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Deadlier Than The Male

July 2024
9min read

The hair-raising deeds of Throwing Down, The Other Magpie, and Elk Hollering in the Water lead one to believe that the female of the red-skinned species was

When I first met Elk Hollering in the Water on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana in 1941, she was a frail little old lady in her middle seventies. She was short and she was spare. I doubt if she ever weighed as many as one hundred pounds. Nothing about lier appearance would remind one of artists’ conceptions of the legendary Amazons. Nevertheless, Elk Hollering in the Water was a com bat veteran in her own right, a fighting member of the most aggressive tribe of the upper Missouri. As a lively teen-ager she had accompanied her stalwart husband, Hear Chief, on raids against enemy tribes. And she had won honors by “taking things from the enemy.”

Aged men of her tribe, men who had journeyed on many war excursions against the Grows, decs, Assiniboins, Flathcads, and Sioux, readily acknowledged Elk Hollering in the Water’s claim. Furthermore, they assured me that womanly participation in what we commonly regard as the man’s game of war was not considered abnonnal conduct in the days of intertribal conflict on the tipper Missouri prior to the middle iSSo’s. Young childless women sometimes joined their husbands on fatiguing and dangerous horse-stealing raids upon distant enemy villages in preference to remaining at home praying and worrying about the safety of their mates. Sometimes small war parties travelled two or three hundred miles before their scouts located an enemy camp. Usually the women cooked for the entire party and performed other menial tasks during the outward journey. Hut they also look active parts in the dawn attacks on enemy camps and helped to drive the stolen horses homeward. Sometimes the fleeing raiders were overtaken by angry enemy warriors bent upon recapturing their pilfered livestock. Then the horse thieves, female and male, had to fight for their lives as well as for their newly acquired property.

Women warriors also appeared among the Crows, south of the Yellowstone. The Crows were a small tribe, but they were wealthier in horses than any other Indians on the upper Missouri. They fought valiantly to protect their herds from frequent raids by the Blackfeet from the north and the mighty Sioux from the east. To protect themselves from extermination by those more powerful tribes, the Crows made alliantes with the white men.

Some thirty years ago or more an aged Crow woman, Pretty Shield, told Frank Mird Linderman of a brave Crow girl who aided General Crook against the Sioux and Cheyenne tinder Crazy Horse in the historic Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, only a week prior to the Custcr debacle on the Little Big Horn. The Other Magpie was her name. She was wild and she was pretty. But she had no man of her own. When some 175 Crow warriors rode oil to join Three Stars (General Crook) in his campaign against the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne, The Other Magpie went along. She had recently lost a brother at the hands of the Sioux, and she was eager for revenge. In the Battle of the Rosebud, the Crow scouts bore the brunt of the hostile Indian attack. Many of these scouts carried improved .50 caliber breech-loading rifles. But The Other Magpie’s only weapons were her belt knife and a long, thin willow coup stick. Yet she counted coup on a live Sioux warrior and later took his scalp—one of only eleven scalps taken by the Crows in the day’s bitter fighting.

Pretty Shield remembered the return of the Crows from that battle. She saw The Other Magpie proudly carrying a bright feather tied to the end of her coup stick to symbolize her recent achievement. And she saw her cut the Sioux scalp she had taken into several pieces and give them to the men so that they would have more scalps to dance with.

The greatest of all the women warriors among the upper Missouri tribes lived among the Crows in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rudolph Kurz, a romantic young Swiss artist who had journeyed into the wilderness to draw primitive Indians, met her at Fort Union near the mouth of the Yellowstone on October 27, 1851. He confided to his journal for that day, “In the afternoon the famous Absaroka amazon arrived. Mr. Denig [the factor in charge of the trading post] called me to his office that I might have an opportunity to see her. She looked neither savage nor warlike. On the contrary, as I entered the room, she sat with her hands in lier lap, folded, as when one prays. She is about 46 years old; appears modest in manner and good natured rather than quick to quarrel.” Kurz was so awed by this woman and so delighted to receive as a present a scalp she had taken in battle that he neglected to draw her portrait. Unfortunately, no likeness of this remarkable woman has been preserved. But Edwin T. Denig wrote a short biographical sketch of Woman Chief, as she was known to the Indians. He had known her for twelve years prior to her untimely death in 1854.

Woman Chief was not a Crow Indian by birth. She was a Gros Ventre girl who, at the age of about ten, was captured by the Crows. The Crow family that adopted her soon found that she showed little interest in helping the women with their domestic tasks. She preferred to shoot birds with a bow and arrow, to guard the family horses, and to ride horseback fast and fearlesslv. Later she learned to shoot a gun accurately, and she became the equal if not the superior of any of the young men in hunting on foot or on horseback.

She grew taller and stronger than most women. She could carry a deer or bighorn home from the hunt on her back. She could kill four or five buffalo in a single chase, butcher them, and load them on pack horses without assistance. Yet, despite her prowess in men’s activities, she always dressed like a woman. Although she was rather good-looking, she didn’t attract the fancy of young men. After her foster father died she took charge of his lodge and family, acting as both father and mother to his children.

Her first war experience was gained in a defensive action outside the white men’s trading post in the Crow country. A Blackfoot war party approached the post and called upon the traders and Chows to come out and parley. This young woman alone had the nerve to answer their invitation. And when the treacherous enemy charged upon her, she killed one and wounded two others before running to safety in the traders’ fort. This deed of daring marked her as a woman of unusual courage in the eyes of the Crows. They composed songs in her honor telling of her bravery, and sang them in their camps.

A year later she led her first war party against the Blackfeet; seventy horses were stolen. She succeeded in killing and scalping one Hlackfoot and in capturing the gun of another. Her continued success as a war leader won her greater and greater honors among the Crows until she gained a place in the council of chiefs of the tribe, ranking third in a band of 160 lodges. Thereafter she was known as Woman Chief. This was a station and a title never before known among Crow women.

In the summer of 1854, twenty years after Woman Chief had begun to acquire a reputation as a warrior, she sought to try her skill as a peacemaker. She proposed a visit to the Cros Ventres, the tribe of her birth, to negotiate a peace between them and her adopted tribe, the Crows. Her friends, both Indian and white, sought to dissuade her from this bold undertaking. They well knew that the Cros Ventres looked upon her as a leader of their enemies. Hut Woman Chief persisted. In company with four Crows she travelled north of the Missouri, where she met a large party of Gros Ventres en route home from a visit to the trading post of Fort Union. She approached them boldly, talked to them in their own language, and smoked with them. While she journeyed with them to the main Gros Ventre camp, some of the party turned upon her and her four Crow comrades and coldly shot them down.

Weasel Tail, a Blood Indian who was over eighty years of age when I met him some twenty-odd years ago, told me that he was the son of very poor parents. Jn his late teens and early twenties he repeatedly joined horse-raiding expeditions in the hope of bettering both his economic status and his social prestige in his tribe. His wife, Throwing Down, used to go along with him during the early years of their marriage and before their first child was born. Weasel Tail explained, “She told me she loved me, and if I was to be killed she wanted to be killed with me. My wife was in five battles with me. She carried a sixshooter and knew how to use it. Once she stole a horse, a saddlebag filled with ammunition, and a war club from the enemy.”

Weasel Tail told me the story of Running Eagle, most famous of all Blackfoot women warriors, who was killed in action about the time of Weasel Tail’s birth in 1860. He had known several older men who had been members of war parties under Running Eagle’s leadership, and they often had talked about her. One of these men was White Grass, who later became a prominent band chief among the Piegans, a Blackfoot tribe.

Running Eagle was a large, strong woman. When she was still young, her husband was killed in a fight with the Crows. Seeking some way to avenge his death, Running Eagle prayed to the sun, and thought she heard the sun answer, “I will give you great power in war. But if you give yourself to any other man you will be killed.”

In a short time Running Eagle became a successful leader of sixablc war parties. When on the warpath, she wore men’s leggings, a peculiar loin cloth doubled over like a diaper, and a woman’s dress. Although men who went to war under her leadership respected her highly, she was never proud. She insisted upon cooking for the men of her party, and she also mended their woni moccasins. When one young brave complained that it was not proper for a Blackfoot war leader to have to mend moccasins, she replied, “I am a woman. You men don t know how to sew.”

One winter White Grass joined an expedition of about thirty men under Running Eagle’s leadership, bound southward to the Crow country beyond the Yellowstone. They had not gone far before one of the younger men began to grumble because the leader was a woman. Running Eagle heard him and said, “You are right, i am only a woman.” Then she sang her sacred war song, “All of you bachelors, try your best.” The dissenter was so impressed by her manner that he decided to stay with the party to observe how this woman behaved.

When they reached the Yellowstone River, Running Eagle sang another song, “I should like to many a buffalo bull, to have a two-year-old heifer for a sister, and to have a fall calf.” Then she told her companions, “My brothers, I shall leave camp tonight. Tomorrow morning you must follow my footsteps in the snow.”

So saying, she picked up her gun and walked oft alone into the darkness. At daybreak she sighted a buffalo herd. She crawled toward it and shot first a huge fat bull, then a two-year-old heifer, and then a fall calf. When the others overtook her they found her sitting down, quietly cleaning her gun. As they approached she told them calmly, “See, I have killed my husband, my two-year-old sister, and my baby.”

After she had helped the men cut up the buffalo, Running Eagle ordered four men to scout ahead, saying, “I’m afraid the Xc/ Percés may be near here.” Two days later the scouts returned and reported that they had seen no enemy signs. But not long after the party resumed its journey they discovered a Xe/ Percé encampment in the Yellowstone River bottom. Unfortunately, a Xc/ Percé horseman saw them at the same time. While he summoned the men of his camp, the Piegans hastily retreated and dug foxholes for protection against a Xe/ Percé attack. Running Eagle dug her hole a little in advance of her companions. From her pouch she took her war medicine—two feathers attached to a flat disk of brass—and tied it in her hair. Then she sang her war song.

When the Nez Percés charged, Running Eagle killed the first man to come within range. Then she cried otit, “Brothers, I got the first one. You lie still. I shall keep killing them.” Inspired by their leader’s courage and calmness under fire, the doughty Piegans repulsed the Nez Percé attack, killing a number of the enemy. As the Nez Percés withdrew to care for their dead and wounded, Running Eagle howled like a wolf and shouted, “Xow we are going to quit fighting.” She led her happy warriors home without a casualty.

Toward spring of the following year, young White Grass again joined a war party led by Running Eagle. On the Sun River they sighted a camp of Hatheads who had crossed the Rockies to hunt buffalo on the plains. Running Eagle confided to her followers, “Last night I dreamed that some horses were given to me. Tonight we shall find them in the Flathcad camp.”

Shortly before daybreak the Piegans silently approached the tepees of the sleeping Flathcads. Running Eagle swiftly gave her orders: “Brothers, catch the horses you can rope outside the camp. I am no good with a rope. I’ll go into the camp and see what’s there.” She sang her war song and prayed to the sun. “Sun, I am not a man. But you gave me this power to do what I desired.” Then she walked quietly into the enemy camp, quickly cut loose five pri/e horses picketed near iheir owners’ tepees, and led them away. Meanwhile, the men of her party roped a goodly number of the loose horses. When Running Eagle returned, the party was ready Io make a last getaway. She then told her comrades, “I’ll lake the lead. I am only a woman. I’m not as strong as you men. Keep any of those who may fall asleep on their horses from falling behind.” For two days and two nights they rode without stopping to sleep. After the party reached their home camp, Running Eagle gave a bay and a roan to her eldest brother and a horse to each of her other relatives.

Running Eagle led several successful raids upon the Elatheacls before those Indians learned that a woman had been a principal cause of their misfortunes. Then they set a trap lor lier by posting n igln guards to look out lor any strange woman in their camp. The next time Running Eagle walked into the enemy village, the guard accosted her and asked her name. Running Eagle could not understand the Flathead tongue. As she hastily backed away, the Flathead sentry lifted his gun and shot and killed her. Some of the old Klackfoot Indians claimed that Running Eagle lost her life because she had broken her promise to the sun. She had fallen in love with a handsome young member of her war party, and she had not resisted his advances.

The name and deeds of Running Eagle were long remembered. 1-orgotten are the names of many other courageous and determined red-skinned Ama/ons who were not content to keep the tepee Rres burning while their men marched oil to war.

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