Ben Takes the Gun was a 95-year old, full-blooded Oglala Lakota that lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He had a penchant for wearing cowboy hats and shirts, and wore his grayed waist-length hair in two braids. He was an old hunter and WWII veteran, in fact during the war Ben was inducted into the Code Talker program of the U.S. Army. He served in the Pacific with what he called the “Lakota Code Talkers,” men that transmitted tactical military information in their native language during engagements with the Japanese army . . .
At his age Takes the Gun was moving slower, his horse-riding days were behind him, but mentally he remained as sharp as an arrow. Since he was a fluent speaker of Lakota and well versed in the traditions of his people, there were many who sought him out for his knowledge. John “Strikes Many” Rondell was one such person.
The twenty-four year old Rondell lived off the reservation and was a student at Black Hills State University. He visited Takes the Gun on a solemn anniversary for the Lakota, their victory over General George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Army that occurred on June 25, 1876 at the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Whites call the fight the “Battle of the Little Bighorn.” The Lakota celebrate the event annually with a horse ride to the old battle field, a reenactment of the fight, spiritual rituals, dances, feasts, and even an academic symposia.
Takes the Gun welcomed the young man into his Pine Ridge home, and Rondell fully expected to be swept away by the elder’s remarkable stories about Lakota history. What he did not foresee was a rare treasure being placed into his hands to connect him with that history. The two sat in the living room, with Ben sitting in his favorite chair decorated with a beautifully designed Star Quilt made in his honor. Rondell sat cross-legged at the feet of the grizzled old warrior.
After a long pause, Takes the Gun recited the following oral history.
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“I am going to tell you the story of one of my relations, who died on this day in 1876 fighting Yellow Hair Custer and his Long Knives.
Walks In Forest was from the Oglala band of the Lakota. He was born along the Powder River in 1840. As a boy his grandmother had named him ‘Walks In Forest’ because of his closeness to mother earth and his fondness for all the four-legged and winged beings. He was the youngest boy of the warrior named Red Beak and his wife, She Who Dances. Their older boy, born two years earlier, was named Whirlwind.
Walks In Forest was often found alone, meandering through the lodge pole pines listening to the birds and learning their songs. He would sit on the powder-like sandy banks of the Powder River to watch the golden brown cutthroat trout swim. Now and then he walked off into the night to lay on his back and stare into the blackness of the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of Wakinyan, the powerful Thunderbird spirit whose voice makes thunder and whose eyes shoot lightning.
When he was seven years old his father, a soldier in the Crow Owners warrior society, began to teach him the ways of men. The Crow Owners policed the village, but also trained young hunters and warriors, teaching them the moral code and ethos befitting a warrior. Like other Crow Owners, Red Beak wore a stuffed crow on his head or around his neck, because the bird possessed powerful medicine. Red Beak carried a buffalo hide shield emblazoned with a black pictogram of a large crow, its wings outstretched. The boy thought his father sauntered like the bird, alert and confident, and he was also aware of his father’s intelligent crow-like gaze, especially when his father was sizing him up during a lesson.
Red Beak wished his arrows to ‘fly as straight as the crow,’ and he hoped to be the first to fall upon the enemies of the Lakota, much like the crow is the first to fall upon the dead. Red Beak taught Walks In Forest that being a Crow Owner was to live with honor, which meant taking up the sacred duty of defending the people with one’s life. That was the true path for a man.
One day Red Beak returned from a scouting trip, his scouting party had seen thousands of pale strangers on Lakota land. He called them ‘wasichu,’ and said the hairy men from the east were cutting down forests and digging up the earth in search of a yellow rock. Red Beak called it the rock that makes the white man crazy. He warned that they were killing all the buffalo and other four-leggeds with a powerful medicine object called a ‘thunder stick.’ His said his warriors found a lone wasichu digging for the yellow rock who used such a stick to try and kill them; Red Beak killed him first and took the thunder stick and its bag of iron medicine. Walks In Forest thought these wasichu were dangerous and that his people should avoid them.
By the time Walks In Forest was ten-years old, Red Beak had taught him how to track, kill, and dress small game. But the boy took a giant step towards manhood by killing his first buffalo calf during a hunt, doing so with the bow and arrows he made himself. As news of the first kill spread throughout the village, Red Beak gave away a horse in his son’s honor. Walks In Forest dreamt of one day inheriting his father’s thunder stick, then he could take many buffalo. He was close to becoming a man, but first he needed to make a vision quest.
When he was eleven years old the boy asked the village holy man, Refuse To Go, for guidance in his vision quest. Seeing something in the boy, the holy man, an elder wise beyond his years, agreed to help. He purified the boy in a sweat lodge ceremony with song, prayer, and the burning of sweetgrass. He told Walks In Forest of a rocky plateau high in the woods; he was to go there and pray and fast without water, food, or sleep for four days, or until the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka gave him a vision.
During the fourth night of his vision quest, Walks In Forest stood shivering in the frigid night air, crying aloud for a vision that would make him a man and show him how to live. Perched on the high rocky outcrop, he stood naked in the dark, when a chill wind began to blow. He heard the flapping of giant wings, felt unsteady, and the ground beneath him seemed to spin. He went limp and crumbled to the earth, just like his first buffalo calf did when his arrow found its mark. Walks In Forest passed out, and so a vision swept over him on a windstorm in the blackness of night.
In his vision the stars in the sky grew radiant, he winced at their brightness. He heard the booming of thunderclaps as the stars began to twirl and spark, was it the Thunderbird sky spirit? Then came a terrifying sight, hundreds of wasichu dressed in blue fell from the sky, and they were bloody. Walks In Forest felt them crushing him. Then he saw an apparition of a fiery thunder stick floating to earth as it thundered and made lighting. All at once a black rabbit filled the sky from horizon to horizon, the stars were the light in its eyes. Like so much fat tossed into a fire, the falling wasichu popped and sizzled away. They dissipated like blood in water. The spirit rabbit bounded to the safety of a sky full of stars. Walks In Forest had become a man. When he awoke he was reborn as Black Rabbit.
Many moons later Black Rabbit belonged to the Badger Society, a group of warriors that took the badger as their medicine animal because it fiercely protected its own at all costs, even defeating bears in battle! He had married a young woman named Blue Magpie and had become a respected hunter and provider, so much so that after a good hunt he gifted meat to the poor of his village.
In 1876, Black Rabbit’s people started a small village where the Little Powder runs into the Powder River. One day he took his favorite black horse and went alone into the forest to hunt. After a day of tracking he killed a large bull elk. He skinned, deboned, and carved up the animal, placed the meat on the hide, hair side out, and tied it up; the bundle formed a natural sled that easily slid over the snow. Tying the elk sled to his horse, he made his way back to the village, all the while imagining the joy of people receiving hundreds of pounds of fresh meat.
When he reached the ridge that overlooked his village, he could hardly believe his eyes. The painted teepees erected in a ring to represent the circle of life, had been turned into a circle of death. Lodges were slashed and burned, others had skeletonized lodge poles that were still smoldering; the bodies of his people lay on the cold ground. In the distance Black Rabbit could see a retreating column of Blue Coat soldiers, their long knives glistening in the sun. Forgetting the elk meat, he whipped his horse into a gallop and went racing to his village.
He entered the wrecked lodge of his mother and father; they were both dead. The pony soldiers had taken Red Beak’s scalp. As rage engulfed him, Black Rabbit grabbed his father’s thunder stick and beaded bag of iron medicine. Of all the beautiful things in the lodge that belonged to She Who Dances, he took the brass studded belt that held her steel awl and its porcupine quill decorated case, a strike-a-light pouch with flint and steel for fire making, and her big sharp knife with its carved deer antler handle. He then bolted to his own teepee to find Blue Magpie.
She was naked and under a pile of buffalo robes; to his horror, the wasichu had killed her too. His agony was so great he could only put his head in his hands and cry. His tears were interrupted by the wailing of women and elders, who, having scattered for hiding places in the hills at the start of the attack, were now re-entering the village to find their lives devastated.
Black Rabbit’s brother Whirlwind just returned from his own hunt, and both wanted to go after the Pony Soldiers. But when faced with the women, children, and elders shivering from fear that the wasichu would return to kill them, the brothers knew they had to get the people to safety. They decided to go to the camp of Crazy Horse, which was near the Bighorn River. After weeks of travel, they found the encampment along the Little Bighorn River, and Crazy Horse welcomed the weary travelers, making sure each had a place to live. His camp was part of a huge village made up of some 10,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The days were warm, the grass tall and green, and the hunting good.
During this time the Lakota held their annual sun dance. Pressed to surrender their way of life and live like white men on reservations, all were praying for renewal. Like the other sun dancers, Black Rabbit wore a ring of sage on his head, and for days he danced around the sacred cottonwood tree as he prayed, bled himself, and stared at the sun. On the third day, weak and traumatized, he once again heard the flapping of giant wings before he collapsed. The spirit rabbit appeared to him afresh, but this time the celestial rabbit was made of stars that contained the face of his father. When he awoke he was in the sun dancers lodge, where medicine men helped with his recovery.
Days later, having regained his strength, he was once again in his own teepee. He took his mother’s sharp steel awl and engraved an image on the metal of his father’s thunder stick, a picture to honor the spirit of Red Beak, soldier of the Crow Owners. In his heart Black Rabbit knew he would soon carry the thunder stick into battle. A week later came the late afternoon of June 25, 1876, and Longhair Custer and his Pony Soldiers would attack the village along the Little Bighorn River.
Black Rabbit prepared himself for war by painting his face, chest, and arms black, and daubing them with spots of white representing the twirling stars of his vision. He put on a badger pelt hat decorated with circular mirrors to blind his enemies, and wore only a loin cloth and moccasins. Under his belt he wore a fighting knife in a beaded scabbard. He outfitted himself with his father’s thunder stick and bag of iron medicine. He painted his black hunting horse with white spots, and placed a simple war bridle of leather through the horse’s mouth; he would use no other gear on the horse, and would ride bareback into battle.
Many warriors saw Black Rabbit charging Custer’s Long Knives on his horse, they say he did so while blowing on his eagle bone whistle and firing his thunder stick. It is said that his last words were ‘Hokahey! Red Beak, She Who Dances, Blue Magpie! Black Rabbit is a man! It is a good day to die!’ It was the last time anyone saw him alive. The next day Whirlwind found his body, he and members of the Badger Society buried him in a secret place. The Lakota and their friends had killed Custer and his Blue Coats, 263 of them. Then the great village broke up and the people scattered in all directions.”
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With his story completed Ben Takes the Gun took a deep breath, sat back in his chair, and closed his eyes; there was a long silence. He opened one eye to see Rondell still sitting there cross-legged on the floor, wearing a faraway but blissful expression. Old Ben slowly got up from his chair and said in a low voice, “There is one more thing I want to share with you,” before ambling off into an adjacent room. He returned with a beaded and fringed leather bag, a rifle scabbard.
Before placing it on the rickety wooden table before him, he told young Rondell, “This is a rifle that was found on the Greasy Grass battlefield. It was passed on to me through the generations. I have shown it to only a few trusted friends, so you must not tell anyone. This belongs to my family and the Lakota nation.” Awestruck, and with eyes as wide as saucers, Rondell stuttered, “You, you mean… it came from the Battle of the Little Bighorn?!” Old Ben smiled wryly and said “Yes, where we gave Long Hair Custer and his Long Knives arrow shirts to wear!”
With that he gently pulled an antique gun from the bag, and laying it gingerly on the table began to teach young Rondell.
“This is an original 1860 Henry Rifle in .44 caliber, and it’s in great condition, ‘cept for the dings and scratches. Under the barrel the tubular magazine held fifteen bullets, with one in the chamber you’d have sixteen. The white men used to call the gun a ‘sixteen shooter’ on account of it.” Old Ben pointed with his wrinkled hand at the brass framed rifle. “That is the lever you’d stroke downward to load a new bullet into the chamber and eject a spent casing, that’s why they called this a repeating rifle, it was the first of its kind. Custer’s Blue Coats used the single-shot 1873 Springfield rifle in .45-70, so we had ’em outgunned.”
Finally, Ben asked young Rondell to pick up the Henry Rifle and inspect it. “Go ahead, look closely at the receiver, just above the trigger. What do you there see my young friend?”
Rondell held the rifle close and cast his gaze upon the brass of the receiver, which, though pitted, was still shiny over a hundred years later. He noticed some strange incised markings, and staring with greater scrutiny, made out a crude engraving.
It was a pictogram of a large crow, its wings outstretched.