Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner
A nation is not conquered
Until the hearts of its women
Are on the ground.
Then it is done, no matter
How brave its warriors
Or how strong its weapons.
-Traditional Cheyenne saying
Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Mutsimiuna)
On June 25, 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn began in Montana. A gathered village of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors faced the federal forces commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Archaeologists then and now have attempted to retrace the battle, its movements, and its casualties, based on the terrain and eyewitness accounts.
Absent from these early accounts were the Cheyenne. “The chiefs said to keep a vow of silence for 100 summers,” said Cheyenne elder Frank Rowland in a 2005 interview with Independent Record. “One hundred summers have now passed and we’re breaking our silence.” They kept this silence out of fear of retribution from the federal government, for it was one of their own who likely dealt Custer the blow that turned the tide of battle.
“An intriguing reference to a Cheyenne woman fighting at the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud in Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee first sparked our interest,” wrote Rosemary and Joseph Agonito and in Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story of a Warrior of the Little Bighorn, published in 2006. “Who was she? Why was she in battle?”
Buffalo Calf Road Woman was born around 1844. Exact details of her childhood are unknown, but in that era, the Cheyenne lived closely with the Arapaho. The tribes’ shared website states, “The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes became allies and formed into one Nation. Around the 1830s, the Cheyenne were trapping beaver and buffalo and tanning the hides for trading purposes.”
We also know the Northern Cheyenne, like nearly all indigenous tribes in the country, were constantly in skirmishes with the federal government. “From 1857 to 1879 the Cheyenne were embroiled in raids and wars with U.S. military troops,” Brittanica.com says. “[T]he conflicts often caused suffering for civilians, including Cheyenne and settler women, children, and elders.”
Buffalo Calf Road Woman never experienced the Cheyenne life of her elders. From birth until her death, her tribe and culture were continuously under threat of extermination.
In 1851, when Buffalo Calf Road Woman was barely 7 years old, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted seven Native American nations a huge swath of land that includes present-day Wyoming, the southwest of Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Kansas. Then, in 1858, when Buffalo Calf Road Woman was 14, gold was discovered in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. White colonists flooded into the land that now, by treaty, belonged to the tribes. The tribes defended their already diminished land, often with violence. By 1864, the federal government had 32 Native American attacks on record that had resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 white immigrants.
When Buffalo Calf Road Woman was still a teen, a new treaty was forged in February of 1861 with six Cheyenne chiefs and four Arapaho—but not all tribespeople agreed with the concessions that would reduce their land to 1/13th of what had been granted in 1851. Many Cheyenne warriors argued that the six chiefs who signed the treaty did not represent them.
On Nov. 29, 1864, when the Buffalo Calf Road woman was just 19 or 20, Colonel John M. Chivington ordered troops to “kill Cheyennes whenever and wherever found.” They were found at a camp on the land—now granted to them by two treaties—along Sand Creek. Exact numbers vary, but most accounts agree that over 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho were murdered by Chivington’s men. Most were women and children.
“I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before,” recalled eyewitness John S. Smith in 1865. “The women all cut to pieces... With knives; scalped; their brained knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors ... By whom where they mutilated? By the United States troops…”
Where Buffalo Calf Road Woman was at the time of the Sand Creek massacre is unknown, but such an event would inevitably reverberate through the Cheyenne. The massacre inspired some women to become warriors. Some women certainly already were, even if the history books didn’t record it.
“We understood how women’s history is forgotten, neglected, trivialized, and even deliberately concealed,” wrote Rosemary and Joseph Agonito. “A limited number of Northern Cheyenne narratives from the period exist, recorded by white interpreters. With two exceptions, they are provided by men, who seldom speak of women ... Anthropologists and historians who interviewed Plains Indians seldom spoke with women or showed interest in them beyond domestic roles. Similarly, photographers captured hundreds of images of the Northern Cheyenne but rarely focused on women except when doing domestic chores or as ‘wife of’ a prominent man.”
On June 17, 1876, just days before the Battle of the Little Bighorn would begin, the Cheyenne once again fought for their lives. A force, led by General George Crook, marched upon a Native American encampment to force them off the land that had been ceded to them in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, then taken away again with the Treaty of Fort Wise.
The battle raged for six hours inside the curve of Rosebud Creek. In one incident preserved by eyewitnesses and oral tradition, the U.S. troops shot the horse carrying a Cheyenne warrior named Comes in Sight. The man ran from the enemy soldiers on foot—and then his sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, rode in to rescue him. She pulled her brother onto her horse and the two rode to safety. These heroics enlivened the Cheyenne, who fought hard and ultimately defeated General Crook and his men.
This conflict would come to be known by the U.S. government as The Battle of the Rosebud. The Cheyenne called it The Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.
By this time, Buffalo Calf Road Woman was married to a fellow Cheyenne named Black Coyote. She was also mother to two children when she rode into the fray to save her brother.
Just days later, the battle that would come to be called the Battle of the Little Bighorn erupted.
The Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota Sioux, and other tribes that gathered near the Little Bighorn numbered in the thousands. Custer’s indigenous guide Mitch Bouyer warned him. “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” This village was so large for a few reasons: The indigenous people of the country had been continually pushed from their own land and concentrated far closer together; many tribes had gathered for the annual Sun Dance earlier in the month; and some enemy tribe combatants had been taken prisoner.
Custer’s plan accounted for an enemy force of 800 Native American warriors. In reality, they faced 1,500, or even as many as 2,500 by some estimates.
Custer was undeterred. Indeed, his primary concern was that people would escape, so he pushed forward. How exactly the battle unfolded is still a matter of some historical debate. Custer moved his troops far to the north of the village. “[He] must have expected to find the [women] and children fleeing to the bluffs on the north,” a lieutenant would comment later, “for in no other way do I account for his wide detour.”
Capturing the women and children of a village was Custer’s go-to battle plan. They were the leverage used to force the warriors to stand down. He wrote in his book My Life on the Plains in 1874, “Indians contemplating battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger.”
If Custer’s concern was that the inhabitants of the village would flee, he needn’t have worried. “The orders, made without accurate knowledge of the village’s size, location, or the warriors’ propensity to stand and fight, had been to pursue the Native Americans and ‘bring them to battle,’” notes the Wikipedia account of the first attack by U.S. forces. “They immediately realized that the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were present ‘in force and not running away.’”
The exact events of Custer’s final moments cannot be known. Neither he nor any man in his battalion survived to tell the tale, and the accounts from the indigenous warriors there that day are—like any assortment of eyewitness records—conflicting and muddled.
According to Director of Tribal Services Wallace Bearchum and Cheyenne oral history, Buffalo Calf Road Woman was an “excellent markswoman,” but she used a club to knock General Custer off his horse. She fought “out in the open,” refusing to take cover, and “stayed on her horse the entire time.”
Unhorsed and injured, Custer led his troops in retreat to the hilltop that would become known as Custer Hill. Most historians believe Custer was defeated within the first hour of battle. After, the indigenous warriors turned their attention on the other two prongs of the three-pronged attack. Wallace reports that Buffalo Calf Road Woman, along with other Cheyenne and Sioux women “finished off Custer and the other Calvary soldiers right after battle was over.”
It’s unlikely Buffalo Calf Road Woman would have known who she knocked from his horse that day, beyond that he was a U.S. commander of some rank. The name “Custer,” however, would have been known to many.
Custer enthusiastically followed the “total war” orders from General William Sherman: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children ... during an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age.” This became the approach of many to any conflict with an indigenous tribe. Historians have also noted that Custer and his men likely raped their Native American female captives.
In May of 2021, the United Tribes of Michigan succeeded in passing a resolution to condemn a statue of Custer in Monroe, Michigan. “Custer is notoriously known as the ‘Indian Killer,’ they wrote in the resolution. “Custer does not deserve any glory.”
Yet, as of this writing, multiple counties and locations bear his name, and several monuments still stand, including at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
The Cheyenne, Lakota, and other gathered tribes claimed victory at the Little Bighorn, but the United States government was too big, too powerful, and rarely honored its treaties; the larger war had already been lost.
In a 1991 Newsweek interview, a park ranger at a museum containing some of Custer’s belongings said, “They call it ‘Custer’s last stand.’ Really, it was the Indians’ last stand.” The United States government responded to the defeat by expanding the army by 2,500 men and by drafting the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876, which included a command the Sioux called the “sell or starve” rider. Small skirmishes followed, but the “Indian Wars” were over, and the indigenous tribes had lost.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman, with husband Black Coyote and their two children, relocated with the Northern Cheyenne to Oklahoma, where they joined the Southern Cheyenne Reservation. Her fighting spirit never faded, and in 1878, she and Black Coyote joined nearly 300 other Northern Cheyenne in breaking out of the Oklahoma reservation with the goal of reclaiming their Montana-area home. This was called the Northern Cheyenne Exodus.
This exodus was ultimately successful (over 6,000 Cheyenne live on the Montana reservation today), but Buffalo Calf Road Woman did not see its end. On the journey north, Black Coyote shot and killed a Cheyenne chief. The entire family was banished for his actions. Black Coyote and a few other Cheyenne men then attacked U.S. soldiers in Montana. The government responded swiftly and sent soldiers to hunt the men down. They were quickly caught and put on trial for murder.
Black Coyote was found guilty and scheduled to be executed on June 8, 1879, less than three years after The Fight Where the Girl Saved her Brother.
In May of that year, at age 35 and with her husband in prison, Buffalo Calf Road Woman died of either diphtheria or malaria in Miles City, Montana, about two hours north of the land where the Northern Cheyenne live today, in Custer County.
Wikipedia: Buffalo Calf Road Woman
Mental Floss: Retrobituaries: Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Custer’s Final Foe
Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story of a Warrior of the Little Bighorn by Rosemary Agonito and Joseph Agonito
Indianz.com: Clara Caufield: Buffalo Calf Road Woman – Cheyenne Warrior Girl
History.com: Battle of the Little Bighorn
Wikipedia: Battle of the Little Bighorn
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes
Wikipedia: Sand Creek massacre
Wikipedia: Battle of the Rosebud
Wikipedia: George Armstrong Custer
Newsweek (web archive): The Custer Syndrome