Lakotas on the Rosebud Remember The Life and Death of Turning Bear
By Claes H. Jacobson
He witnessed the killing of Crazy Horse and led Ghost Dancers.
“Turning Bear, a Sioux Indian aged 66 years, of Rosebud Reservation, met death under the wheels of train No. 3 early Tuesday morning,” the weekly Valentine Democrat reported on Thursday, September 7, 1911. The story didn’t make the national wires. Turning Bear was no Red Cloud, whose death at age 87 two years earlier on the Pine Ridge Reservation made headlines in major newspapers across the country. Still, Turning Bear left many marks in Lakota history, and his life story should be remembered—or perhaps heard for the first time—a century after his death at the Valentine railroad station.
The Rosebud (or Sicangu) Lakota people have not forgotten Turning Bear. They marked his death on the Big Missouri Winter Count buffalo hide, the traditional Lakota way of recording historical tribal events. In the early 1920s, John Alvin Anderson, who had begun taking photographs of the Lakota people on the Rosebud Reservation in the 19th century, captured Sam Kills Two holding a paintbrush and sitting before a copy of this winter count. Labelled “The Maker of Records,” it appears in Anderson’s 1929 book Sioux Memory Gems.
Earlier that decade, on October 27, 1921, a newspaper in Todd County, S.D., printed an article by Rosebud resident George DeCory about Turning Bear (Mato Kawinge in Lakota), written in their native language. It begins:
Mato kawinge, ehenni Laota hin toka ob kicizapi sa qon hehan ohitika keyapi.
Unfortunately, no English translation was provided. But many archived government records register Turning Bear’s name, position in the tribe and activities. The earliest known mention of him appears in the 1886 Rosebud census; the last comes in 1914. His name also appears in contemporary news accounts, a private diary and several books.
Turning Bear, according to Rosebud censuses, was born around 1848 somewhere out on the prairie. His father, Gassy, who would live until 1906, was a local tribal headman and in that capacity visited Washington and met with the president. With Two Strike, Spotted Tail, Whirlwind Soldier, Swift Bear and about 60 other Lakotas, Turning Bear enlisted in July 1877 as a U.S. Army Indian scout at Camp Sheridan, Neb. That September 5 a soldier mortally wounded the great Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse at the then Camp Robinson (Neb.) guardhouse. When Turning Bear himself died 34 years later, the Valentine Democrat noted: “The death of Turning Bear recalls many events in early Indian history to the mind of early settlers of the Northwest. Turning Bear was with Crazy Horse, the noted Sioux chief, when he met his death at Fort Robinson.”
Two years after his second enlistment period as a scout had ended in June 1878, Turning Bear was accused of horse stealing. In an August 9, 1880, letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, John Cook, Rosebud’s acting Indian agent, wrote: “On or about the 23rd day of July last, six Brule Sioux Indians, named, respectively, Turning Bear, Bear Man, Gray Dog, Bad Thunder, Horned Horses and Two Calf, left this reservation without permission and travelled leisurely toward the Loup in the state of Nebraska. Their object in making this journey was, in their own language, to recover stolen Indian horses. In plain terms, it was a horse-stealing party. They were successful; they stole seven horses used in addition thereto, killed a white man (name unknown) and returned to the agency on the 2nd inst. and boasted of their exploits.”
Indian police at Rosebud arrested Turning Bear and the five other men, but apparently none were convicted of horse stealing or any other crime. Turning Bear’s reputation as a solid citizen remained intact, and on January 1, 1886, new Indian agent James G. Wright appointed him a second lieutenant in the Indian police at a salary of $10 a month. Turning Bear did a good enough job to merit reappointment two years later.
By the end of the decade, Turning Bear had become active in the nonviolent Ghost Dance, which filled many Lakotas with hope but terrified white settlers and Indian agents. In November 1890, troops under Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke arrived. In turn, Turning Bear, Eagle Pipe, Crow Dog, High Hawk and some 1,100 followers left the reservation for the Badlands.
After the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, Turning Bear became a spokesman for the Ghost Dancers in peace councils with Brooke. Turning Bear, Eagle Pipe, High Hawk, Two Strike and Crow Dog were asked to come to Washington, D.C. Agent Wright complained about it in a January 23, 1891, letter to the Indian commissioner. “Turning Bear is not nor ever has been considered a chief or headman,” Wright wrote. “I am informed he has acted as lieutenant to the leaders in the recent trouble. He is a fearless Indian who formerly was employed as a policeman and did good service but was too much influenced by the nonprogressive Indians to be reliable. He is a prominent figure in Omaha dances and is generally profusely decorated with paint and feathers and robed in a blanket.”
Lieutenant Edward Dravo of the 6th Cavalry wrote an article in the May 30, 1893, Army and Navy Journal about meeting Turning Bear at the Rosebud Agency that spring while recruiting Indians for Troop L of the 6th Cavalry—the first Indian unit in the Department of Dakota. Dravo sent the War Department a report about trying to recruit Brulé cavalrymen:
During the enlistment I kept myself as closely “in touch” with the Indians as possible and attended the three “Omaha dances” given by Sky Bull and Big Turkey’s camp during my stay at the agency.
Among the headmen of these camps is Turning Bear, who was a chief of the dog soldiers of the Brulés in the Badlands during the last outbreak. His brother is enlisted in the troop, and he tried to have his oldest son, a boy of 16, enlisted, but he failed to pass. Turning Bear afterward expressed great regret to me about his failure and hoped that when he got older and stronger he would have another chance. Turning Bear also came to me and asked me to promise him that if ever the troop was to go on dangerous service near where he was, I should let him know so that he could go with them.
Turning Bear’s son, Ottomar Turning Bear, got that second chance on February 13, 1893, when at age 17 he enlisted at Fort Niobrara as a trumpeter in Troop L. Certifying that he was the boy’s father, Turning Bear placed his X mark on the enlistment form. Another of Turning Bear’s sons, David, would enlist on June 24, 1918, as a private in the 351st Infantry, though by then his father had been dead for seven years. David served in northern France, dying of pneumonia at an Army hospital on October 10, 1918.
After that mention in the 1893 Army and Navy Journal, Turning Bear’s name did not appear in any written accounts until his death. The Valentine Democrat wasn’t the only newspaper to note the September 1911 train accident that killed the respected Lakota leader. “Turning Bear, a Rosebud Sioux Indian, was struck [by] the westbound passenger train at 1:30 o’clock Tuesday morning,” reported The Republican, also of Valentine. “He and his family were at the depot expecting to meet a friend. As No. 3 passenger train approached the depot from the east, Turning Bear attempted to join his family by crossing in front of the engine. It is believed that when he saw the train approaching, he became bewildered and did not realize the danger or the risk he was taking. Turning Bear was recognized as one of the best Indians on the reservation and never indulged in intoxicating drinks. Valentine citizens regret the accident and sympathize with his family and other relatives.”
Father Florentine Digmann, a Jesuit on the Rosebud Reservation, wrote in a September 5, 1911, diary entry: “Last night Turning Bear was overrun by a passenger train on the Valentine depot. Buried on the 7th. His family offered Holy Communion for his soul. Had been to the Sacraments not long ago.”
But Turning Bear is best remembered in pictures. Anderson photographed him several times and bought a tomahawk pipe from him in 1886.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West.
Post by kingsleybray on Jul 22, 2020 7:20:34 GMT -5
thanks for posting the useful biography of Turning Bear, gregor.
Some points to add. The first reference I have to Turning Bear is for 1868. According to Hollow Horn Bear, who was also there, Turning Bear fought at the Battle of Beecher's Island, in September of that year. He would have been probably 19 or 20.
When Turning Bear and his fellow defendants were released by a Nebraska court in spring 1881 after facing charges of killing a white man on Loup Fork, they were accorded a heroes' welcome home at Rosebud Agency. Spotted Tail seems to have been fond of Turning Bear and he urged the young man (age 32-33) to pledge the Sun Dance. Turning Bear then acted as Chief Dancer in the Rosebud Sun Dance (late June or July), just weeks before the killing of Spotted Tail by Crow Dog.
Thanks to Dietmar for some of these sources.
The 1886 Rosebud census lists his family as follows:
Turning Bear age 37 Standing Holy, wife, 35 Owns the Battle, daughter, 4 Brings Plenty, son, 15 Use His Eyes, son, 9 Brings the Horse, son, 7 Black Man, son, 2 Leader, step-son, 3
This implies that Turning Bear married in or about 1870. Given the reference to his role in the Beecher's Island fight, he and his family (including father Gassy) were probably in Two Strike's camp which refused to leave the hunting grounds south of the Platte when Spotted Tail led part of the Sicangu tribe to Whetstone Agency in September 1868. Two Strike's people joined Spotted Tail's camp in January 1870 after being driven from the hunting grounds by Col. Eugene A. Carr's 5th Cavalry and Pawnee Indian Scouts. So Turning Bear probably married later that year after his band re-integrated into the main Sicangu tribal camp.
Oral tradition shared with me indicates that the Strong Heart, Cante Tinza, society was in charge of policing duties in Two Strike's camp in 1868. This raises the possibility that Turning Bear himself was a member of that society as a young man. Later he certainly belonged to the Omaha society, as photographic evidence attests.
Hi guys, thank you for your contributions ... but, when I look at the photographs ... is this really always the same person? Or is it possible there were different "Turning Bears" among the Brulés? Toksha Gregor