On Veterans Day: Chief White Swan on Warrior vs. Soldier

Chief White SwanPORTLAND, OREGON — I often think about the fundamental differences between the culture of my own people and that of the culture that found its way across the ocean from the Old Feudal World.

When I was Sundancing, the old men used to talk to us Sundancers a lot about the Lakota concept of being Ikce Wicasa that is “free, simple people.”  It was a concept that took pride of place in our culture and stands in contrast to the Feudal system with the lords on top of the pyramid and the multitude of serfs on the bottom. Their description of Ikce Wicasa reminded me a story my grandmother’s Uncle Vine Deloria, Sr. used to tell about what Yankton Chief White Swan: It concerned the difference between being a soldier and being a Dakota warrior.

Soldiers follow orders in contrast to our warriors, who were truly Ikce Wicasa.  We didn’t build great monuments or enthrone a few in gold, but we lived authentic lives as people and I believe that is the secret of our success as human beings as Dakota and Lakota.

Here is the story of “Soldiers versus Warriors” as told by Vine Deloria, Sr. from “Remember Your Relatives: Yankton Sioux Images, 1851 to 1904” by Renee Sampson Flood and Shirley A. Bernie:

“You know . . . after the Minnesota Sioux War  [in 1862] . . . a lot of refugees [the Santee] came to live among the Yanktons [my dad’s tribe]. The government had issued orders to General Sully to visit the Yanktons and remind them of their Treaty obligations.  He was to tell them that since the [United States] government was an ally of the Yanktons, the refugees should be treated as enemies.  General Sully held a council with the Yanktons and told them, ‘I’m going to be gone about four months. When I return, I want you to tell me that they’re gone.’

The Yanktons told themselves that these refugees were their relatives. Why should we drive our own people out, they thought.  Later, Sully came back and said, ‘Well, did you drive them out?’ The Yanktons told him they did not. Then General Sully told them, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I think that the President (Lincoln) is asking too much. I’m going to be gone again, so during that time if you shoot one of these refugees, I’ll report that the Yanktons are allies. They have killed the Isanti.’ Struck by the Ree came to my (great) grandfather (Francois des Lauriers) and asked him if he would do this.  My grandfather said, ‘Yes, I suppose. I’ve killed two Sioux and this will make a third. I had that in a dream. I saw four purification lodges in my vision. At the end was a great big, black hawk.  And on the side was a big, white owl.  And they stood there.  They told me that by passing those purification lodges, I was going to kill four of our own people.  I’ve killed two and here is the third.  I’ll kill him.’  So, he did.  When Sully returned, he came with two mule teams and a driver.  He sat up there on the back.  He said, ‘Well, did you shoot one?’  Struck told him at had been done.  Then, Sully asked ‘Who shot him?’ Struck told him Deloria had shot the man. Sully told him, ‘Oh, I meant for one of you full bloods to do it. Deloria is half French. I’m going to go back and bring my soldiers to attack you.’  White Swan walked up to him.  He said, ‘Tell this monster to get down.’  So Sully got down.  ‘Sully,’ said White Swan, ‘You’re a fighting man and I’m a fighting man.  When your boys go into battle, you’re on top of a big butte back there with your field glasses on, riding the fastest horse. When there are enemies coming, I go without asking anybody to join me. And my warriors look at each other and say, ‘Get on your horses. That darn fool will get himself killed.’

Jacqueline KeelerSo they come thundering from behind.  When your soldiers are getting beat, and they try to run, you have them shot. When some of my warriors get scared, and run, that’s alright. Maybe they’ll be braver some other time.  So you select any gun, any weapon that you want and give me fifteen paces, and with these two knives, I’ll dodge you all the way, and chop you all up.’ Then Sully told him that he didn’t mean anything by what he had said and White Swan said, ‘I don’t know how you meant it!’  White Swan bluffed Sully down. THAT was White Swan.”
The authors add the following description of Chief White Swan

“After the war ended White Swan expressed his concern about what would be done with the captured Minnesota tribes. When visitors came to his lodge, he kept them up half the night talking about current national events such as the Civil War. Many of these people, both Indian and white, came away from their visits with him impressed by his keen intelligence and wit.”

So for, Veteran’s Day, I had my children read this story passed down in our family for 150 years. My dad served in the U.S. Army, but had no love for it—reserving his true dedication and love for us, his family. He was a lot like White Swan, who was the head man of the village our family was from.  A village that was later put under water by the dam at Fort Randall. This summer, I took my children there and with their cousins they played in the water by the shore of the dam. Life goes on, our people persist.

Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She is producing a documentary, “7-Oil-1: Inside the Bakken” about the oil boom on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota and a mother of two living in Portland, Oregon.


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  1. Tanya Morgan-Zagrodney 7 years ago
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