Native American Legends
Chief Roman Nose loses his Medicine
A White River Lakota Legend
The Lakota and the Shahiyela - the Sioux and the Cheyenne - have
been good friends for a long time. Often they have fought shoulder
to shoulder. They fought the white soldiers on the Bozeman Road,
which we Indians called the Thieves' Road because it was built to
steal our land. They fought together on the Rosebud River, and the
two tribes united to defeat Custer in the big battle of the Little
Bighorn. Even now in a barroom brawl, a Sioux will always come to
the aid of a Cheyenne and vice versa. We Sioux will never forget
what brave fighters the Cheyenne used to be.
Over a hundred years ago the Cheyenne had a famous war chief whom
the whites called Roman Nose. He had the fierce, proud face of a
hawk, and his deeds were legendary. He always rode into battle with
a long war-bonnet trailing behind him. It was thick with eagle feathers,
and each stood for a brave deed, a coup counted on the enemy.Roman
Nose had a powerful war medicine, a magic stone he carried tied
to his hair on the back of his head. Before a fight he sprinkled
his war shirt with sacred gopher dust and painted his horse with
hailstone patterns. All these things, especially the magic stone,
made him bullet proof. Of course he could be slain by a lance, a
knife, or a tomahawk, but not with a gun. And nobody ever got the
better of Roman Nose in hand-to-hand combat.
There was one thing about Roman Nose's medicine: he was not allowed
to touch anything made of metal when eating. He had to use horn
or wooden spoons and eat from wooden or earthenware bowls. His meat
had to be cooked in a buffalo's pouch or in a clay pot, not in a
white man's iron kettle.
One day Roman Nose received word of a battle going on between white
soldiers and Cheyenne warriors. The fight had been swaying back
and forth for over a day. "Come and help us; we need you"
was the message. Roman Nose called his warriors together. They had
a hasty meal, and Roman Nose forgot about the laws of his medicine.
Using a metal spoon and a white man's steel knife, he ate buffalo
meat cooked in an iron kettle.
The white soldiers had made a fort on a sand spit island in the
middle of a river. They were shooting from behind and they had a
new type of rifle which was better and could shoot faster and further
than the Indians' arrows and old muzzle-loaders.
The Cheyenne were hurling themselves against the soldiers in attack
after attack, but the water in some spots came up to the saddles
of their horses and the river bottom was slippery. They could not
ride up quickly on the enemy, and they faced murderous fire. Their
attacks were repulsed, their losses heavy.
Roman Nose prepared for the fight by putting on his finest clothes,
war shirt, and leggings. He painted his best horse, with hailstone
designs, and he tied the pebble which made him bulletproof into
his hair at the back of his head.
But an old warrior stepped up to him and said: "You have eaten
from a iron kettle with a metal spoon and a steel knife. Your medicine
is powerless; you must not fight today. Purify yourself for four
days so that your medicine will be good again."
"But the fight is today, not in four days," said Roman
Nose. "I must lead my warriors. I will die, but only the mountains
and the rocks are forever." He put on his great war-bonnet,
sang his death song, and then charged. As he rode up to the whites'
cottonwood breastwork, a bullet hit him in the chest. He fell from
his horse; his body was immediately lifted by is warriors, and the
Cheyenne retreated with their dead chief. To honor him in death,
to give him a fitting burial, was more important than to continue
the battle. All night the soldiers in their fort could hear the
Cheyenne's mourning songs, the keening of the women. They too knew
that the great chief Roman Nose was dead. He had died as he had
lived. He had shown that sometimes it is more important to act like
a chief than to live to a great old age.
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