Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: The Controversial warriors
How are you all doing on this Sunday afternoon? Here, on the West Coast, clouds are looming
and it is thus the perfect afternoon to be writing on my site 🙂 Over the past months, I have come across some paintings, by artist James Bama among others. If you follow my Facebook page, you would have seen some of those paintings. I was intrigued by one of those paintings titled Cheyenne Dog Soldier so I began researching the topic of Dog Soldiers. What I found was a story of warriors who came together to help their people. However, the story is not as black and white as that. Whereas some would consider them heroes, some would consider them a military group whose power got the best of them. Which one is it? Well let’s start from the beginning and look at the story of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.
The Cheyenne and their societies
The Cheyenne people, a Plains tribe, were known to hold their own against even the fiercest of opponents. They had the fight in them and stood their ground. As with other Plains tribes, they were organized into societies with their own rules, privileges and duties. Each had their own songs and dances that distinguished them. The Dog Soldiers society was one of six military societies of the Cheyenne Indians. Beginning in the early 1800’s, this society played an important role in Cheyenne resistance (as I said they had the fight in them) to American expansion in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, where the Cheyenne had settled in the early 19th Century.
The formation of the Dog Soldiers society
The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers society was a “military” society put in place to regulate the members of the tribe, to regulate social problems among the tribe such as theft and murder. The oral tradition says that Sweet Medicine, the Cheyenne’s cultural hero, wished to find a solution to those problems. Thus he went into Black Hills country (yes the same Black Hills that the US government wants to currently take over from the Indigenous people of the land) to find answers. He then encountered a group of older men and women who told him that to solve the Cheyenne’s problem, a “good government” needed to be put into place. And this good government had to be formed of a council of 44 chiefs. Further, military societies had to be formed to provide policing and protection. So eventually, six military societies were formed including the Dog Soldiers. The Dog Soldiers rose among their peers to a position of prominence and power. They aimed to train their members and preserve traditions.
Another version of the beginnings of the Dog Soldiers and how they came into their name is the following. A young man without any influence, but chosen by the Great Prophet, tried to rally some of his companions to form a society. As no one would listen to him in the camp circle, he became sad, prayed to the Great Prophet and began singing at sunset. As the people fell asleep in their lodges, the dogs, small and big, howled and whined as the man sang. As he left the camp circle, all the dogs followed him, as he sang four times before reaching his destination at sunrise. He then sat by a tree facing north and all the dogs immediately went in front of him in a semi-circle. As they laid their heads down, a lodge suddenly sprang up around the man. As the dogs entered the lodge, they became humans dressed like the Dog Soldiers. The young man listened and watched as the Dog Men began to sing and dance their own music. The Dog Men blessed the man promising him that his wishes would become reality. The next day as he asked again who wanted to form a society, hundreds joined and he directed them to sing and dance like the Dog Men. Both versions of the formation of the Dog Soldiers are encountered in the oral tradition. I think the main point of both versions is that the society was there to protect using their own traditions, duties and privileges. Let’s then look at what they were
The Dog Soldiers traditions
It is said that each society, the Dog Soldiers included, had their own symbols, dances, songs and traditions. In regard to their outfits, the Dog Soldiers wore not only a whistle made of bird (typically an eagle) bone but also a belt made of four skunk skins. They carried a bow and arrow and a rattle shaped like a snake to accompany their songs. Further, the four bravest leaders in battle wore a dog rope (sashes made of tanned skin) across their chest. The sash passed over the right shoulder and hung to the ground under the left arm and was decorated with porcupine quills and eagle feathers. Tradition says that to each dog rope was attached a picket-pin (the kind you would use to secure a horse to the ground). While in combat, the pin was put into the ground as a sign of perseverance and standing one’s ground. The soldier was then effectively staked to the ground and could not move. They would do that in battle to allow their brothers’ safe retreat. The Dog Soldiers had to remain there in place until every one reached safety or someone relieved them. Even if it meant death. The Cheyenne tall and proud.
Those men were there to not only keep peace but also to guide their companions. For example, in the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, when the Cheyenne joined the Lakota Sioux against General Custer, it is said that the Dog Soldiers advised the rest of the troops to stand down until the white man attacked. They told the troops to stay put patrolling the grounds making sure no one took it upon themselves to go after the white man first. Why? For the welfare of the whole group, for the welfare of the people. So they stood united. And as we know the strategy worked as Custer decided to attack even though he was unprepared and outnumbered, thus fighting his last battle.
However, power can get to one’s head…..
However, probably like in any other military societies, power got the best of some of the Dog Soldiers. Although individual punishment was not approved or sanctioned, some soldiers took it upon themselves to enforce rules furiously. Due some of their actions, and at times, what seemed like abuse of power, some of the Dog Soldiers (who had been led by Porcupine Bear, were ostracized from their village and tribe. They then became governed by their own band chiefs and lived outside of the main camp. The Dog Soldiers camp became independent from the main camp and new recruits understood they would have to move from the main camp. Seen as more extremists than before, the Dog Soldiers began attracting the more militant of the warriors fighting for the land and their boundaries.
By the 1860’s, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and some of the Lakota warriors had joined forces (working together in the Battle of Little Bighorn as previously stated). Together, they became more persistent and defiant. Some warriors also decided to go against the majority of the Cheyennes by opposing the civil chiefs who wished for peace. The Dog Soldiers had prestige and strength and often chose war over peace. The rest of the tribe often following suit. This led to many conflicts among their own people, with the Cheyenne people who wished for peace. Tribes were divided and the Dog Soldiers somewhat lost sight of their original mission: to think of the welfare of the whole group.
The legacy of the Dog Soldiers
Nonetheless, the Dog Soldiers remain figures that one looks up to in the oral tradition. They remain a form of heroes, even though they became separate from the Cheyenne. They remain respected and revered.
Indeed, though the Dog Soldiers never approached the political and military power they once had, they remained revered by other Cheyenne. Respect is given to the society still today. Young Cheyenne are still recruited into this soldier clan. During the twentieth century, Dog Soldiers also served with the United States military in World War I and II and in the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf region. The image of the brave Dog Soldier carries on.
So in the end, the Dog Soldiers had the right intentions: to keep the peace and to attend to the welfare of the whole group. They were brave men who stood their ground, and were not afraid to fight for what they had (or to keep what they had). However, power can be attractive (it is said to be an acquired need) and the story of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers is an example. Nonetheless, a group that still commands respect for their bravery. I leave you with a short video showing the beauty of the Cheyenne people. Enjoy!
Had you heard of the Dog Soldiers? What are your thoughts on them? Comment below and I will answer 🙂
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