Sunday, December 30, 2012

Iron Tail

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Iron Tail (Wasu Maza) was a Minneconjou Lakota who lived from 1857 to1955.  His uncle was Black Elk and he fought under Crazy Horse in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn when he was only eighteen years old.  Little Bighorn was a victory for the Sioux but shortly after the battle, Iron Tail followed Chief Sitting Bull into exile in Canada. They surrendered to the US forces at Fort Buford in July of 1881, were pardoned, and allowed to settle on the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota with promises of peace and non-interference.  In February of 1890, the United States government dissolved the Great Sioux Reservation.  In an effort to break tribal identity, individuals were forced to farm on 320 acre family plots and children were sent away to government schools that forbid any inclusion of traditional culture and language. This same period was marked by a severe drought which decimated crops and livestock.  In response, many of the desperate Sioux embraced a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance.  The unity of the Ghost Dancers frightened the Bureau of Indian Affairs and military troops were dispatched to quell what US officials saw as a brewing Indian revolution.

Tensions came to a head in December 1890 when Sitting Bull was killed during an arrest attempt on the Standing Rock reservation.  A group of Ghost Dancers fled to join Chief Big Foot (Sitting Bull’s half-brother) on the Cheyenne River Reservation where Iron Tail and his family were also living at that time. Big Foot tried to move to the Pine Ridge Agency where Chief Red Cloud could broker a negotiated surrender but the Army surrounded the group at Wounded Knee Creek and the rest of the story is history.  Approximately 150 Lakota died in the fighting, another 150 died of exposure and 25 US troops also perished.  Iron Tail was severely wounded and lost his mother, father, two brothers, sister, and wife in the massacre and his infant son who died a short time later.

After Wounded Knee, Iron Tail settled near Kyle on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Eventually he found employment with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  Cody had many ties to the Sioux tribe, especially at the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Agencies. Chief Sitting Bull toured with the show in 1885.  During those performances he famously “blessed” audiences, cursing them in the Lakota language to clamorous applause. Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock in at the end of that season but Cody continued to hire Sioux performers almost exclusively.  Iron Tail traveled throughout Europe and the United States with the Wild West show for nearly 15 years as a marquee attraction and a family friend.
 Many of the Native Americans who found employment in the various Wild West Shows eventually returned home and used the skills and insights they had gained to improve the still desperate situation on the reservations.  Iron Tail had some powerful friends in William Cody and General Nelson A. Miles, whom he had met during the Army investigations of the Wounded Knee massacre. With their support, he traveled to Washington, DC around the turn of the century to seek reparations for the victims. While in DC he sat for sculptor James Earle Fraser as one of three models for the visage found on the Indian Head nickel which was released in 1913.  On the same trip, Iron Tail also met the Battle of Manila Bay hero Admiral George Dewey.  When the Chief later converted to Catholicism he adopted the name Dewey Beard in honor of the General.  Iron Tail, now Dewey Beard, remarried and had a son, became a rancher and raised horses, but still he remained a showman.  He had parts in some “westerns” including Cody’s silent film about Wounded Knee. Up until the last years of his life, he performed at regional powwows and tourist venues and used his visibility to speak out against the mistreatment of Native Americans.  His friends and neighbors remember Dewey as a great storyteller who influenced many young Lakota with tales of their tribe’s history, the old ways of life, and his travels with Buffalo Bill’s show.

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