Category Archives: Native Americans

The Importance of Dull Knife

In a kitchen or in survival training, a dull knife is not very useful.

In American history, specifically during the various Indian Wars, Dull Knife was an indispensable tool in keeping the Cheyenne from extinction.

The Sharpness of Dull Knife

Dull Knife, as he is known to the Lakota Sioux, was a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief who went by the Cheyenne name of Morning Star, and was a prominent figure in many of the Indian wars during his lifetime, including the important Great Sioux War of the late 1870s.

Dull Knife was one of the leaders of the Battle at Little Bighorn, along with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, helping the Indians to their greatest triumph and “Custer’s Last Stand.” He was a strong advocate for the Cheyenne territory in Montana, and had long advocated and fought for his tribe’s rights to live in their ancestral lands despite all of the settlement by whites from the east.

The Warrior

Dull Knife was born in Montana (not Colorado) in 1810, but once he got to adulthood he was almost constantly on the run, either being moved to another part of the country or he was leading the charge in attacks and defense of the homeland, or resisting placement on a reservation a thousand miles away.

Dull Knife was very active in fighting against the federal government, having participated in the Cheyenne-Arapahoe War in the mid-1860s in Colorado, the war of 1866-67 and the War of the Black Hills (also called the Great Sioux War)  in 1876-77 (which included the Battle at Little Bighorn).  He led his small band of Cheyenne warriors into battle after battle before finally surrendering in 1877 and being forced to the Southern Cheyenne Reservation in Oklahoma.

But even in surrender, Dull Knife didn’t go down without a fight.

The Advocate

After surrendering, Dull Knife didn’t sit back and just accept his fate nor the fate of his people. After a few months on the reservation in Oklahoma, realizing that the land was harsh and there were hardly any animals to hunt and eat, Dull Knife decided to combat starvation by leading a group of Cheyenne out of Oklahoma and on a trek back across the West toward the ancestral home of Montana.

The Cheyenne fought valiantly and traveled great distances, with many of them perishing on the way. But his continued work and advocacy for his people and their homeland led to some changes in U.S. policy toward the Indians. This resulted in some additional reservation land, which included a Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, which the remaining Dull Knife Cheyenne moved to just after the great chief’s death in 1883.

Dull Knife was essentially an ambassador to the United States from the Northern Cheyenne tribes in the Rocky Mountain area, spending much of his early life in and around Cheyenne territory in Montana. He was one of the signatories to the important 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was created to maintain tribes into their ancestral lands and maintain peace with settlers who were coming into the area.

But while he was one who wanted peaceful co-existence, he was also one of the first to stand up and seek to defend and protect the lands of his people when the settlers came, and he was unrelenting in his passion for his people and its history in the area. He is always remembered as one of the great warriors and leaders of the American Indians in the 19th century.

The Story of Grant Short Bull

Among the players during the Great Sioux War of the mid 1870s in the Dakota Territory was a Oglala Lakota scout named Grant Short Bull, or often called Short Bull. Short Bull was a key participant in the legendary Battle of Little Big Horn, where Lt. Col. George Custer had his famous “Last Stand.”

Because Grant Short Bull was an American Indian, much about his life was based on an oral history. Over the years, as his family died away and history was being put to paper, there was some confusion about his life. Let’s look a little deeper.

Some Short Bull Confusion

For a while, two prominent Short Bulls had merged into the same man and the same life, which did a disservice to both of them.

Grant Short Bull was a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and spent much of his life on the Great Sioux Reservation and was a lifelong member of the Soreback band of the Lakotas, affiliated with the Sioux. He was a prominent scout for the Sioux during the Great Sioux War and was known to be a compatriot of legendary warrior and chief Crazy Horse.

Albert Short Bull, who lived during the same time, was a well-known religious leader and medicine man on the Rosebud Reservation. He is most known for the Brule Ghost Dance of American Indian tradition. Now that you know we are talking about Grant, let’s cover his life as an Oglala Lakota.

Early Life

Grant Short Bull was born around 1851 near Fort Laramie. He was born to Black Rock and Scatter the Feather and had an older brother, He Dog. Grant Shot Bull lived a traditional American Indian life as much as he could, deliberately staying away from the federal-government-run agencies that were scattered throughout the reservations. In 1875, he married Good Hawk, who was known as Nellie Short Bull, and they had two children, Charlie and Katie.

Great Sioux War

Grant Short Bull became involved in the Great Sioux War, but his nonparticipation in an early raid was a key moment in starting the war. He was part of a raiding party in January and February 1876, while his northern bands received an “eviction” notice from the U.S. government. While Short Bull and his tribesmen were on the raid, the village where his people were residing (with Cheyenne along the Powder River) was attacked by U.S. troops who were looking to enforce the “eviction” order. Short Bull and his men got back in time to reclaim many of the village’s horses, but mutany of the villagers were killed or forced out by the troops.

Short Bull later said, “If it had not been for that attack by Crook on Powder River … there would have been no Sioux war.”

Wounded Knee

Just less than 15 years later, Grant Short Bull played an important role in trying to avert the tragedy that occurred at Wounded Knee in 1890. As a scout and mediator, Short Bull was involved in talks with U.S. General Nelson Miles that ws meant to avoid a conflict in the wake of the Treaty of 1889, of which Short Bull’s Oglala Lakota Tribe did not participate.

However, despite Short Bull’s best efforts to find common ground, Wounded Knee was a devastating event for the Lakota and it was painted in such a way as to make the U.S. government and the American people look like conquering foreigners – a reputation that has been hard to break in the century-plus since.

Tragic Ending

Though Wounded Knee was bad for his people, Grant Short Bull survived that battle and wound up being a well-known and respected headman on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He lived until 1935, when he and his son, Charlie, were killed in a car accident.

The Lasting Legacy of Sioux Chief Spotted Tail

Those involved in the clash between American and Native American would come to achieve historical immortality in the years following the Sioux War. One of the most famous faces from this time period is a Sioux chief who was called Spotted Tail, a name granted after he was gifted with a racoon. Born around 1823, he grew up in what is today South Dakota. We don’t know where exactly, but we do know that later in life he played a major role in relations between the U.S. and Native Americans while living in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

Spotted Tail was well known for his unflappable sense of duty and honor to his people, and even the U.S. government occupying the Black Hills region at Fort Laramie would come to respect the man. When he and two other members of his tribe were accused of murder, they surrendered themselves to the authorities at Fort Laramie. It was during this time that Spotted Tail became literate in English. He was released from custody around the same time that the previous Sioux chief passed away, and he was promptly chosen as successor.

He was one of those present during the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which granted the Sioux Nation permanent lands in the form of a reservation in the Black Hills region.

Spotted Tail was a major factor in how this treaty was written, because it replaced what would have been an entirely different treaty three years prior. Spotted Tail and other chiefs were proficient in the art of negotiation, and they knew they could do better than what the 1865 treaty would have provided. As a result, the reservation granted from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave them land that included almost all of South Dakota–more than enough to fulfill their needs as a tribe and allow them to continue their way of life for an indefinite period of time.

Spotted Tail remained an active force for his people in the years to come. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills region, and Spotted Tail quickly acted to appraise the value of the mine in question before running to Washington in order to sell the right to mine to Black Hills settlers. This negotiating tactic failed, and his offer of sale was denied by the U.S. government. Settlers continued to flood the region and tensions skyrocketed.

The terms of the treaty they had worked tirelessly toward would eventually be discarded because of that same greed. Conflict between the Sioux Nation and the U.S. military was inevitable.

“This war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land from us without price.”

Those words were spoken by Spotted Tail after the Great Sioux War broke out in 1876. Even so, the man still believed that peace was in the best interest of his people–and he worked to that end. He traveled along the Black Hills in order to spur the remaining Sioux back to reservation territory in a bid to end the hostilities once and for all, and found some success in his endeavor. Even though skirmishes continued for years, the war ended only a year after it began.
Spotted Tail was assassinated by a rival sub-chief in 1881, and in a decision somewhat unusual for the U.S. court system at the time, his murderer was released. The court ruled that it had no authority over the reservation, and therefore could not try a crime committed there.

The Black Hills Expedition and its Impact on Native American Relations

The Black Hills Expedition set out on July 2, 1874, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and may well have been the catalyst for a chain of events that inevitably led to the slaughter of Custer and nearly 300 of his men during the Great Sioux War of 1876–a defeat that would go down in history and make a national hero out of the man (although not forever). How did the expedition get going, what was its purpose, and what was its impact on the Great Sioux War?

When the expedition first set out, the Black Hills region of South Dakota was still a great unknown in the ever-growing America, and remained uncharted. The United States Army was looking for ways of expanding its strategic arm in the region at the time, and founded the expedition as a means of doing that. It’s purpose was simple: scout the region to find a good tactical vantage point from which they could build a fort, discover and map new routes to the southwest and, if possible, locate areas where gold ore veins could be mined.

Although these endeavors were each somewhat successful, the results were disastrous.

It is not technically accurate to say the Black Hills Expedition found much of what they looked for–that is, gold. Accounts vary wildly, and we really just don’t know with any degree of certainty that they found any large quantity. What we do know from records at the time is that civilians were looking for gold while Custer’s men worked on the project of finding a location to build their fort upon. Therein lies the problem: civilians were looking for gold. They weren’t part of any organized military operation, and therefore word inevitably got out that the expedition was on the hunt for gold, perhaps even having found some.

Consequently, there was a massive rush to the region as people looked to strike it rich.

It didn’t happen immediately, but it didn’t take long either. The United States government initially had a policy to remove trespassers from the area but, as tensions with the Indians in the region rose, the policy was abandoned. President Grant put an end to diplomatic proceedings with the Sioux and other tribes inhabiting the region, and began an overtly aggressive approach that sought to subjugate Native Americans living in the Black Hills region. The ultimate goal was their removal.

Treaties had previously been formed with the Sioux Indians, guaranteeing that their sacred lands would forever remain out of reach for non-native peoples currently living in other regions to the east. When masses of people began to migrate into the Black Hills region, the Sioux felt that the United States government had reneged on its end of the deal, betraying a promise that had been given.

The Sioux were right.

The Lakota and Sioux tribes were soon “ordered” to return to their reservations by early 1876–even though winter weather prohibited travel. They were told that military action would be taken if they stayed beyond the deadline given. Since leaving was impossible, the United States followed through with its threat.

This was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Great Sioux War, also sometimes called the Black Hills War, that would last until 1877–although conflicts would extend for many more years. Although it had many lasting ramifications, Custer’s defeat is still the best known among them.