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Cathy Smith exhibition.

In the most recent issue, Vol. 42, No. 2 of WW, the photographs in the article Plains Indian Leaders, Exhibition at the Cowgirl Museum, p. 29-31, make it apparent that Cathy Smith does excellent work. I wish I could say the same for the author of the article, Bill Lawrence, as it contains a number of oversimplifications, misconceptions, and factual errors.

For instance, Little Wolf is described as Sweet Medicine chief of the Northern Cheyenne (he was) and leader of the Bowstring Soldiers warrior society--he wasn't. Lawrence has confused a Southern Cheyenne Little Wolf, who was leader of the Bowstring Soldiers in 1839 (Grinnell, p. 49) with the very famous Northern Cheyenne Little Wolf who led his people from the Oklahoma reservation where they had been confined by the U.S. government back to their Montana homeland in 1878. The Bowstring Soldiers are an exclusively Southern Cheyenne society. Furthermore, the Northern Cheyenne Little Wolf was a leader of the Elk soldiers and, according to Peter J. Powell (Sweet Medicine, vol. 1, p. 93) remained so after his election to the Council of Forty-four.

Lawrence describes Medicine Crow as "the last of the legendary Crow chiefs and a visionary medicine man." This statement makes no sense historically. Medicine Crow's life was contemporaneous with a number of highly respected chiefs and warriors, among them were Bell Rock, Hillside, Gray Bull, Flathead Woman, and, of course, Plenty Coups who was not only a pipe holder or war party leader but a camp chief, an important distinction. Plenty Coup and Medicine Crow were good friends who went to war many times together and Plenty Coups tells (in Linderman, p. 161) a story illustrating that Medicine Crow was not only a "visionary medicine man" but a Crow warrior with a keen and rather bizarre sense of humor.

Medicine Crow was good friends with a white trader named Paul McCormack, called Yellow Eyes by the Crows. Medicine Crow, Plenty Coups, and several other Crows had gone on a winter war party against the Lakotas and had killed a number of their enemy. On their return home during some bitter cold weather they stopped to visit with their trader friends at Ft. Pease. Plenty Coups tells the story, "We were suffering from hunger and cold. Medicine Raven's buffalo robe was wrapped tightly about his body and he only stuck out a hand which Yellow Eyes grabbed as though he was glad. He shook the hand very hard. When Medicine Raven turned around to shake the hand of Major Pease I saw Yellow Eyes spring backward and drop something in the thin snow that sounded like a stone. I looked. It was the frozen hand of a Sioux! Medicine Raven had cut it off a man he had killed in the fight near the Blackhills and had carried it for many days to make a joke on his friend Yellow Eyes. But, his friend did not laugh." And, lest there be any confusion about the names, Plenty Coups says, "White men called him Medicine Crow, just as they call us Crows, who are Absarokees,"( Linderman, p. 160). Since Plenty Coups and Medicine Crow were both born in 1848 and Plenty Coups outlived Medicine Crow by twelve years, who would legitimately be known as "the last of the legendary Crow chiefs"?

Red Cloud is described as "war chief of the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux." Also, Lawrence says Crazy Horse was "one of the last four shirt wearers of the Lakota nation." I will address these two together as they are inter-related.

There was no single "war chief" of the Oglalas except, perhaps, in Hollywood films. Oglala war leaders were called blotahunka and there were many highly esteemed warriors who bore this title--Crazy Horse, Black Twin and Red Cloud among them. Red Cloud was highly respected for his military prowess but he wielded no more authority than any other blotahunka and, though he was a wakiconza (camp administrator) of his own Bad Face band of Oglalas, when it came to making decisions for all Oglalas, at the behest of the U.S. government, Red Cloud protested that he must consult with other blotahunka and men of influence, Black Twin and Crazy Horse among them. Red Cloud's authority was more apparent than real and had largely been foisted on him by Government agents and military officers who totally misunderstood the Lakota socio-politico system.

At this juncture, with regard to Crazy Horse, we should note that there was no "Lakota Nation." True enough, the seven tribes of the Lakotas recognized a mutual kinship of language, culture, and, to some extent shared economic and military interests. But there was no overarching polity among these seven tribes who, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, acted independently of one another with regard to foreign and domestic policy. The combined Lakota/Cheyenne village which defeated Crook on the Rosebud and Custer on the Little Big Horn was an anomaly which grew out of anger and frustration with U.S. Government policy.

Crazy Horse was indeed a shirt wearer of the Oglalas, but of the Oglalas only, and was eventually a defrocked shirt wearer for stealing another man's wife and nearly precipitating intra-tribal violence.

While I'm sure Cathy Smith's work makes a very impressive exhibition, I question whether Lawrence's uninformed and simplistic approach to Plains Indian history and politics will accurately inform those who will view these beautifully made items.

Note: For an appreciation of the complexities of 19th century Oglala politics read The Oglala People, 1841-1879, A Political History,by Catherine Price.


Grinnell, George Bird. (1966). The Fighting Cheyenne. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Linderman, Frank B. (2002). Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Lowie, Robert H. (1956). The Crow Indians. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Powell, Peter J. (1969). Sweet Medicine. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Price, Catherine. (1998). The Oglala People, 1841-1879, A Political History. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Wildshut, William and John C. Ewers. (1975). Crow Indian Medicine Bundles. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Lew Richards

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Author:Richards, Lew
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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