First in War and Peace: The Triumph of American Horse
Photograph of Chief American Horse
Chief American Horse.jpg
Chief American Horse.jpg

The ceremonial procession wound past the green and yellow prairie bottom, streaked with silver-white stands of sage, toward the tiny settlement of four frame houses near a large tipi placed beside a stone foundation from long ago.

This was the return in July 2008 of the remains of the great Lakota chief American Horse, to his homestead at the headwaters of American Horse Creek in the Medicine Root District of the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was the 100th year after the end of a life that spanned Oglala victories over the U.S. Army, peacemaking in the face of the incessant European-American advance and attempts to preserve Indian ways in the new world. Like the procession itself, it began with tradition and ended in modern times.

It’s a measure of the life of American Horse that he came home to a populous tiospaye, or extended family. Counting from his great-great grandfather, he told Eli Ricker in June 1905 that he reckoned 1,262 relatives from the preceding five generations. The continually growing family still identifies with him as primary ancestor and cherishes his memory. A dozen descendants from his tiospaye, including four grandsons and several great-grandchildren, shared family memories of their ancestor in recent interviews with the National Museum of the American Indian, testifying to his still vigorous legacy.  

A Great Oglala Story

American Horse was born on the creek at Bear Butte in 1840. He was the youngest in a large family and, according to a 1980 recollection of his son-in-law Tom Bullman, “was raised to be their spokesman.” When he succeeded to his grandfather’s leadership in the True Oglala band of southern Oglalas, he also served as tribal historian. American Horse kept up a winter count that began in 1776, one of seven Oglala winter counts.

A fierce warrior in his youth, American Horse was steadfast to his convictions – both controversial and admired – that provided his own approach to indigenous adaptation and survival. He lived in a time of great change. By the time of the American Civil War, the great white migration had arrived in Lakota territories. Cavalry followed. In the first big war against the new invaders, American Horse distinguished himself as a forthright, fearless war leader, prominent also in public life.

His grandsons all felt it important to explain his name “Mila Hanska Tashunke Icu,” meaning “He Takes the Long Knife’s Horse,” or “He Takes the American Soldier Officer’s Horse.” According to his grandson Vern American Horse: “What it really means is that my grandfather was courageous enough to go among the American soldiers and take their horses.”

Family legend tells that because he was too long-legged for Indian ponies, he raided the Ft. Pierre army post alone, returning with large American cavalry horses. He told Ricker in 1905 that he was 18 when he got the name “American Horse.”

His reputation for bravery came from many feats of valor in fights against Crows, Shoshones and Pawnees. But the most important occurred during Red Cloud’s War to close the Bozeman Trail through the Powder River country in Wyoming, traditional Sioux hunting grounds. The trail was an extension of routes increasingly bringing thousands of new transients onto Lakota lands.

Red Cloud's War

In December 1866, American horse was one of ten decoy riders, along with Crazy horse, who lured two cavalry companies under Captain William J. Fetterman into an ambush by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. The so-called Fetterman massacre, remembered by the Sioux as the “Battle of the hundred Slain,” was short and tough. The 81-strong cavalry troop was charged by Indian horsemen. The Indians had few firearms; the killing was by club, lance, arrow and knife. Only six soldiers died by bullet wound. All the U.S. soldiers were killed.

American horse (confirmed by Red Cloud) would attest many years later that he ran his horse at full speed directly into Captain Fetterman, knocking him off his horse with a glancing blow of his club and then killing the captain with his knife. The Army surgeon who collected and examined the body corroborated American horse’s account,writing that Fetterman’s throat was “cut from ear to ear.”

These decisive military encounters by the Lakota warriors won Red Cloud’s War, culminating in the 1868 Treaty of ft. Laramie – among the stronger treaties ever secured by Indian people. (It resulted in the abandonment of Army posts in the Powder River region and a [short-lived] guarantee of Sioux hunting territory. U.S. Army historians still call it the only time a military opponent of the United States won all of his demands.) At the treaty proceedings, American horse’s first words were, “I despise the [white] buffalo hunters and want to see them gone.” he refused to be anointed “main chief” by the government agents, firmly opting to wait on the arrival of all the major band chiefs. he also threatened to “whip the commissioners” if they broke their treaty “promises.”

“A month or two after the execution of the 1868 Treaty,” recalled William Garnett, in 1868, the Oglala invested four “Shirtwearers,” including American horse, for their service in winning Red Cloud’s War and their prominence in public life. (Garnett, a long-time interpreter, attended the multi-band ceremony as a youth.) The four “Wicasa Yatapika” (Men They Praise) appointed were American horse, Crazy horse, Young Man Afraid of his horse and Sword. He Dog was installed later that same summer. These Shirtwearers were termed “owners of the people” in their roving life, functioning as official executives of the tribe and supreme councilors. Red Cloud was made Minister of the 1868 Treaty that same season.

Warrior for Peace

But warrior deeds are not the most prominent memory of the famous ancestor. The great chief’s life is distinguished by the way he turned his bravery from the making of war to the making of peace, and it is by the wit and wisdom of his leadership, rather than his remarkable feats of war, that he is most remembered.

As encroachments on the 1868 Treaty accelerated with a gold rush in the sacred Black Hills, American Horse opposed the course of armed resistance pursued by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. American Horse queried the early delegations to Washington, D.C., and then traveled there himself in 1875. He concluded that the White man’s capacity for war was too overwhelming. Even before the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, he argued that further war was futile. He felt it cost the Lakota people too much. The respected Shirtwearer urged that the Lakota chiefs unite in seeking peace together, reasoning they would achieve better treatment united in peace.

The figure of Crazy Horse as war chief will forever signify heroic sacrifice, but the heroism of the “peace chiefs” in seeking to guide their people’s most traumatic moment of cultural change is equally worthy of consideration.

American Horse was convinced that his people could best survive if they found a road of accommodation. By 1877, all the major chiefs, and even the significant lieutenants of Crazy Horse, were similarly convinced. In the end, Crazy Horse’s impulse to resist was judged unrealistic. American Horse in particular assisted and even conspired to quiet the fighting and settle the straggling bands. His position is controversial, but his descendants understand it and appreciate it.

Says his grandson Joe American Horse, “We remember him as mediator; he was a judge and he was most known for making peace, among his relatives and in the tribe among all the families. Many came to him to resolve fights, conflicts.” Older brother Vern adds, “People sometimes didn’t get along – in a really bad way – and my grandfather would mediate. He was very good with people, he could make the people laugh, and soothe and calm relatives or non-relatives equally.”

In documented episodes, American Horse was instrumental in holding off violence. In 1877 he led 50 of his warriors to Crazy Horse’s camp as a buffer against the U.S. Cavalry. Crazy Horse had left the 43-lodge camp, and its 70 warriors had transferred loyalty to his lieutenant, the popular chief Black Fox. Desperate to protect the band in the face of certain tragedy, Black Fox dressed down for death battle with the cavalry. Brandishing rifle and revolver, knife in his teeth, he galloped his horse ahead of his warriors toward the cavalry. American Horse and his 50 Oglala scouts were still interposed.

“I have been looking all my life to die,” Black Fox shouted as he advanced. “I see only the clouds and the ground; I am all scarred up!” But American Horse jumped off his horse, offering the mounted warrior a loaded pipe with outstretched arms. “Think of the women and children behind you. Come straight for the pipe; the pipe is yours,” he said.

Black Fox was touched by the sight. He dismounted and accepted the pipe. The two men sat down between the bands of warriors and smoked the pipe. Said Black Fox: “I had come to die, but you saved me.”

A month before the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, when Oglalas were brutally provoked by near starvation, an angry and armed Indian crowd surrounded agency Indians and soldiers at Pine Ridge. Guns were pointed and violence seemed imminent. American Horse stepped out before the threatened group alone to face the angry crowd.

“Think, think...” he implored. “If you kill these people, think of your families. Your country is surrounded by a network of railroads; thousands of soldiers will be here in three days. What ammunition have you, what provisions? Think, think my brothers; this is child’s madness!” His words calmed the moment, and the crowd dispersed.

Charles Eastman, the Lakota author and a contemporary, wrote about the chief, “His record as a councilor to his people and his policy in the new situation that confronted them was manly and consistent.”

In accepting adaptation to “white life,” the old Shirtwearer requested that the government provide “a wide road” to walk, and not a narrow one. He advised his people – as he set the example – to send some of their children to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. But he also opted to keep some home and argued eloquently for an education system on the reservation. In 1905, he participated on horseback in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. In 1906, he rode out to urge a band of Ute warriors to initiate treaty negotiations and avoid a bloody war.

In the early 1880s American Horse was inducted into the Episcopal sector of the new world order; he was given the baptismal name Felix, perhaps reflecting his lighthearted and engaging mannerisms. His son in-law, Tom Bullman, said in 1980 that the old folks remembered the chief as affable and smart, “Like in a crowd of bulls, the one that makes them laugh keeps their attention.” He added that his father-in-law was ever concerned about individuals, and his role as a mediator in disputes carried over to his new Episcopal church at American Horse Creek, named Mediator Church.

American Horse died in 1908. One hundred years later, his family respectfully removed his remains from the Episcopal cemetery in Pine Ridge Village to the old chief’s homestead land on his beloved, remote American Horse Creek. “We have always thought to bring him home to his own land. His spirit can rest there,” said Joe American Horse, himself a two-term tribal president and current justice of the tribe’s supreme court.

“We always look for him. He still helps us.” 

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