Cheyenne and Lakota women also took up arms.
When the Crows sent some 175 warriors to join Brigadier General George Crook on campaign in 1876, one warrior carried no rifle— only a belt knife and a coup stick made of a willow wand. The Crow war party and Shoshone warriors, both U.S. allies against the Lakotas and Cheyennes, covered Crook’s confusion at the June 17, 1876, Battle of the Rosebud and probably staved off outright defeat. The warrior with the willow stick counted coup on a Lakota and later took his scalp—one of only 11 taken by the Crows that day before the opponents withdrew in opposite directions. When the Crows returned to their village, the warrior with the willow wand—in a gesture emblematic of the warm hearted generosity of the Crow people, and of their occasional penchant for the grotesque—sliced the Lakota scalp into pieces so other warriors would have trophies to present to their women. The warrior well understood the importance of keeping women happy—she was one herself. Her name was The Other Magpie.
Pretty Shield, a contemporary Crow woman who remained at home, called this woman warrior of the Crows “a wild one who had no man of her own…both bad and brave.” Pretty Shield further described The Other Magpie’s appearance and motivation to interviewer Frank Linderman in the 1940s:
The woman, I remember, wore a stuffed woodpecker on her head, and her forehead was painted yellow. Her coup stick was big medicine that day, and she rode a black horse. She went to the war because her brother had lately been killed by the Lakota. She wanted to get even, and she did.
Pretty Shield said another woman had actually killed the Lakota on whom The Other Magpie counted coup. That other Crow’s name was, aptly enough, Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them. This other “woman,” however, may have been a transvestite. Pretty Shield affirmed that The Other Magpie was all girl and dressed that way, but said Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them was “neither a man nor a woman.”
Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them, afraid to have the Lakota find her dead with woman clothing on her, changed them to a man’s before the fighting commenced, so that if killed, the Lakota would not laugh at her, lying there with a woman’s clothes on her. She did not want the Lakota to believe that she was a Crow man hiding in a woman’s dress, you see.
Working in tandem, the two woman warriors had rescued a fallen Crow named Bull Snake earlier in the battle, and when other Lakotas charged down on the rescuers, The Other Magpie countercharged. “She spat at them,” said Pretty Shield. “‘See,’ she called out, ‘my spit is my arrows!’” The Other Magpie then crashed her black horse into a Lakota warrior’s horse and struck him with her coup stick. As the Lakota horse and rider staggered, Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them shot the man dead with a revolver. The Other Magpie took his scalp. This was too much for the other Lakota warriors, who quickly backed off.
The two woman warriors, tending the wounded Bull Snake, returned to the village ahead of Crook’s other Crows. “I felt proud of the two women, even of the wild one, because she was brave,” recalled Pretty Shield. “Of course we had a big
scalp dance. I think that the party had taken 10 scalps besides the one that The Other Magpie cut into so many pieces, so there were enough for many dancers.”
The Other Magpie and Finds-Them and-Kills-Them weren’t the only women to take the warpath to the Rosebud. A Cheyenne woman named Buffalo Calf Road Woman rode out with the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors against Crook and the Crows. During a reversal that day the young wife, also known simply as Brave Woman, rode through retreating Lakotas and Cheyennes to her fallen brother Comes in Sight, pulled him up onto her own horse and carried him off the field. The male warriors, perhaps chagrined at having a woman show them up, quickly rallied. The Cheyennes called the Rosebud battle “The Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother” in Brave Woman’s honor. Eight days later Brave Woman reportedly fought beside her husband, Black Coyote, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Just two years after that she was dead of malaria, contracted after the Army relocated the Northern Cheyennes to Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) in the aftermath of Crook’s campaign.
Other Cheyenne and Lakota women assumed more tangential roles in defense of their villages. They often served more as cheerleaders than killers but would sometimes hack up the fallen troopers they saw as murderers and potential rapists. Plains Indians generally didn’t want their women even to handle weapons. In an often-polygamous society, husbands sometimes married all the sisters in the same family, and they didn’t want any family squabbles to turn deadly. The women perhaps best served by reminding the warriors what they were fighting to defend. “Think of the helpless ones at home!” was a Lakota rallying cry. Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota who was a preteen at the time of the Little Bighorn fight, recalled the scene: “I saw a very pretty young woman among a band of warriors about to go up to the battle on the hill, and she was singing like this: ‘Brothers, now your friends have come! Be brave! Be brave! Would you see me taken captive?’” But the Plains Indians were also people of the dream and the vision, and if a healthy young woman’s dreams and visions directed her to the warpath, the men knew better than to stand in her way. The Crows—big, brave, rich in tempting horses and heavily outnumbered— produced some of the most formidable woman warriors.
Perhaps the greatest of them was The Woman Chief (aka Pine Leaf ), born a Gros Ventre but made a Crow by capture and adoption when she was about 10. She was a bit of a tomboy, preferring the bow and arrows to beadwork. She learned to handle a musket and ride bareback as well as any man. The Woman Chief was as tall and strong as many of the Crow men, and while she was fairly pretty for a girl her size, the men didn’t come courting. When her adoptive father died, she took over the buffalo hunting for his lodge and her siblings.
In the 1830s she joined the men on the warpath by happenstance after a hostile Blackfoot contingent turned up at a trading post. The big Crow girl with the Gros Ventre genes, familiar with the Blackfoot language, volunteered to leave the safety of the post to confer with them. The Blackfeet abruptly charged and fired at her. Undaunted, The Woman Chief killed one with her musket and two others with arrows before beating it back inside the trading post. Her reputation was made. The next time she rode against the Blackfeet, it was on the warpath, and she killed and scalped one warrior and took a musket from another. Similar exploits won her third rank in the council of Crow chiefs, to which no woman had even been admitted.
Her heart, strong as it was, got the best of her in 1854. Seemingly bearing fond memories of her Gros Ventre family, she talked four Crow warriors into joining her not on the warpath but on a peace mission to heal the breach between her native and adoptive tribes. Veteran fur traders, though admiring her courage, tried to talk her out of it. She went anyway, and the four men were probably ashamed to let her ride out alone. North of the Missouri River, The Woman Chief and her escorts met a party of Gros Ventres returning from a trip to the trading post at Fort Union. The Gros Ventres were astonished and mystified when a big, at tractive and utterly fearless Crow woman rode up and spoke to them in their own language. The parties smoked the pipe and headed toward the Gros Ventre village together—for a while. Suddenly, the demystified Gros Ventres lifted their muskets and shot all five Crows to death. The irony was intense: The Woman Chief, greatest female warrior of the Crows and terror of the warpath, died because she had organized a peace mission.
Suzie Koster, foster member of the Crows and Lakotas, helped research this article.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.