Clara Caufield: Remembering the homecoming of Chief Little Wolf

The following is the opinion of Clara Caufield. All content © Native Sun News.

Chief Little Wolf. Image from Digital History Project

Little Wolf’s homecoming remembered
By Clara Caufield

On a cold spring day, April 1, 1879, Chief Little Wolf and 114 fellow Northern Cheyenne reached the Elk River (the Yellowstone) near present day Miles City, Montana. They concluded a journey/escape of over 1,000 miles from Oklahoma started in September, 1878. That tiny daring band was some of the few survivors of Northern Cheyenne Nation, numbered in the tens of thousands prior to white contact.

In September, 1878, a few hundred desperate Cheyenne under the leadership of Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf escaped Indian Territory, Oklahoma where they had been militarily relocated shortly after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 1876. Rather than succumb to slow extinction from disease, starvation and heartbreak in those horrible southern lands, they determined to go “home” – Montana. They must have known that death could thus come at the hands of the U.S. Military. For many, it did.

After eluding thousands of pursing troops determined to force them back to Oklahoma, in January, 1879 the Cheyenne reached Nebraska, a critical juncture when the two Chiefs had a different vision. Many, especially the weak, sick and elderly went with Chief Dull Knife, hoping to reach sanctuary with the Sioux to whom he was related. Throughout the years the Sioux, especially Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull sheltered the Cheyenne in times of disaster. That path led to the Fort Robinson Massacre.

About a hundred brave hearts however would not be deterred from the northward path, guided by Chief Little Wolf who relied upon the advices of a powerful elder, North Star woman. Those hardy few, probably among the strongest in mind, body and soul did not abandon Chief Little Wolf, regarded as a brilliant military strategist. His feat of successfully leading them to Montana against all possibility is detailed in the annals of western military history. Yet, the equally remarkable feat of his followers and comrades in arms is largely confined to oral history.

The courage, conviction and hardship they endured on that journey are beyond our contemporary comprehension. Did they know that they carried the survival of the Northern Cheyenne with them? Perhaps they knew they were the last of the “fighting Cheyenne” renowned for resisting the whites, doggedly independent. If they did not know they would win a permanent home for their descendants, perhaps they hoped it. A few hundred other Cheyenne survivors of the Indian wars were scattered elsewhere across the west, including the survivors of the Fort Robinson Massacre. Others languished in Oklahoma or were scattered in the far flung diaspora of a once mighty warrior nation.

If not for those few, it is very possible that the Northern Cheyenne people would no longer exist as a distinct tribe. We would likely be living among other tribes scattered in other locations, such as those Cheyenne who continued to live among the Oglala Sioux. Certainly, if not for them, the Northern Cheyenne would not have our beloved Tongue River Reservation. We would not have our own home.

Yet, the point is not the near extinction of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The miracle is that we continue to exist as a viable Tribe and that our numbers have recovered. Contemporary Northern Cheyenne, now eleven thousand strong, gather each year to acknowledge this critical juncture in our history and specifically Chief Little Wolf, carrier of the Sweet Medicine Bundle, one of the most revered tribal sacred objects. He was also a headsman of the Elkhorn Scrapers, Cheyenne military society, still vibrant.

“It’s a miracle that we as Northern Cheyenne still walk this earth and that we have a permanent home here in Montana. It is directly because of what these ancestors did under our greatest Chief, Little Wolf,” said Tim Lame Woman, great-grandson of Wild Hog, Little Wolf’s son-in-law and lieutenant.

There are several oral accounts of the Cheyenne’s historic arrival in Montana in early spring after a nine month journey, traveled by some on horseback while others walked and sometimes crawled. Tim Lame Woman shared the version passed down in the Wild Hog Family.

On a blustery spring day, the small band of Cheyenne, including many women, children and elders finally neared their destination, the Tongue River Country. Making their way to Elk River on April 1st to perform a special water ceremony they encountered the “White Hats”, the U.S. Calvary under the leadership of General Miles, “Bear Coat Miles” as the Cheyenne called him. The “White Hats” informed Little Wolf that he must surrender and turn over their rifles. That did not happen. Little Wolf explained that they were not at war; they simply and yet profoundly came home.

“This is our country and we are here to stay,” Little Wolf reportedly said. “We need our few rifles to hunt and provide for our people.”

Little Wolf’s word was good and strong. He had promised to lead his people back from Oklahoma to their beloved range in the North. He did. Knowing Little Wolf’s nature and being an honorable enemy, General Miles accepted the terms of the Cheyenne Chief, leaving the Cheyenne armed, agreeing they could stay near Fort Keogh, hunt and live under his protection. Thus, under Little Wolf, the Northern Cheyenne who reached Montana did not surrender and were at long last victorious, achieving the right to live where they had determined to be.

Little Wolf and many of his fellow warriors such as Wild Hog later became scouts for the U.S. Calvary under General Miles and also Indian police when the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was established in 1884. Miles, a great admirer helped them get the Tongue River Reservation established by Presidential Executive Order after Cheyenne scouts helped him locate Chief Joseph, then on his famous trek to Canada and helped facilitate his surrender.

In 2015, 136 years later, the descendants of those unwavering114 (in some way we are all related to them) gathered again to observe the “Little Wolf Homecoming”, the day commemorated and recognized by Tribal Council Resolution. Events included a memorial run, walk, cycle, horseback ride; speakers; solemn community walk to the Little Wolf Grave site, Lame Deer to lay a wreath and pray. Later, a community feast included speakers and traditional dancing.

“This is not a gathering for recreation,” Tim Lame Woman and Wallace Bearchum, direct descendants and event organizers, reminded. “This is a solemn thanksgiving and celebration of our existence as a people and our homeland. This honors our ancestors. This reminds us of why we are here today."

"We can never forget that,” they said with tears in their voices.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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