One hundred and thirty seven years ago, on a cold spring day during the first week of April, 114 Northern Cheyenne, the survivors of a once mighty warrior nation, “came home” arriving in Montana, near Fort Keogh (present day Miles City, Mont.). They were led by Chief Little Wolf.
After the Northern Cheyenne were defeated, a short time after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, they were forced into exile in Oklahoma, Indian Territory, which they could or would not accept. Thus, some 300 Northern Cheyenne originally fled Oklahoma on Sept. 9, 1876, determined to return to their beloved north country in Montana. Many died during the harrowing journey which included the Fort Robinson breakout and massacre in January 1879. And, some found sanctuary with the Sioux.
However, Little Wolf’s band made it back to Montana. The group included 33 men, 43 women and 38 children who, under the extraordinary leadership of Chief Little Wolf, outwitted and eluded all efforts of the U.S. military to capture, kill them or force them to return to Indian territory in Oklahoma. Truly, they were all “strong hearts.”
Each year, the Northern Cheyenne observe this heroic accomplishment with a wreath laying ceremony at the graves of Little Wolf and Morning Star (more commonly known as Dull Knife), honor songs, a parade, walk, and community meal. This event is organized by members of the military societies and direct descendants of Chief Little Wolf. It is a solemn occasion as we acknowledge the sacrifice of those brave ones who made it possible for us to have our homeland. From that small determined group of people, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe now numbers over 11,000 and about 5,000 still live on the Reservation, created in large part because the Little Wolf band refused to live anywhere else.
Due to a strong oral tradition, Chief Little Wolf is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Northern Cheyenne people. By all accounts he was an extraordinary individual, very powerful in mind, body and spirit. “Maheo’o, the Creator, sometimes sends such heroes to help in our great times of need,” a traditional elder once remarked to me.
At a very young age, Little Wolf was called upon by his fellow warriors and other Chiefs to become the Sweet Medicine Chief of the Cheyenne, the highest honor and most respected Chief in the Tribe. He was also a “warrior” chief of the Elk Horn Scrapers military society. These were two separate offices. From a very young age, Little Wolf exhibited the deepest responsibility for his people, and for most of his adult life, the Cheyenne were under incredible pressure, near constant warfare in the height of the conflict between the Great Plains tribes and the U.S. Military. Historians have called the Northern Cheyenne the “wildest” of the wild Indians and Little Wolf was recognized as one of the fiercest of those warriors, always personally leading the Cheyenne into battle, placing himself at the forefront, ever ready to die for his people. Yet, the Creator protected him, knowing the Cheyenne would later have great need of his abilities. In addition to his personal bravery, Little Wolf was regarded as a brilliant military strategist, especially by his enemies. One story from that time sticks in my mind very clearly. To give the women and children more time to flee the tracking troops, a small group of Cheyenne warriors, including Little Wolf buried themselves in deep sand, waiting for soldiers on horseback to arrive. When the soldiers were literally on top of them, the warriors leaped up from the earth, surely seeming to be unearthly apparitions, attacking and killing many of the soldiers in hand to hand combat. The old people used to say that Little Wolf was like a fierce grizzly bear, not afraid of anything or any enemy, but very kind to his people, an elder once remarked.
During the many hundreds of miles of flight from Oklahoma, the Cheyenne were pursued every step of the way. At one point, an estimated 30,000 cavalry unsuccessfully tried to locate and capture them. While the U.S. Military did find, capture and massacre many of the followers of Dull Knife at Fort Robinson, the Little Wolf Band was never located or captured. Neither did they capitulate until their objective – “coming home” – was accomplished. Only then did Little Wolf agree to parlay with General Miles at Fort Keogh. General Miles, a veteran Indian fighter was very familiar with the Northern Cheyenne and Little Wolf, personally. When Little Wolf gave his word that there would be no more fighting from him or his people as long as they could stay in their beloved Powder River Country, Miles knew it to be true.
After that, many other events transpired before the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was created in 1884. Yet, it is essential that we take time each year to commemorate the heroism of the Little Wolf Band. The images of Chiefs Little Wolf and Morning Star now grace the official tribal letterhead along with the caption: Little Wolf and Morning Star – Out of defeat and exile they led us back to Montana and won our Cheyenne homeland that we will keep forever.
During the 137th anniversary and commemorative events, the Cheyenne people will once again renew that vow and commitment, in the spirit of one of our greatest heroes, Chief Little Wolf and of his stalwart followers.
(Contact Clara Caufield at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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