This book is a testimony to a lost way of life. The historic events recorded in the book have many similarities to the situation currently playing out for Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and other parts of the world.
The first thing I noticed about the book is its unusual A4 format; the second striking thing is that the author tells us that he wrote the book based on conversations with the protagonist and others using Plains Indian Sign Language which had been developed to allow different tribes to communicate with each other.
The book appears to be a little rambling and jumps about in the opening chapters, but you are given a picture of a hunter gatherer culture and highly organised patriarchal society. The tribe migrates over a large area along the Bighorn River area, moving on when the grazing for their horses is depleted or the buffalo and game that they hunt for food become scarce.
There is a spiritual nature to this life, to which a whole chapter of Wooden Leg’s story is devoted, their belief in a Great Spirit who they will meet after death; this is reiterated during battles, when the Cheyenne tribal tradition is to dress in their best clothes in order to be ready to meet him. This may also explain their mutilation of enemies to ensure they will not be greeted by the Great Spirit.
Around half way through the book we learn of the reason for the Great Sioux War of 1876. We are told that the white man has broken the treaty of 1868 after gold is found in the Black Hills area. This had been part of the land promised to the Sioux.
The flood of fortune seekers (not unlike the loggers and gold diggers who have invaded the Amazon in recent times) put the Sioux and these economic migrants on a collision course. Washington recognised the issues, and in 1875 the Grant administration attempted to buy the Black Hills region from the Sioux. When they refused to sell they were ordered to report to reservations by the end of January 1876. Mid-winter conditions made it impossible for them to comply. The administration labelled them “hostiles” and tasked the army with bringing them back, but many refused to give up their traditional ways.
The first conflict we are told about is the Battle of Powder River where, although the Cheyenne drive off a cavalry force, their camp is destroyed. They flee and join up with the Sioux, who immediately give them food replacement tepees and all other needs (socialism).
The tribes all gather together and, under the guidance of Sitting Bull, decide to actively avoid contact with white men. In a highly organised manner, a group of 20-30,000 people move camps, staying one or two nights at each place before moving on again.
Eventually a force led by Custer, Reno and Benteen of three battalions caught up with the tribes and engaged with them. According to accounts, they were met by approximately 3,500 braves and were routed, ending in the ignominious defeat or ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.
This famous battle however, is but a backdrop, and interestingly enough we learn later that the tribes were not even aware of the existence of Lieutenant Colonel Custer.
A hard winter and a mass cull of buffalo by the whites, some of which was state sponsored, were among “Many things that contributed to the buffalo’s demise. One factor was that, for a long time, the country’s highest generals, politicians, and even then President Grant saw the destruction of buffalo as a solution to the country’s Indian Problem.” The tribes were beginning to struggle to find enough food and skins for clothing and subsequently surrendered at Fort Keogh on a promise of food and clothing.
Hoping to return to their original reservations, they are happy to comply but soon find out they are to be moved to new lands in Oklahoma. After six years, when many die or commit suicide, they are finally allowed home and reluctantly settle into a farming lifestyle.
All of this happens by the time Wooden Leg has reached 31; he subsequently enlists as a scout and is involved in helping the cavalry quell the remaining resistance amongst the Sioux.
By the age of 50 he is baptised and his thoughts are: “I think the white people pray to the same Great Medicine we do in our old Cheyenne way. I do not go often to church, but I go sometimes. I think the white church people are good, but I do not believe all of the stories they tell about what happened a long time ago. The ways they tell us, all the good people in the old times were white people.”
Within one lifetime an Indigenous way of life is lost forever, the freedom of movement and the hunter gatherer lifestyle constrained. Their beliefs are suppressed, and they are no longer permitted to have more than one wife. The concept of looking after the land and wild animals as a source of life is lost as the monolith of ‘civilisation’ rolls on.
A final thought: The US displaced the Indigenous population through mass immigration, economic migration, people fleeing from oppression and human trafficking. Now it wrestles to control the migration of people through its southern borders who are trying to gain access for the very same reasons. History has a very short memory.
There is a good synopsis of the contents of the book here, which I think, although attractive to would-be readers, misses some of the nuances of the story.
Spoiler: Wooden Leg does not have a wooden leg.