In 1877, thousands of Cheyenne soldiers surrendered to the U.S. military. They were relocated to a reservation far from the Black Hills. On the long walk to their new reservation, dozens of children and elderly Cheyennes died. And after the Cheyennes had settled in their new home, diseases killed many more people. Food was scarce, and the government claimed it couldn’t supply any more. Commissioners either claimed that there was no scarcity of resources for the Cheyenne reservation, or that there was only a very slight, temporary scarcity.
A few things to notice. First, the government arranged for the Cheyennes to move far away from the Black Hills, which the government had been after all along due to its lucrative gold mines. Second, the relocation process—both the long walk and life on the reservation itself—was genocidal in the sense that it resulted in the starvation of numerous Native Americans. Cruelly, commissioners wouldn’t even admit there was a problem, much less try to solve it.
In August 1877, a group of Cheyennes, led by chief Little Wolf, decided to leave the reservation in search of food. U.S. soldiers tried to prevent any Cheyennes from leaving the reservation. Nevertheless, Little Wolf succeeded in moving off the reservation with many followers. By October, the group had reached Fort Robinson, near their old lands. There, U.S. soldiers gave them food and medicine. The Cheyennes asked the soldiers to notify the President of the United States that the Cheyennes “ask only to end their days here in the north where they were born.”
Just a year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Cheyennes seemed weary and forlorn. They’d lived through a tremendous amount of violence and adversity, and so their requests are humble. They didn’t want to defeat the U.S. government—they just wanted enough food to live and enough land to die in peace.
In response to Little Wolf’s plea, the government mandated that the Cheyennes must be sent back to their reservation. When the Cheyennes refused to move again, the U.S. military arrested Little Wolf and expelled the remaining Cheyennes from Fort Robinson, killing women and children in the process.
As it had done in the past, the U.S. government refused to allow the Cheyennes to leave the reservation in search of food and comfort. While the government’s motive for doing so may have been to enforce order and avoid setting a precedent, in practice the government’s policy was murderous.
By the end of the year, Little Wolf had surrendered to the military. He was placed on the new reservation, along with his followers. There, he and many other Cheyennes became alcoholics. Within a few years, “the force was gone out of the Cheyennes.”
Brown barely discusses alcoholism in this book, but it was an important, and tragic, theme of reservation life. Without the ability to hunt, Cheyennes turned to other things to occupy their time. Alcohol took away much of what dignity they had left.