Jim Harris

Indian Military & Their Leaders

            The movies I watched as a kid and enjoyed the most were “cowboy and Indian” films, and hearing or reading the names of the actors who played the cowboy protagonists or the names of the characters they played makes me have visual reveries of some of the great moments of entertainment in my life.

            They were Wild Bill Elliot, Bob Livingston, Bob Steele, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Buster Crabbe, Smiley Bernette, Gabby Hayes, Gene Autry, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Lash LaRue, Poncho (The Cisco Kid’s sidekick), Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, John Wayne, Johnny Mack Brown, Randolph Scott, Rex Allen, Rory Calhoun, Red Ryder, and Alan Ladd.

            I saw a lot of movies even before I was in high school and really got addicted to motion pictures.

            I might have had trouble remembering all of those cowboy names if it had not been for the internet and Google, but the names trigger, if you will pardon the word, a flood of scenes and stories I first saw in the Crest Theater, and several others in the South Dallas of my youth.

            So these types of movies were called “cowboy and Indian” moving pictures.

            All of the protagonists I’ve listed are cowboys. What about the Indian parts?

            Well, for one thing, none of the Indian actors played “starring” parts.  They were at best sidekicks to the stars.  The one I remember most vividly was “Tonto,” played by Jay Silverheels. Tonto was the companion of  The Lone Ranger.  He was the faithful and quiet Indian.

            Most of the Indians in the cowboy and Indian movies were not faithful to the white people moving into the Indian territory on the plains, the Southwest, or the far West.  And they certainly were not quiet.

            Usually the Indians were screaming as they raided and scalped ranchers, farmers, miners, settlers, or whoever happened to get near members of such tribes as the Cheyenne, Souix, Lakota, or Apache.

            And the raiding Indians usually died by the dozens as they circled covered wagons or stole herds of horses.

            It won’t surprise many readers of this History Notebook that the Indian raiders were actually very good fighters and that many tribes operated very effective military machines.

            In general, Indian military operations were conducted more in guerrilla fashion than like the various United States military troops, whose battle plans were usually based on European models.

            And the cowboy and Indian movies I watched never showed an Indian general or chief off to the side of a battle directing his warriors in the combat theater.

            However, there were many great military leaders in the dozens of Native American tribes.  I will mention just four of those in this brief essay:  Wolf Robe, Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, and Sitting Bull.

            Not as well known as the other three chiefs, Wolf Robe was a Southern Cheyenne, a tribe whose plains territory extended all the way to Oklahoma, also known as Indian Territory.

            Oklahoma is where Wolf Robe died in 1910.  Oklahoma is the burial ground for many well-known Indians since many of the tribes were placed on reservations in the state. Wolf Robe was born around 1840, and he was a chief during the era of reservation establishment following the Civil War.

            After serving as the chief of a formidable Cheyenne fighting force, he was responsible for helping to relocate his people without the bloodbaths that many tribes experienced.  After decades of military successes against Arapaho, Blackfeet, and Pawnee, Wolf Robe saw that the white Americans would slaughter his people if they did not surrender to the reservations of Oklahoma.

            Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas were both Apache war chiefs who became famous historical figures for their fighting prowess.  Both of them lived and fought in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and the southeastern corner of Arizona, and both thought of northern Mexico as part of their tribal territory.

            Mangas was tortured and murdered when he came in peace with a white flag to talk to US military leaders in what is now the Gila Wilderness in southwestern Colorado.

            Geronimo is probably the Native American who has most been a character in American fiction and film.  A great leader of his people and a fierce fighter, he died in Oklahoma in 1909 following a fall from a horse and a January night spent on the ground in very cold weather.

            In 1993 director Walter Hill made an excellent movie about Geronimo.  Titled “Geronimo: An American Legend,” it starred New Mexico actor Wes Studi as Geronimo and included several fine actors, including Jason Patric, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, and Matt Damon.

            I think of this as a great cowboy and Indian movie. Maybe it should be called an “Indian and Cowboy” film.  Or take out the cowboy and put in “cavalry soldier.”  It is a far cry from the types of cowboy and Indian movies I watched as a kid.

            The final war chief in this short essay is also one of America’s most famous Indian leaders.

            Sitting Bull, like Geronimo, became the subject of dozens of books and films.  He was a war chief and a civil chief and a medicine man.  Some weeks before the battle of Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull had a vision of American cavalry soldiers dying in a huge battle in which Indians were victorious.

            It was Northern Cheyenne warriors who defeated George Armstrong Custer on June 25, 1876.  Those Indians had been influenced by Sitting Bull’s prophesy of dominant tribal victories that would turn the tide of white people taking Indian lands on the plains and across the continent. 

            Sitting Bull was killed by US Indian Agency policemen when they attempted to arrest him on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota on Dec. 15, 1890.  He was 58 or 59 years old.

            The reality of Native American life in the 19thcentury wasn’t like the Indian life depicted in the movies I saw as a child and a teen.

            Today watching those movies from the  nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties, those starring Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger, I see individuals and their biographies much differently than I did decades ago.

            That is particularly true of the native characters in the “cowboy and Indian” films.

            I still enjoy watching what we now call “westerns,” but I see them with thoughts of wanting to know more about the realities of the fictions that were so entertaining and instructive.