When the Teton-Sioux and Cheyennes wiped out Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his immediate command of five troops of the United States Seventh Cavalry on the Little Big Horn June 25, 1876, they touched their names, and those of the white soldiers who came against them, with glory and immortality. Shrouded in mystery for eighty-five years (at this writing), that engagement is the most read and disputed page in American history. Now the truth may be told.
However, this book is not primarily about that brilliant coup de grace. It is the life story of the man who planned and executed it, Chief John Grass, Sovereign of the Sioux Nation and Chief of the Sihasapa tribe, and the first Sioux arrested following the battle.
To understand the carnage John Grass’ strategy wrought that day, his power to swear both nations to life-time secrecy concerning their foreknowledge that three white armies were marching against them in a three-pronged pincer squeeze, who was directing their own counter-maneuver and his defense in his trial by a board of three army officers for “acts hostile to the United States”, it is necessary to understand this great Indian leader and his background — to see him as he saw himself and as the Indians saw him, an American patriot fighting for country, home and loved ones with every physical, mental and spiritual weapon at his command.
To white recorders John Grass was the controversial figure who dominated the stage of the Teton-Sioux history from 1868, when he signed his first treaty with the United States and made his first recorded speech, to his death in 1918. During that period he was termed by them “the last monumental Sioux Chieftan”, “diplomat and statesman”, foremost strategist, red or white, of his time”, Peace Chief and Treaty Signer”, Premier of the Sioux Nation”, “a man whose intelligence and ability would be conceded anywhere”, “the greatest living Indian”, and “a brave man, but never a warrior”.
It was also written that he was “chief advisor to Sitting Bull, the acknowledged leader of the hostile Sioux who forceably resisted the advance of the whites”; that he “assembled the warriors for the Battle of the Little Big Horn”; that “he was in the battle, but in a minor role, and that the Sioux never had an overall Chieftan….”
It was the statement “a brave man but never a warrior” that challenged my interest in 1938 to delve into both white and Indian records to learn more about this remarkable Chief who had attained such a position among his people if he had never known the warpath. It was contrary to everything I had known and read about the Sioux and heard about John Grass.
Born in Minnesota, land of the Isanti-Sioux, but seven years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, almost daily for more than two decades I saw Sioux in paint and feathers and heard the throbbing of their drums. I was raised on stories about these people, their warfare with other Indian tribes and with whites, every possible surmise concerning their “slaughter of Custer” and their final subjugation.
Soldiers and scouts who had fought Indians often “dropped in” at my father’s homestead on the Mississippi river North of Brainerd. Their accounts added many exciting sidelights to the general interest and made western Sioux names like John Grass, Gall, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Crazy Horse, Little Wound, Kill Eagle, Fire Heart, Little Thunder, Running Antelope, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, Two Bears, American Horse, Mad Bear, Tall Mandan and many others as familiar to me as the names of the white officers who led the charges against them. It was “common talk” that these Indians were in the Custer Battle.
Then North Dakota became my home. Dakota Territory, land of the Teton-Sioux, having become in 1889 two sovereign states, North and South Dakota, embraced the Great Sioux Reservation which was the locale of most of the John Grass story. I have always known and been interested in the Sioux.
To me these soft spoken people with their expressive sign language, Holy Pipe and intricate kinship system, who had evolved one of the most remarkable schemes for communal living known to man, have always been a source of wonder and enchantment and the thudding of their drums, a call to tipi circle and camp fire. I have lived in their homes, sat in their councils, watched the purposeful steps of their dances, and been instructed in the meaning of their ceremonials which glow with color, beauty and spiritual significance. While I have know them only on reservations after their subjugation, their eyes still held the proud eagle look of far horizons and they still reverenced Mother Earth, the land. From them I knew I would eventually learn the truth about John Grass.
I soon discovered that the secrecy surrounding John Grass and the Sihasapa tribe stemmed from his participation in the destruction of Custer and his soldiers. Following that affair both John Grass’ importance and that of the Sihasapas were deliberately played down by the Sioux for his protection. This I realized had led to many of the inaccuracies made by white recorders, among them, the belief that the Sioux never had an overall Sovereign.
While engaged in this study I have traveled many trials covering thousands of miles in search of Indian and white history or to verify information. Many of the facts brought to light, like the true status of John Grass, are at variance with generally accepted statements about early day happenings. Such another instance is the stabbing of Gall. I have found several versions. It is purported to have taken place at three different forts, an Indian camp, by soldiers, by Indians and for various reasons. I have used the story told by John Grass. I believe it is the true account. It explains the remarkable life-time friendship between John Grass and Gall that surmounted personal jealousies and disagreements on policy in Sioux affairs which took place only after the Indians had been conquered and were under constant pressure by the government. It exemplified Kinship as known and practiced by John Grass when in 1913 he named Gall the second greatest Sioux, placing only the renowned Red Cloud before him.
I found a vast historical data on John Grass preserved in The National Archives, The Smithsonian Institution, The Bureau of American Ethnology, The Library of Congress, The War Department and The Department of Indian Affairs, in Washington, District of Columbia’ I the State Historical Societies of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas; in public and private libraries; in old Indian agency records, letters, ration and census rolls and other seemingly endless minutiae in the Archives of Standing Rock Agency, Fort Yates, North Dakota; in the writings of early day historians, missionaries, Indian Agents, army officers and other pioneer recorders. No other Indian has been more photographed and about no other Indian has there been so much speculation, conjecture and misunderstanding.
My study has also embraced the extensive literature on the lives of explorers, missionaries, scientists, artists, adventurers, fur traders, fur companies, steamboat companies and captains, military campaigns, everything that in any way touched upon the Sioux.
I was fortunate in beginning this work while the aged sister of John Grass, Drags Down The Enemy Woman, his last living close relative, was able to spend countless hours with me. From her I learned much of the intimate life of her famous brother and the members of his household, a clearer concept of the Indian home and woman’s place in Sioux economy. In Standing Rock Agency records she was known as Theresa Cross – Theresa being her Christian baptismal name; Cross the abbreviation of her husband’s name, Chief Cross Bear.
Two other invaluable contributors were the present Sihasapa Chief Never Whipped (Horse), Leo Cadotte, and his father, the Old-Man Chief Standing alone, John S. Cadotte, Sr. These men have long been interested in collecting and preserving the history of their people. Many such records are in the Sioux language for as early as 1834 the Pond brothers were among the Sioux transcribing the language phonetically, teaching them the alphabet and how to read and write in their native tongue. Later came Dr. Stephen Return Riggs, Dr. Thomas Williamson and others who carried on the work. When tribal historians had mastered in some degree the mystery of “making the paper talk”, they began committing to buckskin and other material the mental archives of their tribes.
Ignatus White Cloud, Sihasapa historian, who attended many of my meetings in the Cadotte home in Wakpala, South Dakota, read and translated from the Sihasapa Record Books many historic events. These included the council Colonel Custer requested and held with John Grass and twelve of his chiefs, three days before he started his march with his Seventh Cavalry from Fort Abraham Lincoln to the fateful valley of the Little Big Horn. Kills In The Water, Steals Horses and Abraham High Reaching, all Sihasapas who knew John Grass, verified this history as it was read.
To Mrs. John Cadotte, Sr., I am deeply appreciative and grateful for gracious hospitality during these meetings and visits and for her offices as interpreter for Theresa Cross.
Colonel A.B. Welch
, blood-adopted white son of Chief John Grass, contributed the chief’s own account of the Custer Battle as John Grass gave it to him in 1913 with the provision that it was not to be used “until all who were in the fighting are dead”. That time has come. Even so, I first asked permission of the present chief, who granted my request. Colonel Welch also offered his many notes made on his experiences as the son of the famous chieftain.
Mrs. Nellie Schoenhurt (Pretty Star), in whose home in Fort Yates I lived for more than three months while doing research in the Agency Archives, had been Head Nurse in the Government Indian Hospital for eighteen years. She had known John Grass well and cared for him in his last illness. She also interpreted many stories told me by Indians for came to see me at her house.
Father Bernard Strassmeyer, Catholic Priest at Fort Yates, was an interested contributor. He summed up a long period of observing the chief as a communicant of his Church in these words, “John Grass was innately a good man as well as a great one. He lifted the thoughts of his people.”
This study has been in a degree comparable to the painstaking labor of restoring a badly damaged mosaic which in its original wholeness portrayed a stirring drama of the Great Plains with John Grass the central figure. I have had to sift and sort fragments from the rubble of conjecture, myth and legend of careless or indifferent recording by white men, and overcome reluctance of the Indians themselves to supply their side of each happening. Their fear of reprisal even at this late date is very real. They know what the white man has done and is still doing.
As the pieces have eventually fitted into place, I have before me an amazing yet strangely moving and beautiful picture. And I have learned the true meaning of “bravery”. John Grass and his people understood it.
In the words of Frederick Remington, “Leave me the truths of other days.”
Angela A. Green Boleyn
The Moon of the Tipsin Buds, 1961
Re-printed at this website by permission, direct quotes from manuscript “John Grass – American Indian Patriot” (loose leaf) written by Angela A. Green Boleyn, held in the Archives of the South Dakota Historical Society
© Registration Number TXu000562111 Date 1993-03-26.
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