The life of Dull Knife, the Cheyenne, is a true hero tale. Simple,
child-like yet manful, and devoid of selfish aims, or love of gain,
he is a pattern for heroes of any race.
Dull Knife was a chief of the old school. Among all the
Indians of the plains, nothing counts save proven worth. A man's
caliber is measured by his courage, unselfishness and intelligence.
Many writers confuse history with fiction, but in Indian history
their women and old men and even children witness the main events,
and not being absorbed in daily papers and magazines, these events
are rehearsed over and over with few variations. Though orally
preserved, their accounts are therefore accurate. But they have
seldom been willing to give reliable information to strangers,
especially when asked and paid for.
Racial prejudice naturally enters into the account of a man's
life by enemy writers, while one is likely to favor his own race.
I am conscious that many readers may think that I have idealized
the Indian. Therefore I will confess now that we have too many
weak and unprincipled men among us. When I speak of the Indian
hero, I do not forget the mongrel in spirit, false to the ideals of
his people. Our trustfulness has been our weakness, and when the
vices of civilization were added to our own, we fell heavily.
It is said that Dull Knife as a boy was resourceful and
self-reliant. He was only nine years old when his family was
separated from the rest of the tribe while on a buffalo hunt. His
father was away and his mother busy, and he was playing with his
little sister on the banks of a stream, when a large herd of
buffalo swept down upon them on a stampede for water. His mother
climbed a tree, but the little boy led his sister into an old
beaver house whose entrance was above water, and here they remained
in shelter until the buffalo passed and they were found by their
Dull Knife was quite a youth when his tribe was caught one
winter in a region devoid of game, and threatened with starvation.
The situation was made worse by heavy storms, but he secured help
and led a relief party a hundred and fifty miles, carrying bales of
dried buffalo meat on pack horses.
Another exploit that made him dear to his people occurred in
battle, when his brother-in-law was severely wounded and left lying
where no one on either side dared to approach him. As soon as Dull
Knife heard of it he got on a fresh horse, and made so daring a
charge that others joined him; thus under cover of their fire he
rescued his brother-in-law, and in so doing was wounded twice.
The Sioux knew him as a man of high type, perhaps not so
brilliant as Roman Nose and Two Moon, but surpassing both in
honesty and simplicity, as well as in his war record. (Two Moon,
in fact, was never a leader of his people, and became distinguished
only in wars with the whites during the period of revolt.) A story
is told of an ancestor of the same name that illustrates well the
spirit of the age.
It was the custom in those days for the older men to walk
ahead of the moving caravan and decide upon all halts and camping
places. One day the councilors came to a grove of wild cherries
covered with ripe fruit, and they stopped at once. Suddenly a
grizzly charged from the thicket. The men yelped and hooted, but
the bear was not to be bluffed. He knocked down the first warrior
who dared to face him and dragged his victim into the bushes.
The whole caravan was in the wildest excitement. Several of
the swiftest-footed warriors charged the bear, to bring him out
into the open, while the women and dogs made all the noise they
could. The bear accepted the challenge, and as he did so, the man
whom they had supposed dead came running from the opposite end of
the thicket. The Indians were delighted, and especially so when in
the midst of their cheers, the man stopped running for his life and
began to sing a Brave Heart song as he approached the grove with
his butcher knife in his hand. He would dare his enemy again!
The grizzly met him with a tremendous rush, and they went down
together. Instantly the bear began to utter cries of distress, and
at the same time the knife flashed, and he rolled over dead. The
warrior was too quick for the animal; he first bit his sensitive
nose to distract his attention, and then used the knife to stab him
to the heart. He fought many battles with knives thereafter and
claimed that the spirit of the bear gave him success. On one
occasion, however, the enemy had a strong buffalo-hide shield which
the Cheyenne bear fighter could not pierce through, and he was
wounded; nevertheless he managed to dispatch his foe. It was from
this incident that he received the name of Dull Knife, which was
handed down to his descendant.
As is well known, the Northern Cheyennes uncompromisingly
supported the Sioux in their desperate defense of the Black Hills
and Big Horn country. Why not? It was their last buffalo region
-- their subsistence. It was what our wheat fields are to a
About the year 1875, a propaganda was started for confining
all the Indians upon reservations, where they would be practically
interned or imprisoned, regardless of their possessions and rights.
The men who were the strongest advocates of the scheme generally
wanted the Indians' property -- the one main cause back of all
Indian wars. From the warlike Apaches to the peaceful Nez Perces,
all the tribes of the plains were hunted from place to place; then
the government resorted to peace negotiations, but always with an
army at hand to coerce. Once disarmed and helpless, they were to
be taken under military guard to the Indian Territory.
A few resisted, and declared they would fight to the death
rather than go. Among these were the Sioux, but nearly all the
smaller tribes were deported against their wishes. Of course those
Indians who came from a mountainous and cold country suffered
severely. The moist heat and malaria decimated the exiles. Chief
Joseph of the Nez Perces and Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas
appealed to the people of the United States, and finally succeeded
in having their bands or the remnant of them returned to their own
part of the country. Dull Knife was not successful in his plea,
and the story of his flight is one of poignant interest.
He was regarded by the authorities as a dangerous man, and
with his depleted band was taken to the Indian Territory without
his consent in 1876. When he realized that his people were dying
like sheep, he was deeply moved. He called them together. Every
man and woman declared that they would rather die in their own
country than stay there longer, and they resolved to flee to their
Here again was displayed the genius of these people. From the
Indian Territory to Dakota is no short dash for freedom. They knew
what they were facing. Their line of flight lay through a settled
country and they would be closely pursued by the army. No sooner
had they started than the telegraph wires sang one song: "The
panther of the Cheyennes is at large. Not a child or a woman in
Kansas or Nebraska is safe." Yet they evaded all the pursuing and
intercepting troops and reached their native soil. The strain was
terrible, the hardship great, and Dull Knife, like Joseph, was
remarkable for his self-restraint in sparing those who came within
his power on the way.
But fate was against him, for there were those looking for
blood money who betrayed him when he thought he was among friends.
His people were tired out and famished when they were surrounded
and taken to Fort Robinson. There the men were put in prison, and
their wives guarded in camp. They were allowed to visit their men
on certain days. Many of them had lost everything; there were but
a few who had even one child left. They were heartbroken.
These despairing women appealed to their husbands to die
fighting: their liberty was gone, their homes broken up, and only
slavery and gradual extinction in sight. At last Dull Knife
listened. He said: "I have lived my life. I am ready." The
others agreed. "If our women are willing to die with us, who is
there to say no? If we are to do the deeds of men, it rests with
you women to bring us our weapons.
As they had been allowed to carry moccasins and other things
to the men, so they contrived to take in some guns and knives under
this disguise. The plan was to kill the sentinels and run to the
nearest natural trench, there to make their last stand. The women
and children were to join them. This arrangement was carried out.
Not every brave had a gun, but all had agreed to die together.
They fought till their small store of ammunition was exhausted,
then exposed their broad chests for a target, and the mothers even
held up their little ones to be shot. Thus died the fighting
Cheyennes and their dauntless leader.
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