Listen To Article
Just exactly why the Fool Soldiers decided to rescue the hostages White Lodge and his band had captured–and abused–is a question no one will ever answer with certainty, but their almost nonsensical act of bravery and heroism had to have cause.
In August of 1862, the Dakota War began with sudden, shocking brutality, its bloody hands reaching all the way down to Lake Shetek, in southwest Minnesota, where one day White Lodge and his Santee warriors killed fifteen homesteaders and took eight hostages, two women and six children.
The war that August ended as abruptly as it began, but the savage outrage did not. It culminated in an event as hideous in retrospect as anything perpetuated by White Lodge—the mass hanging of 38 Santees. That impossible event occurred after President Lincoln himself had cut the list of those to be hanged from over 300 to 38. He returned his verdict within a week of signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Meanwhile, White Lodge and his band took off north and west, far into the Dakota Territory, touching base when they could with others, hoping for food and shelter. Those other bands knew kinship with the rebel Santee could spell harm should the cavalry discover White Lodge among them. One of those bands, Tetons, Two Kettle Sioux, gave them food but would not permit White Lodge to stay for fear of their own lives. Some young men listened to their elders make decisions regarding the visitors–and their abused hostages–and then, sometime later, decided, impossibly, to take on the rescue of those women and children and bring them home. That Two Kettle warrior lodge was called then—and yet today—”the Fool Soldier band” because many simply assumed they were fools.
The Fool Soldiers left their village in cold, blizzardy winter and went north for almost 100 miles in search of the Santees. Hands, feet, and noses froze. When, finally, they found White Lodge and his warriors, the Santees were anything but neighborly. Being on the run made them even more desperate—and they were starving. The hostages were human capital; giving them up to these fools made no sense. In addition, his band of warriors were not afraid to die or to kill. But the Fool Soldiers had not come to fight, but to bargain away their own blankets and guns and horses.
The Santees drove a hard bargain and the young Two Kettles had to give up most all of their worldly possessions to affect release. Only one horse and wagon were left to carry the weak and distraught captives all the way back to Ft. Pierre. But they’d accomplished the release. They’d risked death, to win the lives of the hostages.
But the question remains: why risk life and limb to help those white people? What could have crept into the souls of those young men to believe it was in the best interests of everyone if someone—why not Fool Soldiers? —would take those hostages back to their loved ones?
The traditional answer to that question, historians say, is a good one—there was a vision. Some years before, one of the men, Kills and Comes Back, received the kind of revelation Lakota people respected, this dream telling him to organize a group of young men. He gathered his friends and they consulted a respected medicine men named Charging Dog, who shaped the revelation this way:
As a medicine man I do not always get riches, but the good I do my fellow tribesmen is something to strive for. We may be brave in battle, but as everybody knows we do not live long, and to do each other harm in our camp is very bad. I have seen a lot of it during my life. I believe the hardest thing for anybody to do is to do good to others, but it makes their hearts rejoice.
That’s how, traditionally, the folly of the Fool Soldiers’ has been explained–it began with a vision to take on a quest only a fool would attempt.
But there is another.
When her nine children were out and on their own, Josephine Waggoner, a Hunkpapa Sioux from Standing Rock reservation, went on a mission. What was happening all around was the deaths of the old ones, who remembered the days before the white man. Those men and women were dying.
Waggoner had learned English at the Hampton Institute. When she returned to Standing Rock, she translated sermons for both the Episcopalians and the Roman Catholics, as well as the letters Sitting Bull, also a Hunkpapa and a celebrity, received from lots of fans. When Sitting Bull was killed, she’d helped lay his body out in traditional burial ways. But in her later years, Josephine Waggoner told herself she’d get the old, old stories from the old, old men and women.
What resulted is a sprawling oral history project taken directly from the heart and the lips of the old ones. The manuscript she put together took years to publish because oral history had no footnotes and thus couldn’t be documented. “How ever can we trust the veracity of what some old people say?” publishers told her. So Josephine Waggoner’s Witness: A Hunkpapa Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakota wasn’t published until 2014, long after her death.
In Witness, she offers another way to explain the almost insane sacrificial foolishness of the Fool Soldiers. She hears it from a man named Mad Bear, who was one of them. Mad Bear offered an alternate explanation, a motivation I’d never seen before:
When Father DeSmet came to Fort Pierre in 1851, it was an event to be remembered by the Indians. Cholera had taken its toll from the lives of the people; there was suffering everywhere, and to cap the climax, smallpox was coming on. The Indians were in terror, but the good Father had had the cholera the year before as he traveled up the Missouri in a steamboat and had also had the smallpox. He was familiar with the treatment of these diseases, and he went from tent to tent relieving the sick and baptizing the dying. Many Indians remarked on the mercy of a man whose religion took him to minister to those with the dread diseases. Many a man, woman, and child were saved from death. At this time Mad Bear was a mere lad of about fourteen years, but like many at the time, was greatly influenced and impressed by the principles of the black-robed priest.
Ten years later, some of these young warriors who Father DeSmet had taught formed a society. They pledged themselves to uphold what was right, always to do good as far as they could, and to right all wrongs that came their way. These men who formed the first Christian society west of the Missouri River among the wild tribes were. . .The society called themselves Strong Hearts, but because they did so many unusual things in fulfilling their pledge to keep law and order and in punishing many a lawless man, the other Indians called them Fool Soldiers.
When I stumbled on Waggoner’s explanation a couple years ago, it took my breath away. DeSmet’s image stands tall in the stained glass of almost every Native Catholic church west of the Missouri River, and with good reason: he was a gentle, honest man, a true voice of the Christian faith, a white man Native people trusted.
I’m not sure anyone could build an airtight case to explain how it was that a few young men took it upon themselves to trek 100 miles through frozen snow drifts, only to walk into danger in the camp of a rebel killer. Did the Fool Soldiers get their sense of mission from a vision, a very Native source? –or might it have been, as Mad Bear told Josephine Waggoner, the loving witness of Father DeSmet who created, in them, “the first Christian society west of the Missouri?”
But then, why should I “either/or” this mystery? Might their foolishness have taken shape from both sources?
I don’t suppose anyone will ever know.
Mrs. Waggoner, a devout Roman Catholic, sure as anything held her prejudices, just as all of us do.
Just the same, I want to believe her story, to believe the Fool Soldiers’ moral compass was created or simply shaped by the loving witness of a black robe who had come among them on a mission, quite simply, to care, a story, even today, a century and more later, whose hope springs eternal.
At the top of the page, the hostages–two women and six children–are pictured soon after the Fool Soldiers returned them to Ft. Pierre.
As a young man, Oscar Howe, who would become a famous Lakota artist, illustrated the return of the Fool Soldiers, with hostages, in a series of murals he created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Those murals still appear on the ceiling of the Mobridge (SD) Town Hall.
How Father DeSmet received immunity is a sad but powerful story you can read or hear here: https://www.kwit.org/featured-programs/2018-07-09/death-and-immunity-on-the-missouri-river-1851