The Testing of the Chiefs
THE FOUR CHIEFS created by the Hunkpapa in 1851 had not lived up to the expectations of the tribe. Hard times always bring criticism of government, and the Sioux had been having difficulty in feeding themselves. Cold weather, wars, and broken treaties may also have counted against the leaders. It was the general opinion that the experiment had not proved a great success. But worst of all, the chiefs themselves seemed not to have the dignity and forbearance demanded of men in their high office.
Running Antelope had run away to the Ree village with another man's wife; Red Horn had stolen two women from the same man, Bear-Skinned, one of his own warriors; Loud-Voiced Hawk became involved in a fatal stabbing affray. Even Four Horns, Sitting Bull's uncle, was being criticized. Some of the head men got together and decided that something must be done to test these chiefs and find out whether they were fit for office, or not.
A chief (I-tan'-chan) was supposed to be greathearted, magnanimous, generous, and above all personal spite or selfishness. For this reason, few men were willing to undertake the responsibility. It was asking too much to forgive everything, never to lose one's temper, and continually to give and share with those who could never by any chance repay benefits. Most men had not enough of the father in them to be father to a whole tribe. Famous warriors — like the Cheyenne Roman Nose — sometimes declined chieftaincy — not feeling themselves fit for it. Among the Sioux, men were sometimes made chiefs for their lovable, gentle qualities, even though they were hardly warriors at all. Black Eagle, of the Sans Arc Sioux, is an example. Great warriors sometimes lacked the kindly qualities demanded of a civil chief.
When the Hunkpapa head men assembled, they devised a plan for testing the chiefs who had so grievously fallen from grace and displayed the weaknesses and passions of ordinary men. It was agreed that a sure way to test these chiefs would be to steal their wives and see how they took it. Therefore, certain men were secretly appointed for this job and sent to the scattered camps where the four chiefs were then living.
As had been expected, Running Antelope, Loud-Voiced-Hawk, and Red Horn all lost their tempers when they found men meddling with their wives, and one of them even went gunning for the disturber of his domestic peace. The head men nodded; it had turned out just as they expected. And now it was the turn of Four Horns.
One day the wife of Four Horns left his tipi without saying where she was going. All day she was missing, but Four Horns made no inquiries. It was not the part of a chief to disturb himself about a woman. Night fell, and she did not come back. He sat in the lodge alone, but made no effort to find out what had become of his woman.
Early in the morning, the wife of one of the Hunkpapa came into the tipi of the lonely chief. Said she, "I wish to marry you. I have long wished to do so, for you are a great chief, and have performed many brave deeds. Besides," she added, "my husband has stolen your wife; he has her now."
Four Horns sat still. He said nothing, nor did he betray any emotion whatever. She watched him, and after a few moments went to work preparing breakfast for the chief. When the meat was cooked, she cut it up, and, sitting before him, fed him with her own hands — four morsels. He ate the food she had prepared for him. The woman remained in his lodge that day.
A little before sunset, when the rays struck through the yellow lodge-skins and dimmed the small fire in the middle of the tipi, someone came to the door of the tipi and coughed, to let Four Horns know he was there. Four Horns asked him to enter. It was a messenger from the man who had stolen the chief's wife. He said, "My friend wants his wife back."
Then Four Horns got up and went out of the lodge and caught his best war horse and brought it to the tipi and put on its back his finest saddle. The saddles of that family were celebrated among the Hunkpapa, for Sitting Bull's uncle, Looks-for-Home, was an excellent saddler.
Over the saddle he threw a decorated buffalo robe, and put his best bridle on the horse's head. Then he called the woman out of the lodge and placed her in the saddle. "Certainly," said the chief, "if my cousin wants his wife again, he may have her. Let there be no hard feelings between us."
The woman went back to her husband, riding the fine gift horse. Four Horns went back into his lodge, and soon after his own wife returned to him. He said nothing to her about her desertion, but treated her just as if nothing had happened. His relations with the man who had stolen her remained friendly as before.
Then the head men of the Hunkpapa, who had planned the testing of the chiefs, rejoiced. Four Horns had justified his election. He alone, of the four, had shown the great heart of a real chief. Henceforth, though the others were chiefs in name, Four Horns was regarded by the people as supreme.
But Four Horns was not happy. He was terribly ashamed and humiliated, because his three colleagues had brought such disgrace upon their high office — which he shared. He thought long, and then decided that he would create a chief who should restore the honor of the chieftaincy and wipe away the tarnish from that office. He looked about for the right man, and he did not need to look long.
Four Horns had children of his own, sons who might have been chiefs after him. Also he had adopted two young men — Noisy-Walking-Elk and Red Arse. But he passed them all by. His choice fell upon the chief of the Midnight Strong Hearts, his nephew, Sitting Bull. His qualifications made him the only candidate.
Sitting Bull: there was a young man who was brave, who usually led the charges on his fast horses, and never reined them back in a battle. A man who had been severely wounded in battle twice, once so badly that he was a cripple. A man who was a peacemaker in the camps, and never quarreled. A generous man, who was always capturing horses from the enemy and giving them away, a man who constantly shared his kill with the poor and helpless when hunting, a man who could not bear to see one of the Hunkpapa unhappy. An affable, jocular, pleasant man, always making jokes and telling stories, keeping the people in a good humor, a sociable man who had tried to please everybody all his life, and was not in the least haughty or arrogant — in spite of his many honors. A family man, who stood well with matrons and old women whose domestic quarrels he had patched up, whose larders he had filled. A man who had the gift of prophecy, and could foretell the event of a battle, so that he was almost always victorious. A good singer, always in demand. A man who could speak, and think, and never was swindled by the whites. A man whose unshaken purpose was to maintain Hunkpapa laws and customs, and hold the Hunkpapa hunting grounds against all comers. A man who — and this weighed strongly with the conscientious Four Horns — was devoutly religious, whose prayers were strong, and who generally got what he prayed for. Finally, a man who — in five short years — had swept away the surrounding nations and occupied their hunting grounds.
Not least important in Four Horns' calculations was the fact that Sitting Bull had the unqualified support of the Midnight Strong Hearts, the most powerful warrior society in the tribe, without whose consent no chief could be named at all. Under Sitting Bull's leadership, this society had grown to have more than two hundred members. When they charged, they charged shouting, "We are Sitting Bull's boys!" A cry that struck terror to the enemy.
When Four Horns proposed Sitting Bull's name to the Midnight Strong Hearts as his nomination for a chieftaincy, he met with no opposition. The society was unanimous in supporting his nephew's candidacy. They all remembered that day when he was shot in the foot — that day when he killed the Crow chief. Many of them believed that the qualities of a man killed entered into the slayer: if Sitting Bull had the qualities of a chief, it was no surprise to them. That exploit had much to do with the approval of the warriors.
The old councillors, however, were perhaps more impressed by the thoughtful and studious cast of Sitting Bull's mind. It was certain that he spared no pains in getting ready for his enterprises; his forethought, among the heedless Sioux, made him remarkable. The old men now recalled a portent at his birth, which had been hard to explain at the time. It happened that shortly before Sitting Bull was born, an epidemic struck the camp on Grand River, and in the general grief and alarm, the unborn child turned over in his mother's womb. This strange and unusual event had puzzled men at the time. Now its meaning was clear: even before he was born, Sitting Bull was thinking of the welfare of his people!
A meeting was held, and Sitting Bull was sent for to be installed as chief. Four Horns was master of ceremonies.
Source: Vestal, Sitting Bull