Here's the story. Some Lakota warriors, at great peril, rescued the white hostages, two women and five children, who'd been taken captive after White Lodge and his band attacked the settlers at Lake Shetek, on August 20, 1862. During the day-long fighting, 15 whites were murdered; 21 escaped.
The Natives, who were Santee Dakota, went north and west with their prisoners, once it was clear the Dakota War had come to an abrupt end. They stayed on the run for weeks, in part because they were toxic to tribes and bands out west and north, bands who had not slaughtered settlers.
Wikipedia describes the story this way: "A band of pacifist Lakota later ransomed the eight surviving captives, who were reunited with their families." However, on the very same page, a different scenario is offered: "The captive settlers were freed four months later when other white settlers ran across a group of Dakotas with the captives and traded supplies for their freedom."
That second explanation is wrong. The men who ransomed the surviving captives were a Lakota warrior society from the Cheyenne River Reservation, many from the Two Kettle band. The rescue they accomplished was an act of courage and moral resolution that not all the members of their own band appreciated. They had named themselves "the Strong Hearts," but eventually came to be known as "Fool Soldiers."
Now should you read the Sioux City Register of late 1862, you might assume that the Fool Soldiers were mercenaries who had no stake in the conflict and, with a pocket full of cash, determined they'd take on White Lodge and bring the prisoners back to civilization as directed by the fort commander who, according to the account, wanted credit for the entire operation. That's way wrong.
Lakota oral history claims one of the men had had a vision which, together, the rest of them interpreted with immediate relevance. What that vision meant was that this warrior society had to do acts of kindness and charity, not go to war. Let that register a minute--they determined that, as warriors, they would not go to war.
Now White Lodge and his people had stayed with the Two Kettle band for a time; when they left, the Strong Hearts became real Fool Soldiers and determined they'd do everything they could to ransom the hostages.
They found White Lodge where the Grand River empties into the Missouri, near Mobridge, SD, at a spot now long ago buried beneath Lake Oahe. That rescue was fraught with danger, at first with White Lodge himself (he'd taken one of the women as his wife) and later with treacherous sub-zero temperatures. Some of their number froze to death. But as Wikipedia says, eventually the hostages were reunited with their families. They should have been heroes. In 1863, if they weren't Lakota warriors, they would have been.
Of the two versions of the story, I have no trouble believing the story from Lakota oral history. The newspaper account is self-serving; the writer wants only to get credit for what he claims was his heroic work.
But what I struggle to understand is why these young men, who'd already proved themselves in war, who were already warriors in the eyes of their people--why did they decide to risk their lives to rescue the prisoners?
Last night, I thought I'd have a look at Josephine Waggoner's monumental study, Witness. It's a huge collection of stories meant to preserve a culture Ms. Waggoner, a Lakota woman educated at Hampton Institute, felt was being lost with the deaths of thousands of men and women who'd grown up in the old ways. During the 1920s and 30s, she traveled throughout the South Dakota reservations, to gather a chronicle of witness to the events of decades earlier.
When Ms. Waggoner tells the story of Yanktonai band leader named Mad Bear, she says something I'd never seen before:
When Father DeSmet came to Fort Pierre in 1851, it was an event to be remembered by the Indians. Cholera had taken its toll from the lives of the people; there was suffering everywhere, and to cap the climax, smallpox was coming on. The Indians were in terror, but the good Father had had the cholera the year before as he traveled up the Missouri in a steamboat and had also had the smallpox. He was familiar with the treatment of these diseases, and he went from tent to tent relieving the sick and baptizing the dying. Many Indians remarked on the mercy of a man whose religion took him to minister to those with the dread diseases. Many a man, woman, and child were saved from death. At this time Mad Bear was a mere lad of about fourteen years, but like many at the time, was greatly influenced and impressed by the principles of the black-robed priest.
Ten years later, some of these young warriors who Father DeSmet had taught formed a society. They pledged themselves to uphold what was right, always to do good as far as they could, and to right all wrongs that came their way. These men who formed the first Christian society west of the Missouri River among the wild tribes were. . .The society called themselves Strong Hearts, but because they did so many unusual things in fulfilling their pledge to keep law and order and in punishing many a lawless man, the other Indians called them Fool Soldiers.
That story took my breath away. Is it true? Did the Fool Soldiers get their sense of mission from a vision, a very Native source?--or was it Father DeSmet's witness? Could it have been both.
No one will ever know, I suppose. Josephine Waggoner had her prejudices, just as all of us do.
But I'd love to believe the DeSmet story. I'd love to believe that the Fool Soldiers' moral compass was created somehow by the witness of a beloved priest who'd come among them to care.