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High above the frozen river, the Lakota sentry hidden inside a tangle of deadfall gazed intently at the horse and rider below him on a wide plateau. His expression changed little as he noted that the buckskin horse was following the game trail along the north bank of the meandering ribbon of snow-covered ice, moving in a westerly direction. Using his field glasses, the man in the brush pile quickly confirmed his hunch: the rider was a Lakota wrapped in a buffalo robe.
Yellow Wolf put away the field glasses and, as he blew on his hands, considered what to do. He had taken his station just before sunrise, and despite wearing winter moccasins, a thick elk-hide shirt and leggings, and warm buffalo-hide mittens and a robe, he still had to flex his legs and move his arms to stay warm. Although the sun had brought some warmth, the midafternoon air of the Winter Moon definitely had a sharp bite. An annoying breeze sneaked into the deadfall, forcing him to adjust his robe. Wiggling his toes and stretching his back, he was glad for the opportunity to leave his cramped quarters.
He did not recognize the rider, but he did know a good horse when he saw one. The packs hanging on either side of the tall, sturdy buckskin were an indication the man was on a long journey. Yellow Wolf guessed he was either Sicangu or Hunkpapa Lakota. There was only one way to learn which.
Easing his slender frame out of his hiding place, Yellow Wolf made sure the buffalo robe did not catch on a branch. In the crook of his left arm, he cradled a breech-loading rifle inside its thick elk-hide case. Nearly forty paces behind the brush pile stood his horse, a muscular gray neatly blending into the tall, leafless shrubs and the mottled hillside behind him. Within a few moments, Yellow Wolf was mounted and heading for the trail leading down to the river.
The rider on the plateau instantly spotted the horse and rider as they appeared against the skyline. Under the buffalo robe, he grasped the handle of the six-shooter tucked into his belt. He knew he was in the area where the Crazy Horse people were said to be, and he also knew that the Crow occasionally raided from the north. But the outline of the horse and rider did not strike him as that of a Crow. He kept his hand on the pistol, just in case, as he reined in his horse and stopped to face them.
Yellow Wolf pushed the wolf-hide covering off his head and raised a hand in greeting.
"Friend," he called out, "where are you coming from?"
Hawk Eagle relaxed and said, "I came from the northeast with a message from our headman."
"You have come far," Yellow Wolf said. He openly admired the tall buckskin gelding the Hunkpapa was riding. "That is a good horse you have." "Yes," Hawk Eagle agreed. "He is a gift from our headman. He gave all the messengers a horse."
"Then you must be carrying an important message," Yellow Wolf assumed. "I will take you to Crazy Horse. I am Yellow Wolf."
"I am Hawk Eagle," the messenger replied. "I am glad you found me. I was sure I was in the right area. I have never been this far west. It is beautiful country."
Yellow Wolf smiled. "Nearly a thousand of us think so, and some of us think it is worth dying for."
"That is what our headman told us. He said if anyone did not think our homes and our land were worth dying for, they should go to the agency and get fat on the white man's food and pray to his god."
The Oglala nodded. "Our headman says the same."
"I have never met him," Hawk Eagle admitted. "I was there when we chased some Long Knives around up on the Elk River two years ago. They were guarding some other whites who were measuring the land the strange way they do. I saw your headman in the distance, but I never met him."
"You will today," Yellow Wolf promised.
A biting breeze forced them to pull their robes up tighter around their necks.
"We are not far from Crazy Horse's camp," Yellow Wolf said. "How long have you been traveling?"
"Twenty days," Hawk Eagle replied wearily. He had tied the twentieth knot into the braided cord attached to his arrow quiver this morning. "The weather has been cold, but there has not been much snow."
"See any buffalo along the way?"
Hawk Eagle shook his head. "No, I did not see any at all."
"What about whites and Long Knives?"
"I saw none of them, either. I came north of Bear's Lodge in order to stay away from the white trading post on the Elk River. I was told to avoid that place, so I did."
"That was a wise thing to do."
Hawk Eagle chuckled. "It is easy to hide from the Long Knives, because they do not know the country. They do not know where to look."
"True enough," Yellow Wolf agreed. "They just move over it like a cloud of locusts, eating everything in their way."
Both men laughed, though they knew the hard truth behind the metaphor was anything but funny.
Yellow Wolf urged his gray into a lope. Hawk Eagle let his horse match the pace, and together they swiftly glided over the frozen ground, the sound of their horses' hooves more of a clatter than a thud.
The Crazy Horse camp was one of nine winter camps, with nearly a thousand people altogether. All were situated on the north side of the Tongue River, nestled against a hill or the slope of a gully, out of the north wind. The snow was not deep, though more was sure to fall in the months ahead.
Soon, Hawk Eagle could see some hoofprints on the ground, and more and more as they rode on, and wood smoke came on the breeze. As they gained a bench at the top of a gentle slope, lodges came into view, and he counted twenty. A dog or two barked at the sight of an unfamiliar horse and rider. Warhorses and buffalo runners picketed near lodge doors looked with interest at the buckskin, some issuing inquisitive whinnies.
Despite the cold, people were outside, engaged in various activities. A few young women wrapped in elk robes were hauling in wood for the night. At the north edge of the circle of lodges, two men were butchering an elk hung from a sturdy, leafless aspen before an audience of hungry dogs. A group of men stood talking around a fire in front of the council lodge, but they ceased their conversation at the approach of Yellow Wolf and Hawk Eagle. A group of small boys with cold, ruddy cheeks playing an arrow-through-the-hoop game stopped to stare.
The two riders reined in their horses at the council lodge. Yellow Wolf called out to Little Big Man, who had been sizing up the newcomer through narrowed eyes.
"Cousin, where is our headman? Our visitor here has a message from the holy man of the Hunkpapa."
Little Big Man's expression softened a bit. He was a short, compact man with quick movements. He wore a colorful capote, a coat obtained in trade, instead of an elk or buffalo robe. He pushed the long hood back from his head, revealing coal black hair and a weathered face. Without turning, he pointed with a thumb toward the end of the wide gully and the horse herd.
"He should be back soon," he told Yellow Wolf. "He was checking on one of his horses."
As Yellow Wolf and Hawk Eagle dismounted, Little Big Man turned to the younger man at his side. "Perhaps you can take word to the old men." As the young man left, Hawk Eagle stepped forward. "My name is Hawk Eagle. My mother is Red Shawl Woman. My father died of the bowel sickness a year ago. He was Oglala."
"Yes," acknowledged Little Big Man. "I know your family. I am Little Big Man. You have come a long way. There is a fire in the council lodge. You can rest there. Our headman and the old men will come." He motioned for a teenage boy in the group around the fire to come closer. "Take his horse to graze in that grove of aspen. There is still grass there."
"Thank you," Hawk Eagle said to the boy as he untied a long bundle from the horse's neck rope and tucked it under his arm.
Yellow Wolf led him into the spacious council lodge. "Sit," he said. "Someone will bring you food."
Hawk Eagle did not have to be persuaded to go into the warm lodge. Inside, he untied the strings of the heavy buffalo robe, folded it, sat, and leaned back against a willow chair. He closed his eyes for a moment, happy to be out of the cold. The warmth and the simple comfort of the willow chair felt good. Yellow Wolf added wood to the fire and left.
Hawk Eagle had spent the previous night in a gully beneath a makeshift shelter. Although he had kept a small fire going, it did not actually warm him. It had only kept the cold at bay. Hawk Eagle was looking forward to a good night's rest in a warm lodge.
A soft rustling caught his ear as the door was pushed aside. Carefully balancing a kettle, a woman entered and gave him a motherly smile. In her other hand, she carried a coffeepot. As she bent to place the pot to one side on the bed of coals, he noticed that there were flecks of gray in her hair. From a bag under her arm, she deftly took out a bowl, spoon, and a metal cup.
"Elk stew," she explained, ladling it into the bowl. After handing him the bowl and spoon, she turned and poured coffee into the cup.
"Thank you, Aunt," he said, savoring the aroma of the stew and coffee. It had been days since he had had a hot meal.
She nodded. "The fire will warm you on the outside, and the food will warm you from inside. There is plenty," she said, pointing to the kettle. "Eat all you want."
After she left, Hawk Eagle slurped down the stew, disregarding the spoon, and sat back to sip the hot coffee. It had been a long, long journey. He put the cup aside and closed his eyes.
Sometime later, Hawk Eagle opened his eyes, realizing he had dozed. Two men stood before him. The one on the left had brown hair in two long braids, and a thin scar ran from the left side of his mouth back to his ear. His expression was polite, though his eyes were dark and inquisitive. He was dressed plainly beneath his elk winter robe. Hawk Eagle knew who he was: Crazy Horse, though he did not have the demeanor of a warrior, much less that of the greatest fighting man among the Lakota. The man beside him, also wrapped in an elk robe, was taller and darker. Hawk Eagle sensed a definite air of tough competence from him. He scrambled to his feet to greet them.
"I am Hawk Eagle," he told them. "I came from the northeast with a message from our headman."
"How is he, your headman?" Crazy Horse asked.
"He is well," Hawk Eagle replied. "The winter has been hard, but our people are doing well."
"Good, that is good to hear," Crazy Horse said. He turned to the man at his side. "This is my friend Cloud."
Hawk Eagle acknowledged the taller man. "Yes, I have heard of you as well."
"Sit," Crazy Horse invited. "I know you must be tired, but the old men will want to hear what you have to say."
"I am ready."
They filed in one and two at a time, all the old men from the village and two or three from the closest villages as well. By sundown, over thirty men were in the council lodge, including Crazy Horse and several warriors such as Cloud and Little Big Man. By the time everyone had arrived, Hawk Eagle felt refreshed, though somewhat intimidated by the gathering of old warriors, many of whom Sitting Bull had mentioned by name. Sitting in the group were two medicine men: Worm, the father of Crazy Horse, and High Eagle.
Grey Bull, nearly sixty years old but looking strong and distinguished with his nearly all-white braids, opened the meeting. "A young man has come to us after traveling many days," he said in a resonant voice. "He brings word from the Hunkpapa people, from their headman, whom we all know and respect." He turned to Hawk Eagle. "We are glad you have arrived safely and are anxious to hear what you have to say."
Hawk Eagle nodded, somewhat shyly. "Please thank the woman who brought me food," he said. "I have not eaten that well since I left my mother's lodge. I hope my horse is feeling as good as I am." A few chuckles flowed through the room. "Yes," he went on, "I do carry a message. My headman sent four of us. Two rode east toward the lands of the Dakota and Nakota. One went to the people of Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, at the agencies near the Smoking Earth River.
"We are all to say the same to all our relatives: that our headman wants all the people to gather together after the winter breaks. He says it is far past time for the Lakota people to drive the whites away from our lands."
Murmurs of affirmation filled the room. Hawk Eagle unwrapped the bundle made from the hide of a mountain lion and revealed a war arrow and a pipe in its bag. He took the arrow and held it out to Crazy Horse.
"My friend, my headman told me to put this in your hand," Hawk Eagle said. "It is one of his, a gift to you and to honor the courage of those who follow you."
Crazy Horse took the arrow. Beneath its two feathers was the mark of Sitting Bull: four narrow green bands around the shaft. "Thank you," he said. "It shall be placed high on the west wall of this lodge, to honor he who has sent it to us."
West, of course, was the direction where the Thunder Beings lived. West was the direction of power. It was the home of the Buffalo People as well.
Hawk Eagle cleared his throat and took the stem of the pipe and the black shale bowl from the bag decorated with dyed quills. "This pipe," he said, "he gave me to carry as a sign that the words of his message are sent with a good heart. He told me to smoke it with all of you. He asked me to ask the father of Crazy Horse to fill it and light it."
He passed the stem and bowl to Worm.
Worm took the pipe and fitted the stem to the bowl. Then, holding a bundle of sage over the fire, he waited for the gray smoke to rise as the sweet, pungent scent filled the room. Then he smudged each pinch of tobacco before he placed it in the bowl. With the burning ember on the end of a twig, he lit the pipe and offered it to the powers of Earth, Sky, each of the Four Directions, and finally to the Creator. After a short prayer, he took the first puff and passed the pipe to the man seated to his left.
When everyone in the room had smoked, Worm dismantled the pipe, emptied the ashes into the fire, cleaned the bowl, and passed the stem and bowl back to Hawk Eagle.
Grey Bull turned to the messenger. "Tell us, Nephew, the words you bring from your headman."
Hawk Eagle nodded and nervously cleared his throat. Now it seemed so long ago, but for many evenings he and the other young men sat with Sitting Bull as he gave them the message he wanted the important men among the Lakota to hear. "These are the things you must say, and in this way," he had told them. Hawk Eagle and the others had memorized and rehearsed the words until they could practically say them while asleep. But now, sitting at the back of the council lodge in the village of Crazy Horse, in the spot reserved for honored guests, he felt overwhelmed by the task he was given to do.
He cleared his throat again. "My friends and relatives," he began, feeling every eye in the room on his face, "my headman told me to say this to you: In life there is change, some good and some bad. From the childhood of our elders, change that we did not ask for has come, like a fire that slowly weakens the strongest oak tree. That change has already divided our nation, fooling many of our people into accepting it. Now they are living under the control of those who bring the change near the mouth of the Smoking Earth River, at those places called agencies. If we do not resist more strongly, we will all be under the control of those who bring the change.
"The Black Hills, the center of our world, is like the dog that cannot rid itself of fleas. That sacred place is infested with those who seek the yellow metal that drives white men crazy. We know that our relatives who live in the shadows of the great Shining Mountains understand our thinking, because they-like us-still live as free people. And it is those of us who are still free that are the best hope to keep our lands and our old ways. We must rescue our relatives from the agencies and help them to see their mistake. We must cleanse them of their softness toward the white men.
"I invite all who have like minds and hearts to gather so that we may talk. In the old days, our old ones talked about everything that lay in their path. That is what we must do now, because if we allow the white men to take our lands from us, the thing that lies in our path now is the end of our ways. The white men have already done too much damage.
"I will bring my people to the Chalk Buttes when the winter breaks and spring comes, at the end of the Moon When Geese Return. I will pray that all good Lakota people will join us."
Excerpted from The Long Knives are Crying by Joseph M. Marshall III Copyright © 2008 by Joseph M. Marshall III. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 3, 2013
For any reader who is interested in the Native American perspective of the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, this book is a must read. For any reader who is just beginning to be interested by the historical perspective of this event, please read this book. It is exceptionally written and in the voice of a man who has established himself among his own people and as an esteemed author. I cannot recommend this book to anyone who simply wants to be entertained and not be invited to consider the perspective of the people whose lives and homes were most greatly impacted by that hot June 25 day over a century ago.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2010
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Posted May 13, 2011
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