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The Battle of the Little Bighorn and Our War Against the Wild

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Posted on Jun 27, 2012
Photo by Deanne Stillman

Indians on the battlefield honor a past anniversary of Little Bighorn.

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

In 1869, the army defeated Cheyenne dog soldiers at the Battle of Summit Springs in Colorado, taking their 400 horses and mules. And there were other horse massacres, as if prefiguring the coming government war against the horse itself, including the assault carried out by Col. Ranald Mackenzie in 1874. During the Red River War against the Kiowa and Comanche on the Staked Plains of Texas and Oklahoma, he ordered the killing of 1,400 Indian ponies. This was one of the last threats in that region of the country. Later, Mackenzie went mad.

Paradoxically, it was a cavalry horse named Comanche, taken from the wild and pressed into U.S. Army service after the Civil War, who became known as “the lone survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn”—although there were many natives who fought there and lived to recount the tale. Comanche had been given his name after being wounded in an earlier battle with Comanche Indians; when soldiers removed the arrowhead in his flanks, he exhibited such stoic courage that they named him in honor of the tribe they were fighting. On the killing fields of the Little Bighorn, he stumbled out of the carnage when it was all over, suffering from a number of wounds. A soldier gave him a drink from a hat and he was taken to a nearby ferry, and then to Fort Riley where he was nursed back to health and retired with full honors. By then he had developed a taste for booze and many years later, when he died after his longtime handler was killed at Wounded Knee, he was stuffed and put on display in a series of exhibits. Finally he came to rest in the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas—a once-wild warrior who served his country and, like many a veteran, is barely known or appreciated.

In 1891 and ’92, as the Indian wars were coming to a conclusion, a series of requests known as the Sioux pony claims were filed in court. These were in response to the seizing of horses by military authorities from members of the Red Cloud and Red Leaf bands of Sioux Indians at Camp Robinson, Neb., and at the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River agencies in 1876, around the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn when Indians were being forced to “come in” and give up their horses. The list of claims is a sad litany of that era and a backbeat for what continues today. Alphabetically arranged, it tells us that dozens of tribal members including Afraid of Bear, Bad Woman, Iron Jaw, Keeps the Battle, Little Bear, Lone Wolf, Plenty Arrows, Rock Man, Walks by Day and White Horse Woman filed claims for varying numbers of ponies, from one or two to 20 or 30. Not all claims were allowed, many were reduced and, in the end, they were paid out for paltry sums.

By the end of the 19th century, the tribes had been vanquished and the range was closed. With the advent of the train and then the car, the horse was no longer needed and it became a cash crop. There were about 2 million mustangs on the range then and a period of massive roundups ensued, with hundreds of thousands of wild horses being harried by mounted men, fixed-wing aircraft and later men in trucks toward their doom, shipped off to rendering plants or to war fronts in foreign lands. So many horses were taken then that the first part of the century became known in certain circles as the time of “the great removal.”

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The voracious horseflesh industry was finally slowed down in the 1950s when a woman who came to be known as Wild Horse Annie embarked on a 20-year-long campaign to save wild horses after seeing blood pouring out of a truck as she headed to work in Nevada one day, and learning that it was carrying injured and dying mustangs bound for a remote slaughterhouse. By 1971, her battle culminated in passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which has been circumvented in many ways over the years. At the time, there were probably about 54,000 wild horses left on the range, although the number is disputed. Since then, the population has dwindled, with a limited number of mustangs in protected areas at any given time subject to often cruel government-sanctioned roundups that are not always based on accurate census counts and sometimes happen for reasons such as the ongoing drought, even though no other wild animals are ever removed from the range in order to give them a drink. With civilization closing in, America’s mustangs are running for their lives in a drama that echoes the final stages of the Indian wars. In fact, once the Native American was no longer a threat and the buffaloes were gone, attention was focused on the one animal that most represented freedom.


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