Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 14 : Cheyenne Exodus | Summary



About 1,000 Northern Cheyennes surrender at Fort Robinson alongside Crazy Horse's Oglala Teton Sioux in April 1877. The Cheyennes think they will live on the Sioux reservation as outlined in the treaty of 1868, but they are instead sent to Fort Reno in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Life in Indian Territory is bleak. There is no food, and disease is rampant. General Crook originally told the Northern Cheyennes they could go back to the Sioux reservation if things didn't work out in the south, but that isn't true. They are stuck in the south. Little Wolf and Dull Knife complain so much the army sends Lieutenant Henry W. Lawton to inspect their camp. He truthfully reports the dire conditions, and says the food the government provides "would not have been considered merchantable for any use."

The Northern Cheyennes eventually get permission to hunt. This doesn't do any good, however, as there are no buffalo anywhere on the southern Plains. After catching only a few coyotes, the Cheyennes are forced to eat their dogs. Lawton and General Ranald Mackenzie's attempt to get rations for the Cheyennes is also a failure. The federal government doesn't have any extra money to purchase food for the reservation.

Malaria and measles strike the reservation in the summer of 1878, yet the chiefs' requests to go north are denied. Half of the Northern Cheyennes, including Little Wolf and Dull Knife, decide running away is worth the risk of being chased by the military. They flee on September 9, 1878.

The soldiers catch up with them on September 13 at the crossing of four canyons near the Cimarron River. Little Wolf tells an Arapaho guide sent by the soldiers that his people are returning home peacefully, but they will fight if the soldiers want to fight. The soldiers do. The Cheyennes hide in the trees along the plateau as the soldiers fire into the canyons and then break away into small groups and continue north. A two-week race across Kansas and Nebraska ensues with 10,000 soldiers and 3,000 white civilians chasing the Cheyennes across the Platte River.

The Cheyennes split once again. One half head for the Tongue River valley with Dull Knife so they can "live like Cheyennes again," while the other half follow Little Wolf in search of Red Cloud's Oglala Teton Sioux. On October 23, 1878, Dull Knife's group literally runs into a U.S. cavalry regiment while caught in a snowstorm. Captain John B. Johnson and his soldiers take the Cheyennes to Fort Robinson. The Cheyennes are nervous about this turn of events. Knowing they will be asked to give up their weapons, they take apart their working guns and pistols, and hide the parts in their clothing. They give up their broken weapons the next day.

The 150 Cheyennes are assigned to a barracks meant for 75 soldiers, but at least they are warm. The soldiers give them food and medicine, and they are allowed to hunt. But Major Caleb Carlton won't let the Cheyennes leave for Red Cloud's reservation, which has been moved farther north. Nor will his replacement, Captain Henry W. Wessells. Red Cloud is eventually brought down to talk to the Cheyennes in December 1878. He tells them, "what [the white man] directs, that you must do," and then says he cannot help them.

The Cheyennes are ordered back to the reservation in Indian Territory on January 3, 1789. Dull Knife says they would rather die in the north than in the south. On the night of January 9, the Cheyennes reassemble their weapons. The warriors paint their faces, and the women make bundles of their belongings. At 9:45 p.m. shots ring out, and the window sashes of the barracks "burst outward." The Cheyennes scramble into the snow. They have a 10-minute head start, but the soldiers catch up to them on horseback. Thirty-eight Cheyennes escape, 65 are taken prisoner, and the rest are killed. The cavalry tracks down 32 of the 38 escapees, and kills all but nine. A separate party consisting of Dull Knife and five others make it to Red Cloud's reservation at Pine Ridge, where they are taken prisoner.

Meanwhile, Little Wolf and his followers spend the winter in "concealed pits" along a creek. They meet Two Moon, another Northern Cheyenne, who says Lieutenant William P. Clark is looking for Little Wolf. Clark has orders to bring the Cheyennes to Fort Keogh, and "the price of peace" is the surrender of their guns and ponies. Little Wolf eventually agrees to go. The Cheyennes have little to do there except cut logs and drink whiskey. The latter ruins many of them, including Little Wolf.

The Cheyennes at Fort Robinson and those at Fort Keogh are eventually given a reservation on the Tongue River, but it is too late. The indigenous nation formerly known as the "Beautiful People" is nearly gone.


The word Cheyenne is actually a Sioux word. Historians have interpreted it in different ways—some say it means "people of a different speech," while others think it means "red talker." In any case, the Cheyennes didn't always use this word to describe themselves. They preferred Tsitsistas, which means "a beautiful people." In 1832 the tribe split into two factions, the Southern Cheyennes, who moved to the Arkansas River in Colorado, and the Northern Cheyennes, who continued to live along the Platte River in Wyoming. The Cheyennes had a long-term alliance with the Arapahos. Their friendship with the Sioux began shortly after the white man began entering Indian lands in earnest.

Unlike their southern cousins, the Northern Cheyennes did not have much, if any, experience living on a reservation. They were more comfortable in the north—they knew the terrain there, it was close to the sacred Black Hills, and they had grown accustomed to the protection and friendship of the great Sioux leaders, most notably Red Cloud. Forty years after the tribe's separation, the Northern Cheyennes didn't feel as great a kinship with the southern bands of their people. It had completely escaped the white men's notice that these two groups were essentially separate tribes who shared a name.

The Northern Cheyennes were used to taking care of themselves. Up north they could hunt and travel freely through the Black Hills and Powder River country until just a few months prior to their departure. They didn't have to rely on the white man for food, supplies, or medical care. Even though the white men weren't able to actually provide those things in Indian Territory, the Indians were forbidden to do anything for themselves. Their people died because of government negligence and utter disinterest in the survival of native peoples. The government was fine with Indians dying—this only meant fewer mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. The government viewed American Indians as burdens to be dealt with, rather than humans worthy of respect and empathy.

Government employees who worked closely with American Indians didn't necessarily share this mindset, however. Chapter 14 is notable for the number of white soldiers who do what they can to help the Northern Cheyennes. Lawton is noted for being "always kind to the Indians." Clark doesn't just like Indians—he is curious and wants to know more about their language, religion, and customs. Even Mackenzie, "who had made a career of killing Cheyennes and their horses," found compassion for the people under his care. In his case, it was because they were finally defenseless and at his mercy, but at least he cared. Later when the Northern Cheyennes are held at Fort Robinson, Brown makes sure to mention how well the soldiers there took care of them. This wasn't the case a decade earlier when Colonel Chivington led the slaughter of Southern Cheyennes at Sand Creek. One could make the case that the more time white men spent with the Indians, the more they began to view them as human.

Human or not, the Northern Cheyennes were dying in Indian Territory. Their bodies weren't suited to the climate, nor were they able to ward off diseases introduced by the white man. Starving and worn down, many felt it would be better to die in battle on old homeland than to die on unfamiliar territory where "no one will speak our names when we are gone." The Northern Cheyennes, and perhaps Indians from all tribes, understood U.S. policy about the future of the American Indian. They knew their land allotments would only get smaller and their rations even more meager. Dull Knife's people knew breaking out of Fort Robinson was a risky plan, and they had to have known not many of them would survive. At that point, survival didn't mean much—they had little to live for if they were taken back to Indian Territory. To them, it was more honorable to die for a cause—the survival of their people—than to allow themselves to slowly starve to death at the hands of the U.S. government.

Little Wolf also believed it was better to die in the north fighting for freedom than in the south as a prisoner on the reservation. Before they separate, Little Wolf tells Dull Knife he wants his group to "live like Cheyennes again." This means living off the buffalo, and staying far away from the white man. Little Wolf's plan is idealistic at best—the white men claimed the Powder River country for themselves in the treaty of 1877, and there is no way the U.S. Army would allow his people to live freely if they were discovered off the reservation. But like Dull Knife, Little Wolf would rather be dead than go on living the way the white man wants him to.

For many American Indians, living on the reservation was a sort of waking death. They had little to do except plant and tend crops—they weren't allowed to hunt, and they couldn't travel or trade anywhere outside of the reservation—which led to extreme boredom and a lot of drinking. Alcohol became a crutch for many American Indians who couldn't find any relief or happiness in their day-to-day lives, and as Brown says, it ruined lots of lives. American Indians aren't more genetically predisposed to alcoholism compared to other populations, but in the 19th century, many turned to the bottle out of depression and desperation. Traders had a captive audience on the reservations, and few had any moral qualms about their customers drinking themselves to death. One way or another, the Indians had to die.

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