It was while reading one of my favorite authors, Margaret Coel’s book “Killing Custer” that I was reminded of the killing of Chief Lean Bear.
I have often thought about what the Native American could have done differently that might have enabled them to avoid the brutal and inhumane treatment they suffered in the 1800’s. But, my research has found that they did try everything and there was nothing that would have worked. For me, that futility is epitomized in the story of Chief Lean Bear.
I think the first time we hear of Lean Bear (or Starving Bear) was in 1851 when all of the plains tribes were invited to Fort Atkinson, near present day Dodge City, Kansas, for a preliminary peace council. The Indians and soldiers took the opportunity to mingle and trade goods. Lean Bear, who would have been around thirty-five at the time, was fascinated by the sparkling rings and bracelets worn by the wife of Colonel E. V. Sumner. Impulsively, he grabbed her hand to get a closer look. But Mrs. Sumner was horrified, drew back her hand and screamed in protest. Colonel Sumner “pommeled” Lean Bear over the head with the luggage he was carrying. Indian agent, Thomas Fitzpatrick later described it as “a good sound flogging”.
Infuriated, Lean Bear went to his tent, put on all his war clothing and war paint, hopped on his horse and rode through
the Cheyenne village swinging his tomahawk and calling on his brothers to join him in an attack on the whites. Several Kiowas and Comanches who observed him went to Agent Fitzpatrick to warn him. At first, Fitzpatrick ignored the warnings until other tribe leaders approached Fitzpatrick. A meeting between Sumner and Lean Bear was arranged and Colonel Sumner apologized and presented Lean Bear with a blanket.
The next time Chief Lean Bear appears in history was in 1857 when he and three other Cheyenne chiefs went to William Bent at his fort to complain
about a recent attack by Colonel Sumner on the Republican River. On their behalf, Bent sent a letter to Washington DC. Fearful that the plains tribes might join the Confederacy, they were invited to meet with President Lincoln.
Taking a stagecoach to St. Louis and then train to Washington D.C., Spotted Wolf later told Lincoln, “When I look about me and see all these fine things, it seems like some kind of magic. I do not even know how I got here, so far away from home. It seems to me that I must have come on wings – like a bird through the air.”
The east room of the white house was filled with the Indian delegated sitting on the floor and delegates, staff, and important leaders standing around them. When Lincoln entered the room, he welcomed them with a lengthy greeting and then told them he would welcome hearing anything they wished to say. Lean Bear stood, but then asked for a chair explaining that he was so nervous he could not stand.
“The President is the Great Chief of the White People,” Lean Bear said through an interpreter. “I am the Great Chief of the Indians. Our Wigwams are not so fine as this; they are small and poor. I hope the Great Chief will look upon his people [Indians] with favor, and say in his wisdom what would be best for them to do. … I will hear all the Great Chief has to say; and when I go away I will not carry [his words] in my pocket, but in my heart, where they will not be lost.”
Lean Bear told Lincoln that many white people were moving into his country and his own people wished to live in peace with them, but he was fearful that the whites did not share this wish. Even so, he promised to keep his warriors in line unless they were threatened by the whites and remain neutral in the Civil War.
After Spotted Wolf spoke, nobody else elected to speak so Lincoln called upon Professor Joseph Henry, from the Smithsonian Institute, to take a globe and give them a quick geography lesson. Lincoln then turned to Lean Bear and addressed the question he had posed, “What would be best for the Natives to do? I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life,” admitted Lincoln. “I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.”
President Lincoln presented Chief Lean Bear with a medal honoring his commitment for peace, a letter acknowledging their meeting and friendship, and shook his hand. Lean Bear came away from the meeting and returned to his people a committed ambassador for peace.
Next week, the rest of the story!
by Courtney Miller
Book One, The First Raven Mocker
Now available online and at bookstores
in paperback and e-book format