Third article in the series on Plains culture (matriarchy)
The Women Warriors
“Always when there is a woman in the charge, it causes the warriors to vie with one another in displaying their valor” -Rain in the Face, Lakota
Moving Robe was a Lakota woman who was a leader of the initial counter-attack against Custer’s surprise of the Sioux and Cheyenne camps at Little Big Horn. Consistent with the statement of Rain in the Face, it is clear this was not a unique event but had been repeated throughout Lakota history; because a woman’s leadership in war is long known in the Plains tradition of warfare:
“Moving Robe: One of the best-known battles in the annals of Indian-American warfare is the 1876 Battle of the Greasy Grass in Montana where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was defeated. One of those who lead the counterattack against the cavalry was the woman Tashenamani (Moving Robe)”
Next, note the Crow chief and warrior Fallen Leaf, a person of great recognition, was married to two women and this is not in any sense considered unusual:
“Fallen Leaf: While Fallen Leaf was a Crow warrior, she was actually born to the Gros Ventre nation and was captured by the Crow when she was 12. After she had counted coup four times in the prescribed Crow tradition, she was considered a chief and sat in the council of chiefs. In addition to being a war leader, she was also a good hunter and had two wives”
And we have two Cheyenne woman warriors, absolute peers to any male. The first, Buffalo Calf Robe is accorded recognition for high valor in combat, equal to any man:
“Buffalo Calf Robe: In the 1876 battle of the Rosebud in Montana, American troops under the leadership of General Crook along with their Crow and Shoshone allies fought against the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux. The Shoshone and Crow shot the horse of Cheyenne Chief Comes in Sight out from under him. As the warriors were closing in to finish him off, Buffalo Calf Robe (aka Calf Trail Woman), the sister of Comes in Sight, rode into the middle of the warriors and saved the life of her brother. This was considered to be one of the greatest acts of valor in the battle”
When I move on to Pita-makan, our famous Blackfoot war chief, there is a special noteworthiness in the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Haired Woman, per the notation of her membership in a closed (to men) women’s society:
“Ehyophsta (Yellow-Haired Woman) was a Cheyenne woman. She was the daughter of Stands-in-the-Timber. She fought in the Battle of Beecher Island in 1868, and also fought the Shoshone that same year, where she counted coup against one enemy and killed another. She fought the Shoshone again in 1869. She was also a member of a secret society composed exclusively of Cheyenne women”
With its many differing superficial details between tribes, original Plains culture (matriarchy) is remarkably consistent nevertheless:
Pita-makan was the last great awau-katsik-saki (Blackfoot woman war chief). Her story as commonly known in the literature is difficult to accept for the fact of male reporting on her history, particularly the reporting of James Willard Shulz. Shulz was a self aggrandizing liar who romanticized his life among a Christianized band of Pikuni (southern Blackfoot.) His reports were from an European male perspective, for articles he sold to eastern publications. Another complication would be any native narrative solely from the man perspective, there were distinct oral histories, the woman’s and the men’s. These histories would not differ so much in metadata content, but in the nuance of the telling and the men refraining from telling women’s aspect of the history, which is the province of women. Nearly the entirety of history reported from the Blackfeet nation has been from western cultural perspective, essentially male oriented anthropological reporting and almost all of this reporting is unreliable.
What we can reliably know is, Peta-makan was a war chief of many years. She was successful in war leadership against the Crow and Salish on multiple occasions. When she was killed during a raid, she was a war leader of the ‘Braves Society.’ Her authority as a war chief was never questioned by anyone. She never married and when at war, was considered in the eyes of the Nitsiitapi (Blackfoot law of citizenship or the wider Blackfoot community) as equal to any man. Pita-makan was highly respected by male Blackfoot society as the absolute equal of, and even superior to, many competent male warriors in combat.
What has been unknown in the literature to now but we can also reliably know is, Peta-makan would have been determined as suitable for leadership in war by the women who educated all Blackfoot children to puberty. This would have happened when the ‘Notokis’ leadership of the Pikuni tribe, made this determination. The Notokis were the Blackfoot nation’s sole (and secret) women’s society that all Blackfeet women (and only women) belonged to.
Consequently Pita-maken would have been sent with the young Blackfoot males about her age to become a ‘Moskito’ when she entered higher education at early puberty. Pita-makan’s peer group, when entering the male Moskitos society, would have averaged 9 to 12 years age and they would be a band of ‘brothers’ kept intact by tribal custom, throughout their lives. Blackfoot law would determine Peta-makan advance through subsequent Blackfoot age-determined male warrior societies, together with her peers throughout her war career. Subsequently we can know as a member of the ‘Braves’ society, she had advanced as a war leader to about age 40-44, when she had been killed in combat by the Salish.
In her personal life, Peta-makan would have had a choice of whether to live as a man or woman (she chose to be a woman and accordingly did not take a wife or wives but also did not marry any man.)
It is worth mentioning here, the women had their own warrior tradition altogether distinct from that of the men, as defenders of the camp. When the men were largely absent on the hunt or at war, the women were organized as a military force and would engage any attempted predations by enemy tribes.
The Plains women were absolutely entitled to exercise male rights and authority. When I’d initially asked Floyd HeavyRunner about a Blackfoot woman’s chief authority, whether their rank put them a par with men, his answer was the women chiefs were “a little bit higher”
Blackfoot Wild Gun’s wife in Chief Bonnet (left)
Essay 1 ‘Tobacco’
Essay 2 ‘War‘
Essay 3 ‘Women‘
Essay 4 ‘Conflict‘
Essay 5 ‘Birds‘
Collected stories, folklore and anecdotes concerning my many years life with Blackfeet Indians and traversing Native American territories