A story about the Buffalo People of the Prairie and two young lovers caught in the tragic events of history.
The Moon of Making Fat was full, the grass green and good, the horses again strong, the cherries darkening when the one who came to be known as Spirit Wind was born. That late spring night only women were allowed in the small birthing lodge that Dull Knife’s band had erected for Soft Cloud who was about to become a new mother. That was the custom among the Buffalo People of the prairie.
All men know when they are strong that it is good to honor woman, for her hand helps man’s weakness at the beginning and end of life. So, High Horse, the father of the coming child, rode all night outside the camp on the prairie, as far as the great river as a good father must when his wife gives birth. He was performing the ritual travel the people call Searching for Milk, praying to Wakan Tanka to send him a strong warrior son. High Horse was a respected warrior with many coups to his credit. His eyes were dark and clear and his skin like tanned leather. On his chest the scars of battle were marked next to those of the Sun Dance.
At the first light of dawn he rode up a timbered butte as far up as he could and dismounted to climb on foot to the summit where he scanned the land below. As far as the eye could see herds of buffalo pastured upon the plain. Hundreds of thousands.
It was Tatanka’s mating season. Bulls were raising dust, pawing the ground and fighting, and their deep-based mating calls could be heard far. High Horse would soon ride with the hunters for the chase and get all his family would need from Tatanka. Skins for a new lodge, real food, and just before winter when Tatanka’s coat grows thick and dark he would get warm buffalo robes to make a big soft couch for Soft Cloud and the new little one if it lived through the season. As he contemplated the abundance of life on the plain, he wondered about the invading white man, the Wasichu, coming in ever greater numbers from the east. There had been promises, but would the young ones still be able to hunt and raise families on this rich land among their own people? For one whole moon mother and child were left alone, secluded in unique closeness to allow the new baby to prove it had come to stay. Soft Cloud’s wise grandmother had made a soft leather moss bag which she brought with a great bundle of fragrant sage leaves and a pack of bison chip powder to keep the baby dry. Her husband’s sisters helped finish the handsomely beaded cradle board. The young mother for the first time chanted to her own son the tribal lullabies as night fell, stretching a shining mantle of stars across the immense land.
“Sleep, little one. The prairie grass sways. Your father hunts milk for us now. The eagle flies high, waiting for your eyes to open and see. Dream, little one, as your mother offers you her breast and her love.”
High Horse had returned to camp with an antelope across his buffalo hide saddle and walked proudly to the birthing lodge as many followed. Soft Cloud came out and watched him climb the gentle grassy slope to the lodge. When he stood before her smiling, she handed him the cradle board. High Horse held it at arm’s length straight before him. The baby awoke and saw his father’s dark, deeply carved face and shining, happy eyes. High Horse raised the child toward the sun and let out a fierce war cry. The baby wailed in response, not in fear but in a rage. Two warriors meeting each other.
“Ah, ho!” exclaimed the father, pleased. He handed the child to his wife and went out to make preparation for the first gathering in honor of his son.
The old one who gave the child his first born name at the Feast of Cradling the Infant was Strong Eagle, and everyone received gifts, but the most and the best went to him. High Horse gave a spotted pony to the old medicine man for giving the child the rare first name of Eagle Plume in a sacred way. All celebrated with food, dancing, chanting, and drums beyond sundown around a bright fire until the half moon was high above the circle of lodges.
A year and a half later in the Moon of Popping Trees when the snow was piled high on the north side of the teepees, there was the First Walk Celebration.
The camp was between the forest and the river. Eagle Plume stood up and followed his mother outside where she had gone to fetch more wood for the fire. He stopped, stunned by the blue sky and the blinding white world, then saw the great bird painted on the lodge down wind of him. He watched the hundred smokes rising from the many lodges beyond. What a wonderful sight! Resolutely Eagle Plume wobbled through the snow all the way to the great painted bird and made sounds to it. The honor of this first visit having fallen on Thunder Hawk, himself a father, demanded that his lodge give a great feast for all the people in the band of Dull Knife. A big fire burned throughout the day. Elk meat was roasted and much singing and dancing went on as Eagle Plume slept soundly cradled between thick buffalo robes.
Three snow seasons later was the year when Grandfather made turkey tracks and excited Little Eagle Plume cried out, “I know what those are!” as he ran off holding his bow, ready to shoot.
Grandfather said, “Are you making so much noise to warn Turkey that a dangerous hunter is coming?”
From then on the little hunter followed behind his grandfather, learning to move like a silent mountain lion, and brought back much small game.
Grandmother took him along to forage for food and medical herbs. Eagle Plume helped carry her leather bag stuffed with the best.
“Why do you dig these roots so far from camp, Grandmother? There are many closer to our teepee.”
“The best are here. It is like the gathering of berries. You do not go to the deep forest for those, you go where the sun has been shining on them to make them sweet. Roots and herbs must not be taken where it is too wet or too dry. They have more medicine where the sun has given them strength and not robbed them by making them too dry.”
“You know so much, Grandmother!”
“When you grow into a man who can tame a pony I will tell you many medicine secrets. But you must grow into a good man because medicine secrets are treasures that cannot be given to bad men. I will pray to Wakan Tanka that little Eagle Plume will become a great and wise medicine man when he grows up. To be a brave warrior it is great, but it is greater to become a wise medicine man, and greatest of all is to be both a wise medicine man and brave warrior chief.”
They picked wild rice, roots, berries, and fruits, and little Eagle Plume learned how to find and gather all one needs to live on the land.
On his thirteenth Flower Season Eagle Plume broke and tamed his first pony by taking it deep in the great river and riding it in the water until it was exhausted, then breaking it on shore. To mount a young colt when it was fresh would have been almost impossible on the dry land, but in the river Eagle Plume could easily do this. He had to be very careful though, for horses can drown quicker than a man. His father had told him that if a horse has water running into his ears, it grows weak. As the boy rode he guided the young horse by clinging to its mane with one hand.
That year he had a dream and saw a giant Wasichu with long yellow hair. Half his face was also covered by yellow hair. He carried a flaming stick in his hand with which he burned teepees. In his dream Eagle Plume saw a powerful wind rise which bent down the prairie grass until it was flat against the ground. He saw a great buffalo rise from the earth on its four legs, charge against the yellow-haired pale eye, gore him again and again, then trample him until he was dead.
Eagle Plume told his dream to his father who asked him to repeat it to Grandfather Strong Eagle. The old wise one smoked a pipe and told the boy he must reenact the dream for the people and make himself look as much as possible like the white man in his dream. Long Blade, a great warrior, had heard many stories about what the Wasichus had done to the forest tribes. Long Blade had traveled east with a woman of the Forest People whom he loved. The woman had traveled through Sioux country between the Black Hills and the plains to guide traders who were looking for yellow river pebbles. Not long after this dream Grandfather told Eagle Plume to go up for three nights to the sacred mountain to cry out to the Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka, for a vision. He cried and cried, a whole day and night, and on the third night he fell asleep.
His grandfather laughed.
Soon after Eagle Plume was given a new name. He had more control of his horse than anyone in the Dull Knife’s band. He made his horse obey the slightest movement of his body while riding bareback. Eagle Plume had taught his mount the war dance that keeps a target ever moving, and the people said he looked one with his horse. So he received his new name: Dancing Horse.
It was in the season after snow has melted on the prairie but is still thick and crusty in the cool shade of the forest, when women and children go after the sweet saps of the maple and darker birch, the bitter medicine sap of the ash, and the rare white thick liquid sugar that the box elder yields, when excited little boys help the women by minding the fires under the precious pots traded for buffalo robes with the eastern tribes in which the mothers and grandmothers boil the sap and form it into sweet candy and crush much of it into leather sacks for the winter.
In that season of renewal when flowers bloom all over the land, the bands met each other and pitched a great camp by a bend of the Cheyenne River for the annual powwow and festivity of the Plains Tribes. Splendid braves in feathers ready for the meeting with their peers from other bands. Dignified chiefs and medicine men wearing majestic war bonnets, riding at the head of the people discussing past hunts and wars, and exploring the the doings of the Great Mystery in their spirit path.
There was much talk on the invasion of Wasichus: the forked tongued pale eyes who taught about their loving God and then had lied, robbed, and killed.
Hundreds of buffalo hide teepees were raised by the women, their doors facing the direction of the rising sun. At the center of each band was a semicircle of teepees in which the medicine and the chiefs’ lodges stood. Hunters had brought plenty of meat for the great camp. Antelope, deer, and elk were abundant and a few of the scattered lone bull buffalo could be seen beyond the river.
The braves of the different bands were making ready for a joint buffalo chase across the water beyond the first rise of the foothills where the grass was thick and lush. The scouts had sighted a mighty grazing herd many thousand strong and found several other herds, but the big one west of the tributary creek would be the first to be hunted. The building of new lodges was assured as were abundant warm winter robes for the people.
The Arapaho band of Black Bear had planted a circle of teepees immediately south of Dull Knife’s lodges. Before the hunt a counsel was held and the pipe smoked. There was much talk of the encroaching Wasichus, of the gold they had found in the Black Hills, and word had come that soldiers were building a fort inside Indian land sixty miles south of Crazy Woman’s Fork, near the Powder River, land that was by treaty with the Great Father to remain Indian territory as long as grass grew green. Chief Red Cloud had allowed a wagon train escorted by the Army to pass but had demanded tribute to reaffirm Indian sovereignty over the land.
Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas had been alerted.
“When the White Man comes to my country he leaves a trail of blood behind him. There are two great mountains in that country: the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains. I want the Great Father to make no roads between them. I have spoken this three times and I now speak this again.”
This had been the message to the Great Chief of the Wasichus sent by Mahpiua Luta (Red Cloud), Chief of the Oglala nation. There was grave trouble brewing, they all knew it. Some spoke of caution and of pursuing peace. Others voiced their anger at the wanton slaughter of tatanka, the bison, in Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting grounds. If the Wasichus were allowed further into the Sioux Nations’ lands, they would keep killing until hunger would bring an end to their free way of life.
Dancing Horse, as a young brave, listened silently, his heart beating faster in rising anger at the realization that his people must live in fear on their own sacred land. He had only one war raid to his credit and had proudly told of his coup against the treacherous Pawnees, the Indian mercenaries of the Wasichus, who had attacked their Cheyenne brothers by leading the Pale Faces deep into Indian country. He had gained an honored first feather. After the powwow as he walked to his lodge to make ready for the coming hunt, he saw the beautiful maiden for the first time as she was carrying water to her family’s teepee. The river was a distance from the camp. The young warrior felt his heart leap, but he had to make ready for the chase. A man must be great in the hunt before he would deserve the joy of a woman, so he pretended not to have seen her. She quickly glanced his way. He was already a hunter and a warrior, and it was licit for him to think of having his own wife and his own lodge. The thought was fleeting because of the excitement of the coming chase where he would gain even more honor.
In the early morning the hunters gathered five hundred strong on their fastest horses, bareback, and near naked except for their feathers, a loin raw hide, a bow, and a quiver full of arrows. A few carried muzzle loaders. Fewer still had .44 Army rifles.
Dancing Horse had his strongest bow. He knew how deadly it was to ride close to a great Tatanka, how the arrow would go in clear to the feathers, cutting the inside as the great beast ran until it dropped.
After fording the river and a ride of some five miles, the hunting party sighted the buffalo. No one must go off by himself and risk disturbing the scattered game. The ground was broken by several round topped buttes on which was a growth of bushes breaking the sea of grass. The hunters dismounted behind one of these that screened them from notice of the watchful sentry bulls. Prayers were offered to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious One, for protection.
The hunters were too many to approach the grazing herd as a single body. After a brief counsel, one third rode off to circle to the east. Another third rode to the west to close in from the south and chase the buffalo north. Riding behind them, the rest would come out of their hiding place and flank the herd until it would likely turn at the river banks. Dancing Horse stayed with the last group and was sent by the older hunters with two other youth to the top of the butte to give the signal when the herd was on the move.
After nearly one hour Dancing Horse saw the dust rising like smoke. The southern portion of herd begin to move, pushing the other ones into action. He jumped on War Wind and remained still for a brief time, half concealed by the bushes. The nearest buffalo were four hundred yards away. Some were still feeding and some were laying down. An army of the rust-colored calves was playing while a solitary old bull, head low, pawed the ground. The thunder of hoofs rose as a tide from a half mile away until they were all taking off to the north. The near buffalo became alarmed, formed into a compact herd, and headed north. Dancing Horse signaled the hunters below to mount their horses. The trained horses became eager and, as the bison passed the ridge, were given free rein, laying their ears flat they dashed after the fleeing animals.
The hunters fanned out. Those with the faster horses pressed in the midst of the pack. The danger was great, but the excitement greater. Riders and bison were moving at the same speed, not more than a few feet from each other. Dancing Horse was surrounded on all sides by a waving sea of dark brown humpbacks, sharp horns, and shining black eyes. To fall would be instant death. Holding on with gripping legs to the bare back of War Wind, Dancing Horse used his bow and arrow repeatedly, seeking the fattest ones. By the time the chase had reached the river, the herd began to swing east. One by one the hunters moved out, letting the living stream of great beasts pass them. Only one hunter, Running Elk, almost lost his life. His muzzle loader had backfired and nearly thrown him off his mount. He had abandoned his weapon and grabbed his pony’s mane just in time.
The rest of the day was spent in skinning, carving, cutting, and dragging the carcasses in great pieces on travois across the river to the vast camp now studded with more than fifteen hundred teepees and more than five thousand people. The Tetons and Hunkpapas had not yet arrived.
After the great work of cutting the meat and stretching the hides, preparation for the spring feasting began. Dancing Horse watched the Arapaho maiden concealed among a thicket of trees.
Gathering courage, he went to his lodge, donned his porcupine-quill, embroidered moccasins and leggings, brushed his long shining hair with the porcupine tail brush, perfumed it with scented grass and leaves, arranged it in two plaits with otter fur as an ornament, and folded his best robe about him. He jumped on his best pony, War Wind, throwing a part of the robe under him to serve as a saddle, and, holding the end of a lariat tied about the animal’s neck, Dancing Horse guided his stead in rhythm to the movement of his body. Wily War Wind snorted and seemed to enter into the spirit of the occasion as if it, too, wanted to capture the eyes of the maiden with its graceful movements in perfect obedience to its master’s.
Dancing Horse pulled his robe over his head, leaving only a slit to look through. He saw the maiden walking toward the river with her empty vessel and took his position directly in her return path. On their first meeting, Dancing Horse did not reveal his face or introduce himself. The maid stopped. They looked at each other silently, his heart beating fast, hoping hers would, too.
In camp they both inquired about each other. She was Morning Star, daughter of Chief Black Bear, a fierce warrior admired by all the bands.
Their second meeting was by the woods where she had come to collect wood. She stopped, and they spoke for the first time, introducing each other. When she left Dancing Horse rode into the distance, exploding with delight. He loved this beautiful maiden. Their meetings continued, and soon they met in the early part of the evening, or drifted from the public dance away beyond the circle of the fire’s light in the shelter of peripheral shadows.
They loved each other, but there were some objections from her family, for it was too soon, and there had been much talk of the coming of the Wasichus into their country and of the need to retreat further west to avoid war before the winter. The Wasichus wanted the yellow gold of the Black Hills. Trouble was coming with many frightening stories of villages attacked and burned, of wagon trains with soldier escorts intruding in their land.
When the large camp broke for the last fall hunting, the Black Bear band went one way and Dull Knife the other. After three days traveling, the Black Bear band made it to the first rise, a few miles southwest of the Black Hills. One evening someone saw Dancing Horse, who had been following his sweetheart and sleeping outdoors all the way, although the nights were already frosty and cold.
The two lovers met each day in secret. Morning Star brought him food, but Dancing Horse would not come near her teepee. Soon the whole band was whispering and laughing, amused at the young man’s predicament. He was asked to accept hospitality in the lodge of High Hawk, the kind old man who knew much medicine and taught his new ward about what man must give woman. The old one gave him a “chotanka,” the magic flute that holds the soft heart of all maidens and makes them slyly turn their heads to its plaintive love serenade calling out into the night.
“Hear, oh, maiden! Listen to him who loves you! Listen, maiden. Hear him who loves you, who loves you. Turn to him who calls you. Listen, maiden, for he who loves you may be gone soon to fight your evil foe!”
One cold evening, hearing the distant call of the flute, Morning Star wanted to go out to find Dancing Horse, but she had no excuse to do this, so she stirred the embers, causing smoke in her teepee. She now had a reason to adjust the teepee’s flaps. She took a long time to do this, moving the pointed ears of the teepee with the long poles first this way, than that, as if on such a quiet night the wind were unsettled. Finally, the “chotanka” ceased to be heard. In an instant Dancing Horse appeared ghost-like at her side.
“So, it is you, is it?”
“Is your grandmother in?” he inquired.
“What a brave man you are to fear an old woman! We are free. The country is wide. We can go away and come back when the storm is over.”
“Ho,” he replied. “It is not that I fear her, or the consequences of elopement. I fear nothing except that we may be separated!”
Morning Star went into the lodge, then slipped out once again.
“Now,” she exclaimed, ”to the woods or the prairie! I am yours!”
They disappeared into the darkness.
Quickly and quietly Dancing Horse took willing Morning Star and rode into the Black Hills with War Wind and two of the horses of her father. The Arapaho had a large herd of ponies, nearly three thousand that year, pasturing along the Tongue River. Unseen and unheard, Dancing Horse packed one of them with all that would be needed for travel until they would overtake his people’s band. This silent, undetected maneuver gave him the name of Spirit Wind.
The two lovers traveled two days toward Paha-Sapa, the sacred Black Hills, where the band of Dull Knife could be found camping at the end of summer. His tribe moved there every year with many other bands to commune with the Great Spirit, to seek His compassion and cry for a vision at the center of the world.
Spirit Wind and Morning Star traveled swiftly. They were now moving along the grassy slope of a hill clothed with majestic oaks. They heard the murmuring of a stream in the narrow valley below and decided to make their camp there to be alone for a few days, to feast in the pure joy of their love. This they did. Spirit Wind hunted and both bathed and played together, happy as children.
On the third day, while roasting their freshly caught meat, they heard horses. Spirit Wind ran to the edge of the grove and saw five riders. At the head of the small party was a Cheyenne warrior, followed by three women and two boys astride a travois. Spirit Wind recognized two of the women as members of the Black Bear band. He showed himself and signaled. The five joined their camp. The warrior was Little Horse whose wife was an Arapaho woman, Red Dove. They had been traveling with their seven summers-old son, Hunting Fox, to the Black Bear camp to visit Red Star’s relatives.
Little Wolf told an alarming story. On their way to Black Bear’s camp along the Tongue River, Red Dove had gotten off her horse to tighten a loose pack and rearrange the travois on which their young son was riding, when, looking up far behind them across a ridge, she saw a long file of mounted men.
“Look!” she warned her husband.
Little Horse shielded his eyes from the morning sun.
“Soldiers!” he said. “Come, let us move quickly!”
Past the rise of the next hill they had abandoned their travois, taken the child on his father’s saddle, and left the trail to ride at a gallop straight across the land directly to Black Bear’s camp, causing sudden agitation in the two hundred and fifty lodges of the peaceful village. They tried to have the crier warn the people, but were not believed.
After all, “This was Indian territory, theirs by treaty!”
“Certainly Little Horse had made a mistake.”
“The riders were Indians traveling to their late summer grounds.”
“Nothing to worry about.”
Even some of their relatives did not believe them. Red Dove’s brother laughed at his Cheyenne-brother-in-law for always getting too excited about things.
That same evening Little Horse and his family moved on, followed by Strong Woman, the grandmother, and Talking Bird, Red Dove’s sister with her child Sparrow Hawk, only five summers old. They were on their way to warn the other villages in Paha-Sapa.
“We go back at dawn,” Spirit Wind spoke.
“It is too late,” said Little Horse. “We heard the big guns talk the next morning after we left. We went back at sunset. The soldiers killed many. “
“My father, my brother!” cried Morning Star.
There was a deep hollow cry from the young woman. Spirit Wind put his hand on her shoulder as tears filled her eyes. She got up and ran among the trees. Spirit Wind stood and watched her, his jaw set tight.
Little Horse related all that he had seen and what he had learned from the many who had escaped. How they had fought back, scattered the horses, chased the soldiers, but how they could not get back to the camp because of the Howitzers. Women and children were shot down. In impotent anger survivors watched from the hills while the lodges were torn down. Poles and skins were heaped along with their winter food, buffalo robes, pemmican — all the tribe’s possessions — and a great fire was set, burning everything while the wounded, moaning on the ground, lay dying. The Wasichus wanted the winter to kill all those who had escaped their guns and rode after those warriors who had managed to get on a pony. When the soldiers’ horses got tired, Black Bear and his warriors turned and chased the Wasichus, stinging them with their arrows, until Black Bear fell not far from where his son lay dead.
No greater pain can strike the human heart than to live after the defeat and death of loved ones at the hand evil men. The Wasichus wanted all Indian land. They were treacherous men without mercy. For them, there would be no peace until the last Indian and the last buffalo were dead. Spirit Wind felt a rage that expanded his chest with anguished pain.
Once upon a time, long ago, there were sixty million buffalo on the Great Plains of North America. To the east and west of these flowered grass plains virgin forests stood so thick that it is said that a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic seashore to the Great Lakes without ever touching the ground. Eagles soared all across this fabled land. Rivers flowed wild and free, teaming with life. On the Pacific shores the air was evergreen and ocean-scented. The imposing giant forests of redwoods and evergreens faced the sea, sheltering an abundance of wildlife. That was a time when life was true to itself. Ever-present evil was restrained by awareness of the sacred, and a sense of proportions imposed itself upon the abundance of the wilderness and its immaculate splendor.
But evil must have the fullness of its cycle, as do all things under the sun. There came explorers, missionaries, soldiers, merchants, and immigrants with their guns and greed. Wildlife that had thrived for millennia began to die, killed by evil versions of progress, arrogant visions of manifest destiny, and a utilitarian materialism hiding under Christianoid hypocrisy. In just 500 years almost all the giant trees have been clear-cut. Chemicals now poison the rivers. As a result of human greed and a lack of respect for life, nature and living creatures are suffering all around us.
Those who feel a love and longing for the wilderness and wildness that once was — the millions now crowded in cities, poor, oppressed, and unable to find a target for their rage because technocracy is virtually everywhere and omnipotent — those who can still feel a delirious, exhilarating independence, a rebirth into primeval liberty, into utter freedom — these brave people are joining together with countless others from around the world to preserve and restore the Earth to its former majesty for the survival of the Human Family.