Published on March 9, 2012 by Amy
Wooden Leg (Cheyenne Kâhamâxéveóhtáhe) (1858–1940) was a Northern Cheyenne warrior who fought against Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
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Wooden Leg was born, in 1858, in the region of the Black Hills, near the Cheyenne river. He was son of Many Bullet Wounds (also calledWhite Buffalo Shaking off the Dust) and Eagle Feather on the Forehead. He had three brothers (the two elder ones being Strong Wind Blowing and Yellow Hair, the younger one Twin) and two sisters (the elder one being Crooked Nose, the younger one Fingers Woman).
During his childhood he was known as Eats from His Hand. Later, he inherited the name Wooden Leg from his uncle, a Crow adopted by the family of Eagle Feather on the Forehead. This young Crow proved to be a tireless walker, outlasting all the young Cheyenne and earning the name Wooden Leg, since his tireless legs seemed to be made of wood. Only his nephew was able to follow him during his endless walks and so the friends of Eats from His Hand began calling him by his uncle’s name in sport. Eventually, Eats from His Hand took his uncle’s name as his own.
In his childhood and youth, he lived among his tribe, wandering in the land between the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn river. During this period, he lived like any other Indian of the Plains, spending his time, hunting the game and fighting against the enemy tribes, in particular Crow and Shoshone.
The first remarkable battle with the white men he saw was the battle of Fort Kearny in 1866. Wooden Leg was too young to take part in the battle, but during the fight his eldest brother Strong Wind Blowing died. So, in spite of the final victory of the Cheyenne, that was a mourning day for all his family. At fourteen, he was invited by Left Hand Shooter to become part of the warrior society of the Elkhorn Scrapers, one of the three warrior societies (the other being the group of the Crazy Dog and the group of the Fox) in which the men of the tribe were divided. At seventeen, he went on retreat to thank the Great Spirit. He spent four days closed in a tepee, meditating and contemplating, visited only once a day. After the trial, his face was painted with a black circle enclosing his forehead, chin and cheeks; the internal area of the circle was yellow. This facial picture, together with his best suit, his shield and his flute made from the wing of an eagle, became part of his war equipment for the rest of his life.
At the end of the winter of 1876, after some sightings of white troops, the tribe encamped near the Powder river. During the night of 16 March 1876, because of the darkness and a storm, the sentinels saw nobody approaching; so, in the early morning of 17 March 1876, the soldiers, led by General Reynolds, attacked by surprise the Indian camp. Cheyenne fled everywhere; Wooden Leg, unarmed, took one of his horses and fled bringing with him towards safety two children. Because of the agitated flight, he abandoned his flute, which was later destroyed in the following destruction of the camp. After the battle, the Northern Cheyenne marched towards north-east, reaching the Oglala Sioux. Here they were joined by other tribes, such as Miniconjou, Sans Arcs, Santee Sioux and Blackfeet. Together they reached, and camped in, the valley of the Little Bighorn.
The morning of the 25 June 1876, while sleeping under a tree after a feasting night, Wooden Leg and his brother Yellow Hair were awaken by the cries of the old men claiming the arrival of the soldiers. Wooden Leg ran to his tent. He quickly prepared himself for the battle, then moved himself to the melee with his brother. At first, he fought with soldiers hidden and surrounded in the woods near the river. Defeating these enemies, he went towards the river where he found a rifle and ammunition. Then, he attacked the soldiers on the hills. The Battle of Little Bighorn lasted all day.
After the victorious battle, the Northern Cheyennes wandered for some time in the region of the Little Bighorn river, soon chased by the soldiers. Then some Cheyennes, who had lived for some time in the reservations of the United States, were sent by the U.S. Government to persuade the tribe to surrender and to live in a reservation. Because of their hunger, a great part of the tribe accepted the offer; Wooden Leg, with a group of other 34 Cheyennes, among which his brother Yellow Hair, refused, since he and his fellows “still desired, more than anything, that freedom that they considered a right”. He lived a laborious life in the area of the Tongue river and the Powder river, until, again because of the hunger, he and other 30 Cheyennes decided to give up their lives as hunters and sought the reservation.
Wooden Leg entered in the reservation of the White River. He lived here until the soldiers moved the reservation southward. In this new place, he learned how to hunt eagles. However, the new reservation was very far from the native land of many Northern Cheyennes, so a group led by Little Wolf, disobeying the soldiers, left the reservation to go back to their ancient home. Wooden Leg at first refused to follow the old leader and remained in the reservation. In 1878, he married a Southern Cheyenne woman. After the death of his father, Wooden Leg and his family decided to leave the southern reservation. Passing from the White River reservation, renamed by that time as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, they reached the place where Little Wolf and the other Cheyennes camped. It was the core of the future reservation of the Tongue River.
In 1889, Wooden Leg enlisted at Fort Keogh as a scout, and, in 1890, he guided the soldiers in the campaign of the Wounded Knee Massacre. In the same years, he served also a messenger and a sentry.
In 1906, thirty years after the battle of Little Bighorn, he took part to a meeting of whites and Indians, gathered on the field of the battle to remember that event. He spoke of the battle, being one of the few Indians who had the courage to tell his experience to Dixon, a white doctor.
In 1908, Wooden Leg was baptized by the priest in the reservation. He thought that the whites and the Indians worshiped the same god, even if in different manner (i.e.: calling him with different names).
In 1913, Wooden Leg, together with the young Little Wolf (nephew of the old Cheyenne leader), Two Moons and Black Wolf, was part of a delegation sent to Washington to speak about the Cheyenne tribe. During this journey, he visited Washington and New York. Back in the reservation, he became a judge: he had the responsibility to solve quarrels in the tribe and to teach the law of the United States. Twice, he was offered to become a chief in lower order of the warrior group of the Elkhorn Scrapers, but he refused; some white men called him Chief Wooden Leg, but indeed he was never a chief. He had two daughters, but they both died in their youth. After the death of the last daughter, he and his wife decided to adopt the son of his sister, John White Wolf.
In 1930, he was interviewed by Thomas B. Marquis, a former agency physician for the Cheyenne, and related a great deal of information about Cheyenne life prior to the reservations and the battle of Little Bighorn. His account is published in a book called Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer .
He died in 1940.