Soldier societies provided martial training, socialization, and preservation of tradition among the men who joined the groups.
Before Sweet Medicine created the Council of 44 Chiefs, there was chronic theft and murder among the Cheyenne people. To find a solution to these social problems, Sweet Medicine, the Cheyenne’s central cultural hero, ventured into the heart of the Black Hills country.
When he reached the sacred mountain known by the Cheyenne as Noahvose (today’s Bear Butte), he encountered a group of old men and old women. These elders instructed Sweet Medicine on how to solve the problem of Cheyenne anarchy.
He was told to implement “good government” by forming a council of forty-four chiefs and by organizing military societies to maintain a “good system of police and military protection.” Both Cheyenne civil councils and Cheyenne military organizations were, as the story suggests, structured on the basis of tradition and protocol.
Cheyenne Warrior Societies
- Himatanohis (Hĭmátanóhĭs, ‘Bowstring Men’)
- Himoiyoqis (Hĭ′moiyóqĭs, a word of doubtful meaning. Translated by whites as Crooked Lance Society). Also sometimes known as Oómi-nű′tqiu, Coyote warriors. Also known by the ethnohistorian George Grinnell as the Elks.
- Hotamimsaw (Hotám-ĭmsáw, ‘Foolish or Crazy Dogs’).
- Hotamitanio (Hotámitä′nio, ‘Dog Men’; sing., Hotámitä′n). Commonly known to the whites as Dog Soldiers.
- Woksihitaneo (Kit-Fox Men)
- Mahohivas (Red Shields )
- Konianutqio (Wolf Warriors) – Many scholars accept the view of George Bird Grinnell and his chief informant George Bent that the Bowstring Men and Wolf Warriors were the same society.
The Bowstrings were Southern Cheyenne while the Crazy Dogs were found exclusively among the Northern Cheyenne.
Each Cheyenne fraternal organization had its sacred symbols, decorations, dances, and songs.
This made members of each society different from those of other groups, and distinct from Cheyenne society as a whole.
Red Shield soldiers carried red shields that had the tail of a bison hanging from the base.
Wolf Soldiers were well known for both their military prowess and also for their elaborate social gatherings, which were complete with “noisy songs… effusive dances and the sparkling and varied colors of their outfits.”
Crooked Lance society members wrapped their lances in otter skins, while each member of the Dog Soldiers wore on his chest a whistle made of the bone of a bird.
A fierce contest existed between the various Cheyenne military organizations. Each society formed its own war parties and tried to “exceed the military accomplishments of rival societies.” Wooden Leg, who as a seventeen-year old warrior helped to defeat Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s command at the Little Bighorn, recalled that “the warrior societies competed with each other for effectiveness” in war and in status within the community.
“If an enemy party was small in number, soldier leaders selected only a few certain members of a society to do the fighting.”
“If this appointed segment of our fighters did well they were acclaimed. If they did not do well, especially if other warriors had to go to their assistance, the original combatants were discredited.”
As the cultural and military crisis deepened, the soldier societies responded by becoming more assertive. As their influence increased, the societies at times became arbitrary and dictatorial in their relationship with civil leadership and the community. They began to ignore the wishes of the Council of 44 Chiefs.
The most militant and elite society was that of the Dog Soldiers. The Dog Soldiers in particular came to exercise enormous influence and power. Though the last group to emerge, it became the most important, rising to unique prominence and power. The ascension of this society by the mid-1850s demonstrated the ability of the Cheyenne to respond to the national crisis created when United States citizens poured into the Cheyenne homeland.
When they went into battle, four of the bravest Dog Soldiers were chosen to wear sashes of tanned skins called “dog ropes.” Attached to each dog rope was a picket-pin [used to tether horses]. The pin was driven into the ground as a mark of resolve in combat.
When a Dog Soldier was staked to the ground in order to cover the retreat of his companions, he was required to remain there even if death was the consequence. The Dog Man could pull the pin from the ground only if his companions reached safety or another Dog Soldier released him from his duty.
The Dog Soldiers or Hotamitaneo asserted their dominance in many areas. They and the members of the other soldier societies maintained order in both the civil and the military spheres of Cheyenne life.
However, there had been traditional distinctions between civil and military authority among the Cheyenne.The ascension of the Dog Soldiers marked a breakdown of the separation between the civil and military elements of Cheyenne society.
The Dog Soldiers evolved into a political and military power as United States citizens poured into the Cheyenne homeland in the mid-1800s. As was their right in times of conflict, the military societies gained more control over their nation since its total mobilization was required to counter the assault.
The rise of the Dog Soldiers was not originally inspired by some momentous event in Cheyenne history. Instead, their ascent began with a sordid incident years earlier that freed them from many of the constraints of Cheyenne tradition and protocol.
Early in the winter of 1838, the Dog Soldier leader Porcupine Bear and a few of his warriors were traveling from camp to camp to recruit other societies to join them in a raid against the Kiowas. One village, located on the South Platte River in Wyoming, had just obtained whiskey from the American Fur Company post at Fort William (the future Fort Laramie).
According to Grenville Dodge, the “whole camp went to drinking that night.” Porcupine Bear and his men became drunk, and during the celebration, his two cousins Little Creek and Around became embroiled in a brawl. Around, getting beaten, begged Porcupine Bear to help him.
Porcupine Bear paid no attention. He sat alone in a corner of the lodge, singing to himself in a low voice. He was very drunk and was singing Dog Soldier songs.
Presently Little Creek rolled on top of Around, and drawing his knife raised his arm to strike: but at that moment Porcupine Bear leaped up in a sudden rage and springing upon Little Creek he wrenched the knife from his hand and stabbed him two or three times. He then forced the knife into Around’s hand and standing over him compelled him to finish Little Creek.
For this crime, Porcupine Bear and his followers were deemed outlaws by the tribe. They were forbidden to camp with other Cheyenne and banned from all national functions. Ostracized from society, Porcupine Bear and his men could only set up their lodges “near the village–a mile or two from it.”
The Dog Soldier Society in general “was also disgraced” and it was relieved of any future police responsibility. Porcupine Bear and his warriors still kept contact with other Cheyenne camps and fought on their behalf. In a battle at Wolf Creek with the Comanches and Kiowa, his men counted first coup. Porcupine Bear singularly killed twelve Kiowas. However, the Dog Men were still outlaws.
This alienation from the main camp, instead of chastening the warriors, led to the Dog Soldiers’ independence. Instead of being under the traditional band chiefs, the Dog Soldiers were now governed by their own band chiefs, all of whom were war leaders.
Men who became Dog Soldiers did so with the understanding that they would have to move their families and take up full-time residency among the Dogs. Instead of chastening the warriors, their alienation from the main camp led to the Dog Soldier society becoming independent from the rest of the Cheyenne bands.
Despite their alienation, the defiant and elite Dog Soldiers had no difficulty attracting young warriors. After the banishment, recruitment into the society snowballed until it comprised half of the fighting force of the tribe.
The Dog Soldiers lured the most militant of warriors into their ranks for their members would not give an inch to accommodate whites because they offered an alternative to the failed peace policies of civil leaders who were unable to prevent encroachment on their territory.
The distinction between being a military society and being a band of the Cheyenne became blurred as the Dog Soldiers became a separate division of the Cheyenne people.
The Dog Men represented a reorganization of Cheyenne society, a geographical movement, and a strong position on a political question in a disastrously changing world. The Dog Soldiers attracted all those who were unequivocally hostile to the encroachment of white settlers and prospectors and who chose war as the means to repulse this invasion of Indian country.
As the Dog Soldiers increased in members, they established a new domain for themselves. Dog Soldiers roamed east of the other Cheyenne bands, residing near the headwaters of the Republican and Smoky Hill between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers.
In this region they camped and intermarried with Republican River Brule and Oglala Lakotas. By the 1860s, bands of Lakota warriors and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers became fused into a single unit.
The restless and warlike elements of Brule and Oglala Lakotas were attracted by the defiant and obstinate nature of the Dog Soldiers, and vice versa. Together, the Cheyenne, their Arapaho associates, and the Lakotas would often form an informal alliance in the 1860s and 1870s to bar Euro-American settlement and fight the United States military on the central and northern Plains.
Cheyenne warriors also rode with Arapahoes, Kiowas, and Comanches on the southern Plains to resist the intrusion of whites into their hunting grounds.
While most Cheyenne continued to honor the the civil chiefs for their wisdom and senior standing in society, young warriors gravitated toward militant factions such as the Dog Soldiers, for these were men of direct action. They preferred the leaders of the Hotamitaneo over those leaders who advocated peace, even though there was still much sentiment for it among both the Northern and Southern Cheyenne.
The civil leaders were becoming increasingly powerless, for the young men could not be controlled. The Dog Soldiers “forbade” one of their own principal leaders, Bull Bear, from attending a Southern Cheyenne treaty council with Gerry.
The Dog Soldiers feared that Bull Bear might be swayed by the influence of the peace chiefs there. They were determined to prevent the cession of more of the Republican River and Smoky Hill River country through the signing of another disastrous treaty like that made at Fort Wise, Colorado, two years earlier.
Many observers during this time believed that the Dog Soldiers had taken control of the Southern Cheyenne. While the civil chiefs attempted to carry out their traditional authority, white officials steadily recognized the Hotamitaneo as the main source of tribal power.
During the 1860s, the Dog Soldiers struck rail stations, wagon trains, and settlements and temporarily held off further expansion into Cheyenne country, making over 400 miles between Kansas and Colorado all but unpassable for white settlers.
Unfortunately because of the Dog Soldiers activities (as well as those of other soldier societies), peaceful Cheyenne became the target of territorial militias and the American military. The most tragic case of this came with the slaughter of the peace chief Black Kettle’s people at Sand Creek, Colorado, in November of 1864.
During the period 1865-1877, the Cheyenne were in continual conflict with the United States military. By the latter 1860s, the tide was slowly turning against the Cheyenne nation as the army gradually wore down Indian resistance. In early 1869, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers inflicted severe punishment on the Kansas frontier. This was partly in retaliation for the attack of George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry on Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River in Indian Territory in November 1868.
During the assault on this peaceful Cheyenne encampment, Black Kettle and his wife were killed, along with over one hundred Cheyenne (mostly women and children). It was after this that Roman Nose, a member of the Crooked Lance Society, began riding with the Dog Soldiers.
At the Little Big Horn, it was Crazy Horse and his Lakota warriors who defeated Reno’s column, and it was the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers who led the attack against Custer’s column. While the Lakota destroyed Reno, the Dog Soldiers decimated Custer. After Crazy Horse and the Lakota annihilated Reno, they, and the Arapaho, joined the Dog Soldiers against Custer and exterminated the U. S. 7th Cavalry.
This was the last major battle won by the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors. The Northern Cheyenne were relentlessly pursued by eleven companies of cavalry under Mackenzie, along with his Pawnee and Shoshone scouts.
The pursuit ended when they located and leveled the encampment of Dull Knife in the Powder River country of Northern Wyoming on November 26, 1876. The Northern and Southern Cheyenne were forced onto reservations.
Several Indian agents asked the military societies to help keep the peace among the Cheyenne. The Dog Soldiers were particularly sought out by reservation officials to carry out this duty. But their obstinate nature and continued influence would pose a threat to government intentions.
The Dog Soldiers reemerged during the reservation period of the 1880s as a force in opposition to the assimilation programs of agency officials. At Darlington Agency, Dog Soldiers at times harassed and humiliated those who tried to accept the government’s policy of imposing the conquerors’ social and economic systems.
Though the Dog Soldiers never approached the political and military power they once had, they remained revered by other Cheyenne. They are still held in respect today.
Young Cheyenne are still recruited into this soldier clan. During the twentieth century, Dog Soldiers have served with the United States military in two World Wars and in the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf region.
While the power of the Dog Soldiers has mostly disappeared, the Cheyenne people have never forgotten their bravery..