March 13, 2002

American Horse (Oglalla Sioux)


Keywords: American Horse Oglalla Sioux Ohiyesa Charles Alexander Eastman sioux chief Sioux Chiefs younger american horse sioux history oglalla sioux historical figure american horse

Author: Told by Joseph Brown Thunder (Great-great grandson of Chief American Horse)

As remembered by Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman)

One of the wittiest and shrewdest of the Sioux
chiefs was American Horse, who succeeded to the name and position of an uncle,
killed in the battle of Slim Buttes in 1876.

The younger American Horse was born
a little before the encroachments of the whites upon the Sioux country became
serious and their methods aggressive, and his early manhood brought him into that
most trying and critical period of our history.

American Horse had been tutored by his uncle,
since his own father was killed in battle while he was still very young. The American
Horse band was closely attached to a trading post, and its members in consequence
were inclined to be friendly with the whites, a policy closely adhered to by their

When he was born, his old grandfather said: “Put
him out in the sun! Let him ask his great-grandfather, the Sun, for the warm
blood of a warrior!” And he had warm blood. He was a genial man, liking notoriety
and excitement. He always seized an opportunity to leap into the center of the


In early life he was a clownish sort of boy among
the boys — an expert mimic and impersonator. This talent made him popular and
in his way a leader. He was a natural actor, and early showed marked ability
as a speaker.


American Horse was about ten years old when he
was attacked by three Crow warriors, while driving a herd of ponies to water.
Here he displayed native cunning and initiative. It seemed he had scarcely a
chance to escape, for the enemy was near. He yelled frantically at the ponies
to start them toward home, while he dropped off into a thicket of willows and
hid there. A part of the herd was caught in sight of the camp and there was
a counter chase, but the Crows got away with the ponies. Of course his mother
was frantic, believing her boy had been killed or captured; but after the excitement
was over, he appeared in camp unhurt. When questioned about his escape, he remarked:
“I knew they would not take the time to hunt for small game when there was so
much bigger close by.”


When he was quite a big boy, he joined in a buffalo
hunt, and on the way back with the rest of the hunters his mule became unmanageable.
American Horse had insisted on riding him in addition to a heavy load of meat
and skins, and the animal evidently resented this, for he suddenly began to
run and kick, scattering fresh meat along the road, to the merriment of the
crowd. But the boy turned actor, and made it appear that it was at his wish
the mule had given this diverting performance. He clung to the back of his plunging
and braying mount like a circus rider, singing a Brave Heart song, and finally
brought up amid the laughter and cheers of his companions. Far from admitting
defeat, he boasted of his horsemanship and declared that his “brother” the donkey
would put any enemy to flight, and that they should be called upon to lead a


It was several years later that he went to sleep
early one night and slept soundly, having been scouting for two nights previous.
It happened that there was a raid by the Crows, and when he awoke in the midst
of the yelling and confusion, he sprang up and attempted to join in the fighting.
Everybody knew his voice in all the din, so when he fired his gun and announced
a coup, as was the custom, others rushed to the spot, to find that he had shot
a hobbled pony belonging to their own camp. The laugh was on him, and he never
recovered from his chagrin at this mistake. In fact, although he was undoubtedly
fearless and tried hard to distinguish himself in warfare, he did not succeed.


It is told of him that he once went with a war
party of young men to the Wind River country against the Shoshones. At last
they discovered a large camp, but there were only a dozen or so of the Sioux,
therefore they hid themselves and watched for their opportunity to attack an
isolated party of hunters. While waiting thus, they ran short of food. One day
a small party of Shoshones was seen near at hand, and in the midst of the excitement
and preparations for the attack, young American Horse caught sight of a fat
black-tail deer close by. Unable to resist the temptation, he pulled an arrow
from his quiver and sent it through the deer’s heart, then with several of his
half-starved companions sprang upon the yet quivering body of the animal to
cut out the liver, which was sometimes eaten raw. One of the men was knocked
down, it is said, by the last kick of the dying buck, but having swallowed a
few mouthfuls the warriors rushed upon and routed their enemies. It is still
told of American Horse how he killed game and feasted between the ambush and
the attack.


At another time he was drying his sacred war
bonnet and other gear over a small fire. These articles were held in great veneration
by the Indians and handled accordingly. Suddenly the fire blazed up, and our
hero so far forgot himself as to begin energetically beating out the flames
with the war bonnet, breaking off one of the sacred buffalo horns in the act.
One could almost fill a book with his mishaps and exploits. I will give one
of them in his own words as well as I can remember them.


“We were as promising a party of young warriors
as our tribe ever sent against any of its ancestral enemies. It was midsummer,
and after going two days’ journey from home we began to send two scouts ahead
daily while the main body kept a half day behind. The scouts set out every evening
and traveled all night. One night the great war pipe was held out to me and
to Young-Man-Afraid-of- His-Horses. At daybreak, having met no one, we hid our
horses and climbed to the top of the nearest butte to take an observation. It
was a very hot day. We lay flat on our blankets, facing the west where the cliff
fell off in a sheer descent, and with our backs toward the more gradual slope
dotted with scrub pines and cedars. We stuck some tall grass on our heads and
proceeded to study the landscape spread before us for any sign of man.


“The sweeping valleys were dotted with herds,
both large and small, of buffalo and elk, and now and then we caught a glimpse
of a coyote slinking into the gulches, returning from night hunting to sleep.
While intently watching some moving body at a distance, we could not yet tell
whether of men or animals, I heard a faint noise behind me and slowly turned
my head. Behold! a grizzly bear sneaking up on all fours and almost ready to


“‘Run!’ I yelled into the ear of my companion,
and we both leaped to our feet in a second. ‘Separate! separate!’ he shouted,
and as we did so, the bear chose me for his meat. I ran downhill as fast as
I could, but he was gaining. ‘Dodge around a tree!’ screamed Young-Man-Afraid.
I took a deep breath and made a last spurt, desperately circling the first tree
I came to. As the ground was steep just there, I turned a somersault one way
and the bear the other. I picked myself up in time to climb the tree, and was
fairly out of reach when he gathered himself together and came at me more furiously
than ever, holding in one paw the shreds of my breechcloth, for in the fall
he had just scratched my back and cut my belt in two, and carried off my only
garment for a trophy!


“My friend was well up another tree and laughing
heartily at my predicament, and when the bear saw that he could not get at either
of us he reluctantly departed, after I had politely addressed him and promised
to make an offering to his spirit on my safe return. I don’t think I ever had
a narrower escape,” he concluded.


During the troublous times from 1865 to 1877,
American Horse advocated yielding to the government at any cost, being no doubt
convinced of the uselessness of resistance. He was not a recognized leader until
1876, when he took the name and place of his uncle. Up to this time he bore
the nickname of Manishnee (Can not walk, or Played out.)


When the greater part of the Ogallalas, to which
band he belonged, came into the reservation, he at once allied himself with
the peace element at the Red Cloud agency, near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and
took no small part in keeping the young braves quiet. Since the older and better-known
chiefs, with the exception of Spotted Tail, were believed to be hostile at heart,
the military made much use of him. Many of his young men enlisted as scouts
by his advice, and even he himself entered the service.


In the early part of the year 1876, there was
a rumor that certain bands were in danger of breaking away. Their leader was
one Sioux Jim, so nicknamed by the soldiers. American Horse went to him as peacemaker,
but was told he was a woman and no brave. He returned to his own camp and told
his men that Sioux Jim meant mischief, and in order to prevent another calamity
to the tribe, he must be chastised. He again approached the warlike Jim with
several warriors at his back. The recalcitrant came out, gun in hand, but the
wily chief was too quick for him. He shot and wounded the rebel, whereupon one
of his men came forward and killed him.


This quelled the people for the time being and
up to the killing of Crazy Horse. In the crisis precipitated by this event,
American Horse was again influential and energetic in the cause of the government.
From this time on he became an active participant in the affairs of the Teton
Sioux. He was noted for his eloquence, which was nearly always conciliatory,
yet he could say very sharp things of the duplicity of the whites. He had much
ease of manner and was a master of repartee. I recall his saying that if you
have got to wear golden slippers to enter the white man’s heaven no Indian will
ever get there, as the whites have got the Black Hills and with them all the


It was during the last struggle of his people,
at the time of the Messiah craze in 1890-1891 that he demonstrated as never
before the real greatness of the man. While many of his friends were carried
away by the new thought, he held aloof from it and cautioned his band to do
the same. When it developed into an extensive upheaval among the nations he
took his positive stand against it.


Presently all Indians who did not dance the Ghost
Dance were ordered to come into camp at Pine Ridge agency. American Horse was
the first to bring in his people. I was there at the time and talked with him
daily. When Little was arrested, it had been agreed among the disaffected to
have him resist, which meant that he would be roughly handled. This was to be
their excuse to attack the Indian police, which would probably lead to a general
massacre or outbreak. I know that this desperate move was opposed from the beginning
by American Horse, and it was believed that his life was threatened.


On the day of the “Big Issue”, when thousands
of Indians were gathered at the agency, this man Little, who had been in hiding,
walked boldly among them. Of course the police would arrest him at sight, and
he was led toward the guardhouse. He struggled with them, but was overpowered.
A crowd of warriors rushed to his rescue, and there was confusion and a general
shout of “Hurry up with them! Kill them all!” I saw American Horse walk out
of the agent’s office and calmly face the excited mob.


“What are you going to do?” he asked. “Stop,
men, stop and think before you act! Will you murder your children, your women,
yes, destroy your nation to-day?” He stood before them like a statue and the
men who held the two policemen helpless paused for an instant. He went on: “You
are brave to-day because you outnumber the white men, but what will you do to-morrow?
There are railroads on all sides of you. The soldiers will pour in from every
direction by thousands and surround you. You have little food or ammunition.
It will be the end of your people. Stop, I say, stop now!”


Jack Red Cloud, son of the old chief rushed up
to him and thrust a revolver almost in his face. “It is you and men like you,”
he shouted, “who have reduced our race to slavery and starvation!” American
Horse did not flinch but deliberately reentered the office, followed by Jack
still flourishing the pistol. But his timely appearance and eloquence had saved
the day. Others of the police force had time to reach the spot, and with a large
crowd of friendly Indians had taken command of the situation.


When I went into the office I found him alone
but apparently quite calm. “Where are the agent and the clerks?” I asked. “They
fled by the back door,” he replied, smiling. “I think they are in the cellar.
These fools outside had almost caught us asleep, but I think it is over now.”


American Horse was one of the earliest advocates
of education for the Indian, and his son Samuel and nephew Robert were among
the first students at Carlisle. I think one or two of his daughters were the
handsomest Indian girls of full blood that I ever saw. His record as a councilor
of his people and his policy in the new situation that confronted them was manly
and consistent.

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