072d516f0fd8f5d446d195d181e8c788

By Anonymous

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.

— // —

“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.”

— // —

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.

Recommended For You

41 Responses to Contest Entry: The Thunderstick

  1. Nice story , cool gift , great man .
    Appreciate the occasional break from government intrusion in our times , even though the story was somewhat about government intrusion in another time .
    The age old truth , give a man a little power and some accolades and a title and he begins to think he is God .
    I truthfully did enjoy the tale , thanks for posting it .

  2. Heroes are born. Never wanting wealth or recognition. Their, our, wealth is in the memories of the past. Let us not judge but instead learn…and we will all be better for it!

    Kind warrior….may I simply touch such a weapon?

    • @Charlie; Lol, thanks for the laugh. At least you are honest. I read the whole thing and enjoyed it. But about the middle I wondered when if it would end or if it was a novella.

    • Reminded me of “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” I really enjoyed it when I was a kid, but I tried to read it again a couple of years ago and just could not get into it.

  3. I am blessed to get to teach American History including the Westward Expansion and the clash of native and settler cultures to high school students. I cover the Battle of Little Big Horn (I have been there twice). One of the things I ask my students to write about is the differences in values of the native and settler cultures and to consider if they were incompatible. Finally after considerable discussion my students came to a conclusion. One culture was modern and one was technologically mostly of the stone age, but intellectually one valued material wealth while the other valued honor.

    • Huh? First, technology only confers a temporary advantage on those who possess it over those who don’t. Check out the aforementioned Indians use of Henry Repeating rifles in The Battle of Big Horn. Second, native Americans were just as resource driven as the Europeans. In fact, all humans are resource driven. As for the role of “honor,” have your students Google Native American torture techniques. I’m not sure how honorable that was.

    • “intellectually one valued material wealth while the other valued honor.”

      That is a terribly naive oversimplification of cultural differences. There is likely some truth to it, but it smells like liberal revisionistic history. Again, I think you are partly right, but life is almost always more complicated than that.

      • It is a simplification and only a partial explanation. But still respect the the values it represents.

      • And it’s especially complicated when you consider that the two cultures had widely different concepts of what constituted both “wealth” and “honor”. To me, the statement is pretty meaningless.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It reminded me of another story told by another Native American elder… One that foretold of the children of the wasichu would become the natives. Isn’t that what is happening? We hold the natural rights enshrined in the constitution as sacred while the Government is more and more trying to erode them for the greed of those who lust for power.

    • One that foretold of the children of the wasichu would become the natives. Isn’t that what is happening? Well, Saxons and Franks interbreeding with Cherokees is moving things in that direction.

  5. Good stuff.
    One day, I will walk that area with a metal detector and find me a shell casing or spent bullet to keep with my other keepsakes.

    • Forget shell casings – I’m going to be on the lookout for the “Yellow rocks” they keep talking about.

    • I have a couple pieces of .44 rimfire brass with “H” stamped on the case heads.

      They’re black with age, and one of them is kind of dented–they’ve seen a lot of time go by.

      A few years ago, a 90-something old guy died back in my southern Utah hometown, and his family threw away almost everything he had ever owned. It’s a truly tiny town, and its garbage service consists of a single dumpster that’s emptied by a county truck once a week, and being close to the end of the week, there wasn’t room in the dumpster for all the old man’s possessions. Being the buttheads they were, his so-called family piled stuff on the roadside next to the dumpster and slunk away to whatever pestilent urban area they had crawled out of, leaving their unwanted “junk” for someone else pick up and throw away.

      Well, people in small towns like this one tend to be really familiar with their neighbors, and it being a poor town in the poorest county in the state, they’re very thrifty, too. Nothing gets thrown away if there’s the smallest chance it could be reused later or given to someone else who really needs it, so this episode caused quite a stir and no small amount of outrage.

      On her morning walk, before the rest of the town had awoken to the atrocity (I’m a night-owl oddity spawned by insanely early risers), my mom noticed a box whose contents had been spilled out onto the road. The bullet casings caught her eye. She knows that I appreciate items with history behind them, and they looked old and unusual, so she picked them up and handed them to me a few months later at our annual family reunion.

      I find myself wondering when and where they were fired. And why. Hunting? Self-defense? Maybe they were keepsakes from the old guy’s first time shooting his grandpa’s old Henry. Maybe they’re relics of war.

      Why did that old guy have them? Nobody knows.

      Now they sit in a plastic box in my gun safe, just a few inches away from the spot where my Springfield XDm compact 9mm rests when I’m not carrying it. I like the juxtaposition.

      • Thanks DZ for the story.
        On my place in central Texas I have found 3 .44 rimfire cartridge cases within a few feet of each other and square nails nearby. 3 valuable cartridges in one place must have had a story. We assume there was a squatters shack here in No Man’s Land.

    • And one day, you’ll go to jail with a felony beef on your record. See the 1906 American Antiquities Act, and the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

  6. Little Big Horn was a minor skirmish compared to the battles around Fort Recovery Ohio, on the banks of the Wabash River, which at this point is more of a creek. Ohio and Indiana had much better and bigger Native American versus European battles than the West ever did. It took several campaigns for Europeans to conquer the area about what is now Fort Wayne Indiana.

      • Both sides, white and indian, were masters of looting those they killed. Nobody left a firearm of any sort laying as they rode away from a massacre.

        This story smells of made up.

  7. Reads like a kid’s book. Jim Beckwourth (various spellings) was a black/white mountain man who became a chief of the Crows…for about 20 years. He wrote a very good autobiography (if you want to know more about Indians). He kept the best house in Santa Fe at one time. He and Kit Carson knew one another but never rode together. In his book he talks of the Indian slaves and just how abusive the men were to their women. And so was he…in fitting in. Beckwourth, CA is named after him. He found the first trail through that part of the country and had a ranch there. Quite a guy, all-in-all. Finally poisoned by his own group of Crows….(but that is up for debate).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *