Among those warriors who were a thorn in the side of the U.S. military during the Indian Wars of the mid-19th century, one played a significant role but has not gotten much publicity in the history books.
Many who read up on the Indian Wars will learn about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse for their strong leadership with their tribes in the many battles they had against the U.S. Army over the years, as the Indians resisted being moved onto reservations and escaped reservations while protecting and defending their sacred ancestral lands from invasion by the white American settlers.
It all came to a head in the mid-1870s when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, which was a prominent religious landmark for the Lakota Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne in the area. After a couple years of the Black Hills Gold Rush, the Sioux and Cheyenne of the area took exception and offense to the invasion of their Black Hills lands by prospectors.
As the Great Sioux War got started in the spring of 1876 with the military searching for the “non-compliant” clans of the area tribes who resisted negotiating a sale of the Black Hills, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Standing Elk were all leaders of their various tribes and were prominent in several of the key battles of the Great Sioux War, including the Battle at the Little Bighorn.
Standing Elk was a leader and warrior with the Northern Cheyenne, serving a s a right-hand man to Crazy Horse, who was continually leading the Army on chases through the Great Plains, even retreating to Canada at one point.
But finally, as the Great Sioux conflict was winding down in the fall of 1877, and the Northern Cheyenne was dwindled down in numbers from several defeats as well as starvation, Standing Elk joined Dull Knife to negotiate the surrender of the Northern Cheyenne, which was then to be sent away from the Black Hills area and down to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
After a few months in the strange land, Dull Knife and Standing Elk led an “escape” from the Indian Territory, guiding the Cheyenne on a 1,000-mile journey back to its ancestral home.
There is very little information about Standing Elk and his actual roles in the Indian Wars or in the exodus, but he was considered a strong leader for the Cheyenne and a worthy lieutenant for Crazy Horse. He was valuable in the process of the war in keeping the Northern Cheyenne viable throughout the war, and was vital in keeping the tribe from extinction. His important may not be known in U.S. history books, but he certainly measures up among Northern Cheyenne lore as one of the men who kept the Cheyenne still in America more than four generations later.