Brave Woman Counts Coup - Lakota / White River

Over a hundred years ago, when many Lakota were still living in what now is
Minnesota, there was a band of Hunkpapa Lakota at Spirit Lake under a chief
called Tawa Makoce, meaning His Country. It was his country, too - Indian
country, until the white soldiers with their cannon finally drove the Lakota
tribes across the Mni Shoshay: The Big Muddy, the Missouri.

In his youth the chief had been one of the greatest warriors.

Later when his fighting days were over, he was known as a wise leader,
invaluable in council, and as a great giver of feasts, a provider for the
poor. The chief had three sons and one daughter. The sons tried to be
warriors as mighty as their father, but that was a hard thing to do. Again
and again they battled the Crow Indians with reckless bravery, exposing
themselves in the front rank, fighting hand to hand, until one by one they
all were killed. Now only his daughter was left to the sad old chief. Some
say her name was Makhta. Others call her Winyan Ohitika, Brave Woman.

The girl was beautiful and proud. Many young men sent their fathers to the
old chief with gifts of fine horses that were preliminary to marriage
proposals. Among those who desired her for a wife was a young warrior named
Red Horn, himself the son of a chief, who sent his father again and again to
ask for her hand. But Brave Woman would not marry. "I will not take a
husband," she said, "until I have counted coup on the Crows to avenge my
dead brothers."

Another young man who loved Brave Woman was Wanblee Cikala, or Little Eagle..
He was too shy to declare his love, because he was a poor boy who had never
been able to distinguish himself.

At this time the Kangi Oyate, the Crow nation, made a great effort to
establish themselves along the banks of the upper Missouri in country, which
the Lakota considered their own. The Lakota decide to send out a strong war
party to chase them back, and among the young men riding out were Red Horn
and Little Eagle. "I shall ride with you," Brave Woman said. She put on her
best dress of white buckskin richly decorated with beads and porcupine
quills, and around her neck she wore a choker of dentalium shells. She went
to the old chief. "Father," she said, "I must go to the place where my
brothers died. I must count coup for them. Tell me that I can go." The old
chief wept with pride and sorrow. "You are my last child," he said, "and I
fear for you and for a lonely old age without children to comfort me. But
your mind has long been made up. I see that you must go; do it quickly. Wear
my war bonnet into battle. Go and do not look back."

And, so his daughter, taking her brothers' weapons and her father's war
bonnet and best war pony, rode out with the warriors.

They found an enemy village so huge that it seemed to contain the whole Crow
nation - hundreds of men and thousands of horses. There were many more Crows
than Lakota, but the Lakota attacked nevertheless. Brave Woman was a sight
to stir the warriors to great deeds. To Red Horn she gave her oldest
brother's lance and shield. "Count coup for my dead brother," she said. To
Little Eagle she gave her second brother's bow and arrows. "Count coup for
him who owned these," she told him. To another young warrior she gave her
youngest brother's war club. She herself carried only her father's old,
curved coup stick wrapped in otter fur.

At first Brave Woman held back from the fight. She supported the Lakota by
singing brave-heart songs and by making the shrill, trembling war cry with
which Indian women encourage their men. But when the Lakota, including her
own warriors from the Hunkpapa band, were driven back by overwhelming
numbers, she rode into the midst of the battle. She did not try to kill her
enemies, but counted coup left and right, touching them with her coup stick.
With a woman fighting so bravely among them, what Lakota warrior could think
of retreat?

Still, the press of the Crow and their horses drove the Lakota back a second
time. Brave Woman's horse was hit by a musket bullet and went down. She was
on foot, defenseless, when Red Horn passed her on his speckled pony. She was
too proud to call out for help, and he pretended not to see her. Then Little
Eagle came riding toward her out of the dust of battle. He dismounted and
told her to get on his horse. She did, expecting him to climb up behind her,
but he would not. "This horse is wounded and too weak to carry us both," he
said. "I won't leave you to be killed," she told him. He took her brother's
bow and struck the horse sharply with it across the rump. The horse bolted,
as he intended, and Little Eagle went back into battle on foot. Brave Woman
herself rallied the warriors for a final charge, which they made with such
fury that the Crows had to give way at last.

This was the battle in which the Crow nation was driven away from the
Missouri for good. It was a great victory, but many brave young men died.
Among them was Little Eagle, struck down with his face to the enemy.

The Lakota warriors broke Red Horn's bow, took his eagle feathers from him,
and sent him home. But they placed the body of Little Eagle on a high
scaffold on the spot where the enemy camp had been. They killed his horse to
serve him in the land of many lodges. "Go willingly," they told the horse.
"Your master has need of you in the spirit world."

Brave Woman gashed her arms and legs with a sharp knife. She cut her hair
short and tore her white buckskin dress. Thus she mourned for Little Eagle.
They had not been man and wife; in fact he had hardly dared speak to her or
look at her, but now she asked everybody to treat her as if she were the
young warrior's widow.

Brave Woman never took a husband, and she never ceased to mourn for Little
Eagle. "I am his widow," she told everyone. She died of old age. She had
done a great thing, and her fame endures.

Told by Jenny Leading Cloud at White River, Rosebud Indian Reservation,
South Dakota, 1967.