Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Tim Nolting
Columnist 

A Boy Called Slon-Ha

 


He was the only son born to his Hunkpapa Sioux parents and the source of considerable pride for them. It was an honor for his parents to have been blessed by the birth of a son and he would continue to bring honor to his parents and himself in later years as well. He would become a mighty hunter, a great warrior, respected holy man and a revered leader of his people.

It was the year 1831, the Winter-when-Yellow-Eyes-Played-in-the Snow, in March, the Moon-of-the-Popping-Trees, that the boy came quietly into this world. The lodge, where he was born, was on the south bank of the Ree River at a place called Many-Caches, so named because of the presence of several old storage pits that had been dug along the river’s banks. Today, the place is known as Bullhead, South Dakota near the Grand River.

When his name was chosen, by his parents, it was in recognition of his inherent characteristic of caution and careful curiosity. His actions were deliberate, methodical and with purpose, never hasty or impulsive. The literal translation of his name, Slon-Ha, from the Sioux language to Anglo-European would be “Slow.” And so it was, that in his first fourteen years he was known to all in his village as Slon-Ha.

As a toddler, he enjoyed the carefree life of a boy-child, playing and exploring alongside his father and uncles. No sooner had he grown steady in gait and stride on his adolescent legs than his father gifted him with his first pony. His short and pliable limbs slowly warped to the shape of his pony’s sides and left him a little more than slightly bow-legged. Early on, his father taught him the importance of a swift horse, for those who led the hunt, those who rode first into battle were those whose deeds would be told at feasts and celebrations around the campfires of the people. He would become known for his fast horses as well as for his bravery.

His father was a hunter and so Slon-Ha was trained early on in the skills required to provide food for the tribe. As a small boy he played with the other boys in the camp and competed in games of skill with bow and arrow, his slow, methodical ways proving valuable in consistent marksmanship. Early targets of birds and rabbits soon progressed to antelope and deer and at only ten years of age he killed his first buffalo. Later in life, as a young man, he would be chosen to be a member of the Strong Hearts, a select group within the tribe responsible for providing meat for the village. And even later, he would join the elite clan of Midnight Strong Hearts, responsible for not only organizing the hunts but also the protection of his people’s hunting ground, against the encroachment of other tribes and the ever-increasing numbers of emigrant ‘whites’.

Before his people, the Hunkpapa Sioux, and his cousins the Brule Sioux and the Oglala Sioux were forced onto the government subsidized reservations, he and his Midnight Strong Heart brothers would routinely kill thirty thousand buffalo a year to feed his people. His last hunt, in the early 1870s, would occur at a time when the great herds of the plains, numbering in the millions, had been reduced to less than 500 harassed and weary beasts.

But during his boyhood, before the glory and burdens of leadership, he was ever present around the victory fires as warriors told and retold their stories of battle. He witnessed the praise and admiration of his people toward those whose exploits of bravery were celebrated. And he was eager to join the ranks of warriors, impatient for his chance at war. He watched as war parties prepared for battle and rode off, painted and fearsome, into the distance then returned victorious to the shouts of praise and ululations of grief. The words of his teachers echoed in his head, “It is better to lie naked than to rot on a scaffold”.

It had been four years since Slon-Ha had killed his first buffalo at the young age of ten years. He was now fourteen and though still only a boy, he was eager to prove himself a man and war was the best way to prove it.

Slon-Ha was neither unfamiliar with nor naive about the consequences of war. He, like all other Sioux children, grew up knowing that enemy attack might occur at any time. As a small child, Slon-Ha had slept with his moccasins on his feet so that he would be ready to run if his mother grabbed him by the hand and fled as their enemies raided their camp. He had seen many faces of death, watched the tortures of prisoners brought in by his uncles and heard the keening of mothers and wives who had lost sons and husbands. But still he longed for the glory of battle.

Slon-Ha’s father and others had formed a war party and were preparing to ride from camp in search of glory, scalps and horses. The warriors had mounted their horses and were quietly leaving their lodges when Slon-Ha decided that his time had come. Quickly he prepared his pony, gathered his weapons, a boys shield, a bow with blunt tipped hunting arrows and followed. When he caught up with the war party of nearly twenty warriors, including his father, he saw the look of disapproval of those who watched him and sensed that he was unwelcome. He rode bravely up to his father who stood patiently waiting.

Slon-Ha slid gracefully from his ponies back and faced his father. With one arm draped over his pony’s neck he drew himself up to his full height and boldly declared, “We are going too.”

Slon-Ha’s father looked deep into the boy’s eyes and knew there was no turning him back. He had raised his son to know his heart, to be brave and forthright and he knew that he could not nor would not dare to break his spirit.

“You have a good running horse,” his father said. “Try to do something brave.”

Slon-Ha nodded and leaped onto his pony’s back and his father handed him a small, feathered coup-stick.

In the warfare of the Plains Indian, counting coup by being close enough to touch the enemy with a coup-stick, or bow, was considered an act of greatest bravery. Counting coup was the ultimate feat of triumph, even surpassing the act of killing the enemy. When a warrior counted coup he would yell out, ”I have overcome this one,” and shout his name. Thus claiming the honor of the coup and the rights to all the honor associated with it. The number of coups was the measure of a warrior’s bravery and worth.

When preparations for battle had been completed, Good-Voiced Elk, who led the war party, gave the orders to be followed and the war party rode off in search of their enemy and the hoped for spoils of war.

When the enemy was spotted, Good-Voiced Elk gave instructions for the group of warriors to hide behind a nearby hill and wait for their approach. The size of the approaching party was nearly equal to the number of Sioux warriors and Good-Voiced Elk intended a surprise attack. However, the eager young Slon-Ha could not wait.

Mounted on his swift pony, Slon-Ha, naked except for his moccasins and breechcloth, his entire body painted a bright yellow, broke away from the rest of the party. He charged recklessly from hiding and rode directly into the face of the oncoming enemy. The others quickly followed but Slon-Ha held the lead.

The enemy turned tail and fled. While those on faster ponies soon out distanced Slon-Ha, the young boy continued his pursuit and overtook the slowest of the enemy war party. Willing to stand and fight, the fleeing enemy jumped from his horse, nocked an arrow and drew the feathered shaft its full length. Slon-Ha never slowed his charge nor turned aside to avoid the flying arrow, but ran his pony over the enemy and smacked him with his coup-stick. “On-hey!” he shouted, “I have conquered him!” The Sioux warriors who followed killed the fallen enemy, which Slon-Ha had struck, before he was able to stand.

When the running battle had ended, the victorious Sioux collected their trophies of horses, scalps and weapons and returned home. Not only had Slon-Ha counted coup, he had counted the first coup of the battle. This was the highest, most prestigious honor that could be achieved in battle. It was the first of more than fifty coups’ that the warrior-chief would count.

Slon-Ha’s father led the boy, mounted on his gray pony, through the camp shouting praises of his bravery. “My son has struck the enemy!” he proclaimed. And to show his great love for the boy and to demonstrate his boundless pride, his father shouted, “I give him my name, Ta-tan-ka I-yo-ta-ke, Sitting Bull!”

 

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