Friends, Allies and Enemies

Powhatan and Rolfe
Native Americans and European Immigrants

November is Native American Heritage Month. As part of the celebration the Library of Congress has a website with the stories of Native American Veterans. It’s as part of its Veterans History Project which collects the stories of the men and women who served their county. The first sentence on the page read, “American Indians have eagerly served a government which did not always keep its word to their ancestors.”

It’s a reminder of the tensions between the original inhabitants or what Europeans called the New World and the colonists from there that came to settle here. There was some peaceful cooperation and there were also many bloody wars for the land. Here are some of the true stories of the people on both sides of these conflicts:

John Smith      John Smith / by Charles P. Graves; illustrated by Al Fiorentino
English adventurer and explorer Captain John Smith, one of the leaders of the Jamestown colony, had a reputation for daring, courage, and endurance that he’d earned in wars with the Turks before he came to the new world. He would need all of those and quick wits to deal with the dangers he faced in Virginia, where his life was threatened by Natives and members of his own company. He is remembered for his account of his adventures and explorations and for his relationship with a daughter of local political leader Powhatan.

The Double Life of Pocahontas      The Double Life of Pocahontas / Jean Fritz; with illustrations by Ed Young
Fritz narrates the short but eventful life of Powhatan’s daughter, who became the intermediary between her nation and the English who colonized Jamestown, Virginia when she was a young girl. At first, the sponsor of Captain John Smith when Powhatan decided to adopt him into his tribe, the girl whose name meant “lively” or “frolicsome” introduced Smith to her culture. In return he taught her English and invited her to visit his village, which she did frequently. Thus she became a player in the battle of wits and weapons between Powhatan and Smith, both of whom acted out the old political adage, “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

After Smith’s return to England as the result of a gunpowder accident, skirmishing became open warfare between the immigrants and the natives. Only the unexpected arrival of ships from England kept Jamestown from being abandoned by its settlers. Soon after Pocahontas was captured and held hostage by the English. When her father showed reluctance to ransom her, she threw her lot in with her captors, converting to Christianity and marrying tobacco farmer John Rolfe, and a few years later traveled with him to England, where she died.

George Custer      George Custer / Hal Marcovitz
The class clown at West Point became the youngest General in U.S. history. Although he graduated at the bottom of his class in June 1861 the outbreak of the Civil War and his excellent horsemanship gave him an immediate cavalry command. His impetuous courage and his successes against the Confederate cavalry of J. E. B. Stuart led to his promotion to brigadier general at age twenty-three. 

At the end of the Civil War, Custer was appointed to command the Seventh Calvary at Fort Riley, a hundred miles west of Kansas City. His new enemy was the Cheyenne. In 1868 he led a successful night time massacre of the Cheyenne camp on the banks of the Washita River in the Oklahoma Territory. His attempt to use a similar tactic against the Sioux in 1876 encamped along the Little Big Horn River led to his last stand. Ironically, this defeat earned him fame or infamy in history, overshadowing all his other military accomplishments.

The Sitting Bull You Never Knew      The Sitting Bull You Never Knew / by James Lincoln Lincoln Collier
The thoughtful young man known as Slow was given his name for the deliberate way he considered things before he took action. But at age fourteen when he led his fellow tribesmen in an attack on a raiding party of Crow Indians, this quiet young man was given his adult name of Sitting Bull, because his bravery was like that of great male buffalo, who when cornered would sit back on his haunches and fight to the death. He grew to be a chief among his people, the Hunkpapa, a band of the Lakota (or Teton) Indians, a part of the Sioux Nation.

Bravery and wisdom were both quality that he needed when the expanding United States and white settlers moved into the territory of the Dakotas. Some were willing to try the agricultural way of life urged on them by the new government, but many others wanted to maintain the freedom of their traditional nomadic way of life, and these rallied around Sitting Bull. They included other bands and leaders like the great Oglala warrior, Crazy Horse. The crisis between the new white settlers and the natives came to a head when the army unit led by General George Custer attacked what he thought was a small village of Indians near the banks of the Little Bighorn River.

Crazy Horse Sioux Warrior      Crazy Horse: Sioux Warrior / by Brenda Haugen
Sometime in the early 1840s a son was born to Crazy Horse and Rattle Blanket Woman of the Oglala band of the Lakota (or Teton) tribe of the Sioux Nation in what is now South Dakota. Because of his unusual light brown curly hair, he was named Curly. In 1854 he witnessed a disagreement over a white settler’s stray cow deteriorate into a bloody fight between the United States Army and the Lakota. Upset, Curly rode off for three days to meditate and seek a vision. Three years later, when he revealed his vision to his father, the elder Crazy Horse told his son that it meant that he was to become a great but humble leader of his people. In 1858 he proved both brave and self-sacrificing when he saved a wounded friend in a battle with the Arapaho. As a reward, “his father took the name Worm and gave his son the name Crazy Horse.” This was a name that would become famous at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the war for the Black Hills.