Little Big Horn on 25 June 1876. She's also a secondary character in my novel. Since I've been writing about women warriors, I decided to post about my research process which has been long and uncertain.

A quick synopsis of the lead-up to the Battle of Little Big Horn may not be amiss. Basically, the Great Sioux Reservation was established in 1868, but by 1876 it was already under encroachment by white gold miners and settlers. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1876 a large group of Sioux from many tribes had gathered outside reservation land, apparently as part of an annual summer buffalo hunt. The group included whole families, so when Custer attacked women like One Who Walks with the Stars inevitably found themselves on the field of battle. This may have been central to Custer's plan: the Wikipedia article on Little Big Horn makes much of the idea that he expected to take the women and children hostage while the warriors were away. This would force the warriors' surrender and enable Custer to escort them all back to their reservations. As the warriors' were in the village things didn't go according to plan. For the attack, Custer's troops divided into two groups, with Custer leading his men nearest to where One Who Walks with the Stars was encamped. This was the section of the village beside the river, and Custer approached it along the opposite bank. The battle which ensued was undoubtedly chaotic, and very few people will claim we can get an accurate picture of everything that transpired.

I believe there are only two published sources for One Who Walks with the Stars' engagement at Little Big Horn. The first is in Lone Eagle the White Sioux, by Floyd Shuster Maine (1956), pp.128-9. Unfortunately, I can't justify ordering this book from abroad right now, and it isn't available to me any other way. If anyone has it, and would like to let me know what it says on pp.128-9, I would be super-grateful. In the meantime, I have to make do with this report from Richard Hardorff's Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight.
Sioux and Cheyenne reported the presence of several women who participated in the assault on Custer's force. One of these was Hunkpapa, Moving Robe Woman, who avenged the death of her younger brother by slaying several of Custer's troopers; see Charles A. Eastman, "Rain-in-the-Face," The Outlook (October 27, 1906); 511; and also Floyd S. Maine, Lone Eagle... The White Sioux (Albuquerque, 1956), pp.128-29, which recounts the exploits of Walks with Stars Woman, the wife of the Oglala, Crow Dog.
As a bonus for those who are interested in Sioux woman warriors, this page has extracts on the subject from Bruce Brown's 100 Voices.

The other source for One Who Walks with the Stars is in Custer's Fall by David Humphrey Miller (1957), pp.156-8, and I have it in full. To begin with, here is what he says about his own sources:
Woman-Who-Walks-With-The-Stars actually did better at Little Big Horn than her husband, Crow Dog, who succeeded only in capturing three badly shot-up cavalry horses. Her story was told to me in 1941 by Hollow Horn Eagle and Brave Bird, both Bighorn survivors.
Since the event he recounts had no other surviving witnesses, the original story must have come from One Who Walks with the Stars herself. It's likely Hollow Horn Eagle or Brave Bird heard about it soon after it happened from Walks with the Stars or one of her close relatives. When you read Miller's version, you'll see that it's incredibly fictionalized for a history book. At least half of it is given over to speculations as to what was going through Walks with the Stars' head at the time of the killing. You'll also see that it only describes the killing of one soldier so either Maine describes two killings, or his story is sufficiently different from this one to justify attributing two separate deaths to Walks with the Stars. Miller's story is accompanied by an illustration captioned 'Crow Dog's wife killing the last of Custer's command' a probably unverifiable honor he or his sources granted to Walks with the Stars.
In thick timber on the banks of the Little Big Horn near the Brulé camp, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars wandered, looking for stray cavalry horses. Since the now dead soldiers on the ridge had turned their mounts loose, many of the thirsty chargers had been rambling through the brush, trying to get to water. As the wife of Crow Dog, ranking Brulé chief in the village, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars well knew the value the big, sturdy horses would assume now the fighting was over. During the kill-talks and honor giveaways which were sure to follow such a great victory, nothing would add more to her husband's prestige than gifts of fine horses to chiefs of other tribes.

Suddenly a flash of dusty blue caught the woman's eye. There in a thicket close to the water crawled a man - a uniformed white soldier. Badly wounded, he was struggling through the undergrowth to get to the river's edge. As he inched along the ground, the woman saw he was carrying a carbine. For some reason he was trying to get back across the river, though he seemed at times too weak to crawl any further.

Every so often he was forced to stop creeping and lay panting a while until he could build up strength again. At last he was near enough to the water to push his carbine over the bank. While he lay prostrate, weary from his last exertion, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars picked up a heavy branch of deadwood. For a moment she watched the soldier curiously. White men always seemed so strange with their hairy faces and bodies and their pink skin. She found herself wondering what their women were like, for she had only seen pioneer women at a great distance, when they were cloaked in mother hubbards and sun bonnets. Perhaps a white woman loved this very soldier. A strange tenderness swept over Crow Dog's wife.

The soldier stirred a little. Dragging himself along again, he slipped over the bank's edge and plunged into hip deep water. Watching him, the softness left the eyes of Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars. After all, the soldiers had come attacking. Women, even children, would not have been spared by them, for had not entire Cheyenne families been wiped out by the soldiers in the south? It was always whites who were the aggressors, seeking to destroy Pte, the sacred buffalo uncle of the Sioux, crowding the Indians out of the land Wakan Tanka had given them. Taking a tighter grip on the driftwood club, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars moved swiftly to the river's edge, where the soldier now saw her for the first time. Stark terror widened his eyes. A hoarse scream started in his throat. But his cry was lost under the loud crash of driftwood about his head and shoulders. In a little while he sank beneath the surface as the woman kept striking at the roiled water where his head had been.

It was slightly past mid-afternoon. Less than a half-hour had passed since Custer's fall at the ford. During that brief interim, the two hundred fifteen members of his command had been wiped out to a man.
That's not quite all I've got on One Who Walks with the Stars, but it's the complete documentation of her life as a warrior. It turns out there is more mystery surrounding her life that I would have imagined. In future posts, I'll try to clear up some of it (success not guaranteed).

No comments:

Post a comment