Historians have long confused their biographies.
He Dog was an Oglala Sioux leader. He Dog was a Brulé Sioux leader. Both statements are true. The confusion in certain histories of the Lakota people over whether He Dog (Sunka Bloka) was an Oglala or a Brulé stems from trying to meld two individuals into one. The official censuses for the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries record two headmen of this name as contemporaries.
Period photographs confirm their identities—notably an 1891 collage by John Choate of Carlisle, Pa. After a delegation of Oglalas and Brulés visited Washington, D.C., the delegates traveled to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to visit their children and inspect the government-provided boarding school. The February 20, 1891, issue of Indian Helper, the school magazine, presents a list of the delegates, including the two He Dogs. Choate photographed the men individually, then created a cabinet-card collage of the 17 portraits, each labeled with the subject’s name and tribal affiliation.
I came across Choate’s collage in the 1980s while researching the life of John Anderson and his photographic legacy on the Rosebud Reservation in the 19th century. The Swedish-born Anderson had also photographed the Brulé He Dog from Rosebud. In fact, while in South Dakota, Anderson had photographed seven of the other delegates seen in Choate’s collage.
Anderson’s photos confirm that Rosebud was home to one He Dog, Pine Ridge home to the other. In the late 1980s, I also corresponded with—and later met and interviewed—Rosebud-born U.S. Congressman Ben Reifel (1906–1990). He confirmed that Anderson had photographed the Brulé He Dog, and that the Oglala He Dog had lived at Pine Ridge. In a January 14, 1988, letter, Reifel wrote:
Yes, there were two He Dogs. The Rosebud He Dog I did not know. He had a community over which he was chief, and a day school was named after him. After the school was abandoned and two others consolidated near Parmalee, formerly called Cut Meat Day School, where my mother—Lucy Burning Breast—went and I for one year, is now the He Dog Day School.
The He Dog I knew was a resident of the Oglala district on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I was assigned there as farm agent, July 1, 1933. At that time, he was bedridden in a little log hovel near a relative. He was reputed to be 100 years old. He had been an Indian judge at the Pine Ridge Agency for years.
About that time, I had started an excellent working relationship with Harry H. Anderson, an expert on the history of the Lakota people in South Dakota. As early as 1971, in a letter to the editor of Montana: The Magazine of Western History, he had pointed out there were two He Dogs. Anderson (no relation to the photographer) wrote the magazine to correct an error in an article about the Sioux in a previous issue. In his own research, he had identified two contemporary Sioux leaders named He Dog—one at Rosebud and the other at Pine Ridge. That sealed the deal. Two different He Dogs very close in age had made their mark on the Lakota world. Here’s a closer look at the two men:
He Dog, Oglala (1840–1936)
He Dog, the son of Black Rock and Blue Day Woman and nephew of famed Oglala Chief Red Cloud, was born around 1840 in Old Smoke’s camp near Bear Butte in what would become South Dakota. He lived with his wife Lucy He Dog, or Rock, in the White Clay district of Pine Ridge.
A close friend of Crazy Horse, He Dog participated in the December 1866 Fetterman Fight outside Fort Phil Kearny in what would become Wyoming. In the mid-1870s, on the strength of He Dog’s fighting skills and influence, the Lakota named him a shirt wearer, or warrior leader, along with American Horse, Crazy Horse and Sword. In March 1876, soldiers attacked He Dog and his band as they camped with Northern Cheyennes on the Powder River in Wyoming Territory. That June he faced both George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud and George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In September he participated in the Battle of Slim Buttes. When Crazy Horse surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency in May 1877, He Dog was with him. Shortly thereafter, He Dog and other Oglalas traveled to Washington to meet the president.
In 1891 He Dog was a witness when the young Lakota man Plenty Horses stood trial for killing Lieutenant Ned Casey in a post–Wounded Knee incident. From the 1890s until near the end of his long life, he served as a judge on the Court of Indian Offenses at Pine Ridge. By the 1930s, He Dog was the last surviving shirt wearer. Considered a living repository of Oglala tribal legend, the aged warrior supplied historical information to such noted authors and experts as George Hyde, Mari Sandoz, Elinor Hinman, Helen Blish and General Hugh L. Scott.
He Dog, Brulé (1836–1927)
Born somewhere in what would become Nebraska to White Hawk Head (d. 1859) and Her Good Cane (d. 1890), He Dog initially answered to Nite Waste (“Good Hip”). In spring 1865, he enlisted as an Army scout with fellow Brulés Big Mouth, Quick Bear, Whirlwind Soldier, Sitting Bear, Kills Him Alive and Hard Forehead.
He took the name He Dog when he became a tribal leader in the 1870s. As head of Spotted Tail’s soldiers (akicita), he joined a large Sioux delegation to Washington in 1875 to discuss the sale of the Black Hills. (In 1919 He Dog claimed to be the only surviving member of that group.)
In 1881 he testified at the trial of Crow Dog, who was accused of killing the Brulé leader Spotted Tail. He Dog stated he was on the road behind Spotted Tail after the close of a meeting on August 5, 1881, when Crow Dog pulled his wagon across Spotted Tail’s path, took aim and shot him dead. Crow Dog was convicted and sentenced to death but later acquitted
following public outcry. In the mid-1880s, He Dog joined the Rosebud Indian Police as a private, earning $8 a month. About this time, he made an agreement with Rosebud agent J.G. Wright and settled with his followers some four miles southwest of Parmalee. He Dog’s Camp, as it was known, was later recognized as one of the reservation’s permanent communities.
He Dog’s prominence as a Brulé leader was confirmed by his selection as a delegate to the Indian commissioner in Washington in 1888 and again in 1891. In 1889 he signed a land agreement as a member of what was called the Brulé band No. 2.
While living on Rosebud, He Dog expressed his preference for new schools on the reservation versus distant boarding schools. A Rosebud Jesuit priest known as Father Digmann said He Dog was instrumental in founding the St. Francis Mission school, which by 1927 had more than 500 students and was the country’s largest mission school. In his later years, He Dog lived in the northwestern part of the Cut Meat district. On the reservation survey of 1923, he is described as “an old Indian who at one time was an influential man and was known as chief He Dog.”
He Dog was married four times and had several children, some of whom preceded him in death. His great-grandchildren are education advocates on the reservation. One teaches language in the Lakota studies department at Rosebud’s Sinte Gleska University [www.sintegleska.edu].
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.