By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
The story may be riddled with tragedy, challenges that often seem insurmountable, or shine with steadfast love and unshakeable faith.
Life is a journey for all of us, and we know not at its beginning where the road will take us. History has recorded famous lives, but very often the everyday man or woman has no biographer. Yet within their lives were moments of joy, laughter, love, hardship, courage, sacrifice, inspiration, and perseverance.
If not, how many of us would be here now?
Depending upon what part of the country one called home, whether an individual was wealthy or poor, the color of their skin, or simply a person’s gender, many life stories have been lost over time. Some, however, were preserved, passed down by oral history among family until such time (in the distant future) when the telling and re-telling reached a larger audience.
As an author of historical fiction and a person long fascinated with history, very often while doing research I come upon someone’s story that is so compelling it not only stays with me, but inspires my work. In this instance, however, I also find that as a woman (someone’s daughter, sister, wife, and mother), I relate very strongly to a woman who cared little for her own safety and who risked everything for someone she loved.
One such life is the subject of this post.
Picture this. You are in Montana Territory on June 17th, 1876. During a fierce battle between Cheyenne and Lakota Indians against the US Army, Chief Crazy Horse ordered his warriors to retreat. As the braves did so, a Cheyenne woman suddenly rode out on the battlefield. She had seen someone who could not retreat; one wounded and now forgotten. Known as Chief Comes in Sight, that warrior was her brother. With US Cavalry rifles firing at her, Buffalo Calf Road Woman raced onto the battlefield. Imagine the courage. The focus! Despite Army gunfire, she managed to reach down from her horse, pull her brother up, and brought him off the battlefield to safety.
As the Cheyenne witnessed their tribeswoman's courage, they surged with renewed determination and returned to the battlefield, defeating General George Crook and his men.
Thereafter, among the Cheyenne, the Battle of the Rosebud was referred to as “The Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother”. Buffalo Calf Road Woman was henceforth known as “Brave Woman” among her people.
Yet there is more to Brave Woman than her valiant actions in saving her wounded brother. Eight days later, during the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25-26, 1876, she also fought alongside her husband, Black Coyote.
The Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne had joined forces to fight the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment. Not only was Brave Woman a participant in what has since become known as Custer’s Last Stand, history of the battle released publicly in 2005 by the Cheyenne revealed that it was Brave Woman (aka Buffalo Calf Road Woman) who “struck the blow that knocked Custer off his horse before he died.”
Pretty Nose [pictured], an Arapaho woman and a War Chief also fought during Battle. So did a Hunkpapa Sioux woman named Moving Robe Woman, fighting alongside her father, in place of her brother who had been killed previously by Custer’s Army.
At a time when one’s home was being systematically attacked, where one’s people were being killed or displaced, it is interesting to note that there were women who rode beside the men and fought.
The interpretation of history has many points of views. Yet what documentation has shown is that the Native Americans were being displaced (or robbed) from their lands. Lands they held long before there were any white men in the West. It is tragic to think that peace could not be attained where the white man and the Indians could live in trust and respect.
So, what prompted the Battle of the Rosebud? The Battle of Little Big Horn?
In a nutshell, the Lakota and North Cheyenne (of which Brave Woman belonged), were given a reservation including the Black Hills in Dakota Territory AND a large area in what later became Wyoming and Montana. These lands were pledged in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
Additionally, the lands were promised for the exclusive use of the Indians. Non-Indians were forbidden to trespass. However, officials of the US Government could. This "official" entitlement, in retrospect, should have been a red flag regarding the strength and/or sincerity of the US Government with regard to the Treaty.
Understandably, some did not want to sell their land. Yet when they did not show up on the deadline date, the US Government took military action to force Chief Sitting Bull, Chief Crazy Horse and their people onto the reservation. Like wild mustangs they were to be denied the freedom of their rightful treaty lands and detained like prisoners on the reservation.
United States military action began with the Battle of Powder River in March 1876. Make no mistake, the objective of the US Cavalry was to find, attack, and force non-complying Indians onto the reservation; to not only repeal their rights to their Treaty lands but further restrict their freedom. Skirmishes ensued, leading up to the Battle of the Rosebud where a young Cheyenne woman named Buffalo Calf Road Woman rode alone onto a battlefield to save her brother.
There was victory that day for her and the Cheyenne.
Yet, as we know from history, there would be no lasting victory for the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Lakota, or other Native American nations.
Brave Woman and her husband, along with their two children, eventually surrendered to the US Government. Along with other Northern Cheyenne, they were sent to live on the Southern Cheyenne Reservation in what is now Oklahoma.
However, in September 1878, she left the reservation with her family, wanting to return to their true home in Montana. On the journey, an argument occurred. Her husband shot and killed a Cheyenne chief named Black Crane. What instigated this event remains unclear. Still, as a result, Black Coyote, Brave Woman, and their family (now totaling eight people) were banished from the Cheyenne band led by Little Wolf.
When her husband, Black Coyote, and two other Cheyenne warriors attacked two US soldiers, killing one, the family was hunted down by the Army. They were captured on April 5, 1879. Separated from her husband, Brave Woman was taken to Miles City, Montana. (Ironically, the county seat for Custer County today.) Meanwhile, Black Coyote and the two other Cheyenne men were tried and convicted of murder. They were scheduled to be executed in June 1879. Sadly, in May, Brave Woman died from diphtheria in Miles City. When her husband learned of her death, Black Coyote hanged himself.
What became of their children and whether or not they have descendants living today, I do not know. What we do know is that Brave Woman and the other women who fought at Little Big Horn clearly dispel the Hollywood image that Native American women were nothing more than subservient squaws who performed menial female duties i.e., preparing meals, clothing, and caring for children and the home (or tipi) itself. They were skilled horsewomen and fighters, just as protective of their home, family, and heritage as the men…and they were willing to die for what they believed, if need be.
[Pictured: Cheyenne woman and child.]
Sadly, more often than not, they do not always end well. Still, much can be said for courage, and perseverance against all odds.
Although Brave Woman did not live a long life; it is estimated she was only 28 or 29 when she died, we do know that the Arapaho War Chief who also fought at Little Big Horn did live a long life.
Relocated to the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming, Pretty Nose lived to be 101 years old. Her grandson served with the United States Marines during the Korean War, and returned to the reservation. He was a tribal elder of the Arapaho. Pretty Nose died in 1952, having lived long enough to see her grandson return from the war after fighting for his country. [Pictured: Cheyenne woman and child.]
Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you enjoyed reading about Buffalo Calf Road Woman known among her people as "Brave Woman". ~ AKB