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The Fool Soldiers

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May 3, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

The Fool Soldiers played a vital role in the fate of the Lake Shetek captives. This group of ten Lakota warriors was largely lost to history for years. Thanks to traditional oral accounts, the work of Virginia Driving-Hawk Sneve, and historians who were willing to dig deeper, their participation has received the recognition it deserves.

In 1862, the Lakota lived primarily in Dakota Territory and were divisions of the Sioux Nation that spoke the Lakota dialect (as opposed to Dakota or Nakota). The Lakota include the Ogalala, Sicangu/Brule, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sihasapa/Blackfoot (not the same as the Blackfoot tribe), Itazzipacola/Sans Arc, and Oohenupa/Two Kettle. The Fool Soldiers were members of the Two Kettle band.

The Lakota were not unaware of the difficulties in Minnesota and the plight of the Dakota bands living there. They understood the starving conditions and had heard of the unrest due to the delay of the annuities. In fact, Lakota were present at the council on August 17. Most returned to their homes when the council dissolved, after expressing that they did not feel women and children should be killed in any war action taken. Updates on the attacks and the taking of captives reached their camps regularly.

As White Lodge moved into the Missouri River areas, there was much discussion among the Lakota as to how to interact with him. White Lodge, by this time, had determined that the captives were most valuable as bargaining tools. He had already participated in the fighting in Minnesota and had killed Whites. He knew his fate, if captured, would be death. But he also knew he might be able to offer the captives in exchange for freedom. Still, when he arrived in central Dakota Territory, his band was hungry and what he most needed was food. He’d already sought assistance from the bands along the river and received only limited supplies. Most of the Lakota in the area did not want to risk associating themselves with him and provided only limited hospitality.

Among the Two Kettle Band, there were several young men who were guided by an additional force—a vision. They were led by Martin Charger/Charger (Waneta). In 1860, his friend, Kills and Comes Back/Kills and Comes Home/Kills and Comes/Kills Game (Waktegli), had had a vision and had discussed it with Charger. We know of this because of the oral histories relayed within the families of these men. Samuel Charger, Martin’s son, recorded the story. In the vision, Kills and Comes Back had seen ten stags, one of which was him. Charger held a council to interpret the meaning of the dream.

It was determined that the ten represented a special corps of young men who should be respected and generous to others. Charging Dog, a medicine man, reaffirmed this and further interpreted that this group should strive to do good for others.

They organized a special society based on those principles and were joined by Joseph Four Bear (Mah to top ah), Swift Bird (Alex Chapelle), Mad Bear (Mato Watogla), Red Dog, Bears Rib (Kills Enemy), Sitting Bear, Pretty Bear (Mato Waste), Jonah One Rib, Strikes Fire, Big Head, Foolish Bear, and Black Tomahawk. Exact membership varies among sources with most sources indicating there were initially eleven members. Martin Charger is usually named as the leader.

According to Lakota oral histories, when White Lodge arrived in the area with the eight remaining Shetek captives and six half-breed captives, the society felt called to action. White Lodge camped near the Missouri River and it was well-known that the captives were facing starvation. The young men decided to trade all they had to ransom them.

It was not a popular mission. Many in the band called them fools and they became know as the Fool Soldiers as their commitment solidified. Risking their lives and possessions for the ransom of Whites was not understood but the society plunged ahead, committed to what they believed was good. They traded horses and fur for food, which they knew would ne valuable to White Lodge and set off for his camp. En route, they were joined by a few young Yanktonais men (or at least this is what oral histories seem to support in the telling that a group was lost in a blizzard and died en route—these would have been the Yanktonais group).

Near present-day Mobridge, the Fool Soldiers located White Lodge’s camp. By all accounts of the rescue, White Lodge was not welcoming and negotiations were difficult. They visited twice with him and he was reluctant to give up any of the Whites until his son, Black Hawk, became involved. According to testimony, the trading lasted throughout the night and White Lodge was extremely hesitant to give up Julia Wright. At the end, the Fool Soldiers had offered everything they had.

The return journey was difficult. The group faced one hundred miles and walked through blizzard conditions. A Yanktonais man, Don’t Know How, offered a horse and they made a travois for the weakest. Charger gave his own moccasins to one of the women. They kept a steady pace through the snow since White Lodge had threatened to renege on his word and, in fact, followed the Fool Soldiers for a while.

The group crossed the iced Missouri River near a trading post where trade Charles Primeau provided aid. It is at this point where the story of the Fool Soldiers became lost. At the same time that the young men were conducting their mission, soldiers from Fort Randall had been alerted to the captives and were en route north to rescue them. The commanding officer of the fort, Major Pattee, left out their role when he filed his official report of the captives’ rescue. The half-breed captives were never mentioned in the official report (though they were in other accounts) and Pattee glossed over details so that it appeared the military had freed the White captives. A second military report written by a lieutenant provides a fuller account and I was delighted to locate that report to support the oral histories within the Fool Soldiers’ families.

As to the members of the society, history has not yet reconciled their story. Many of the oral histories relate they were arrested and put to death. However, because they lived to pass on the stories to their families, there are likely errors in the handing-down of the story and/or in the translations when the stories were recorded. Like many of the stories of events at Lake Shetek itself, the truth likely lies in the middle.

None of the military reports of the ransom expedition indicate any of the Fool Soldiers were taken prisoner at the time of the rescue. However, there was a military force dispatched in 1863 and some Teton Lakota were taken prisoner. One is recorded as dying in the guardhouse (no details are offered). There are notes in military reports that some of those prisoners were interviewed and admitted to being “in the east” when the Minnesota attacks began (and was shot for being involved in the conflict). This could definitely be an issue in translation. In fact, there were members of the Fool Soldiers band that were in Minnesota and attended the council on August 17 but left the area without becoming involved in the fighting because they disagreed about the path of action chosen by the council. Oral reports indicate one prisoner was killed for stealing rations. It is nearly impossible to sort out what really happened.

For many years, the only records of the Fool Soldiers were the oral stories passed down to their descendants. These oral histories are now part of the South Dakota Oral History Center collections at the University of South Dakota. The stories differ, a natural result of oral histories repeated through multiple generations and translation issues. The discrepancies with the oral histories are likely due to natural corruption of details over the years and issues with the meanings of words used (example: “when the snows stopped” was translated as “spring,” when it likely meant a blizzard stopped).

Their history was lost until the 1970s, when interest was renewed by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s novel BETRAYED. The society itself dispersed not long after the captives were ransomed. Its members were largely ridiculed for their selfless actions.

The great-granddaughter of Joseph Four Bear, Marcella LeBeau, stated that he never benefitted from the actions he took. His life was like that of most other Lakota, living on allotted land on a reservation. She said his only recognition was a special marble tombstone indicating he was a friend of the white man. In 1996, Paul Carpenter, a descendent of Charlie Hatch, brought gifts to the descendants of the Fool Soldiers and honored them with a ceremony.

A monument now stands near Mobridge marking the rescue and there is growing interest in the Fool Soldiers but it remains sporadic. To most of the world, they have been forgotten and their contributions to Native/White relations still rests in obscurity.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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