Kicking Bear

Kicking Bear was an Oglala Sioux born between 1846 and 1853, his place of birth also remains an unknown. Kicking Bear was known to his people as Mato Wanartaka. His father was Black Fox and his mother Wood Pecker. Kicking Bear married Woodpecker Woman, a Minneconjou Sioux, the daughter of Chief Big Foot. Kicking Bear paid the endowment with horses he had taken from Crow Indians, long an enemy of the Sioux. He was a first cousin and close friend of the truly great Crazy Horse.

Kicking Bear fought in many battles against rival Indian tribes, White settlers, and the US Army including the Battle of The Little Big Horn. He is most associated with the Ghost Dance and his advocacy of it. The Ghost Dance religion was started in Utah in 1888 by Wovoka, a Paiute Indian, who advocated the belief that the religion would restore the Indian ways, resurrect their deceased ancestors, and remove the Whites from their lands. Kicking Bear was a member of a Sioux delegation who went to Nevada to investigate the Wanagi Wacipi, or Ghost Dance. When Kicking Bear returned, Chief Sitting Bull asked him to demonstrate the dance at the Standing Rock Reservation ,in North Dakota, in October 1890. Kicking Bear exhorted the Indians to become active in the ritual of the Ghost Dance. To insure the coming of the old ways Kicking Bear told the believers they must perform the Ghost Dance. Those who embraced the Ghost Dance sang a song that Kicking Bear had composed for them:

Over the glad new earth they are coming,

Our dead come driving the elk and the deer.

See them hurrying the herds of buffalo!

This the Father has promised,

This the Father has given.


Whites, government Indian officials, and the US Army became concerned about the ritual and Indian police were dispatched to escort Kicking Bear off the reservation. Newspapers continued to print stories of an impending Sioux revolution and new war. Nervous Indian Agents gave orders to stop the Ghost Dance. When the orders went unheeded, the US Army was dispatched to quell the movement.

A sad and tragic chain of events led to Wounded Knee. On the morning of December 29, 1890 Warriors at Wounded Knee Creek were ordered to give up their rifles when a shot rang out. Both sides say the other fired first. Some say a deaf Indian did not understand a Soldier’s command to give him his rifle and resisted. Within seconds shots began to be fired from all directions. The US Army had Hotchkiss guns surrounding the Indian camp which unleashed devastating destruction with their exploding rounds. The US 7th Cavalry was assigned to the Wounded Knee Creek duty and I’m sure payback for the Little Big Horn was on many of their minds. I don’t want to go into too much detail of this fight here but I will address it in a future article.

Kicking Bear and a following of up to 2,700 Indians, including 1,300 warriors, were a few miles away and heard the firefight. For eighteen days Kicking Bear led the last uprising of the Sioux. Kicking Bear led several raids against isolated US Army posts and columns, killing a few soldiers but inflicting only minor damage. The bitter cold Dakota winter greatly limited his actions with so many women and children to care for. On January 16, 1891 Kicking Bear and his followers surrendered. The last Sioux war had caused the death of more than 300 Indians, about fifty Soldiers and government agents. Most of the Soldier deaths were at Wounded Knee. The Ghost Dance movement and the Sioux way of life were both effectively over after Kicking Bear’s surrender. Kicking Bear was arrested and was sent far away to a prison at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.

In an effort to further suppress the Ghost Dance movement remnants and in an attempt to relieve tension among the Indians, a group of prominent Sioux leaders were sent to Europe to tour with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1891. Kicking Bear was told his sentence would be commuted if he joined the European tour with Buffalo Bill Cody. Kicking Bear went but found the Wild West Show to be humiliating to him and his people. After his one year tour with Buffalo Bill, Kicking Bear returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in what is now South Dakota.

In March 1896 Kicking Bear traveled to Washington, DC as one of three Sioux delegates taking grievances to the Office of Indian Affairs. Kicking Bear made his feelings known about the drunken behavior of White traders on the reservation, and asked that Indians have more ability to make their own decisions. While in Washington Kicking Bear agreed to have a life mask made of himself. The mask was to be used as the face of a Sioux Warrior to be displayed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. One must wonder if the mask’s frown is a display of defiance and sadness by a great Warrior or merely the result of the discomfort of being smothered in plaster. The figure initially was wearing Kicking Bear’s own buckskin shirt and leggings, quill ornaments, and tobacco pouch. In 1950 the clothing had begun to deteriorate and was replaced. Sadly Kicking Bear’s name was also no longer used, being replaced by the generic "Sioux Warrior". Sad indeed.

The life mask was used again in 1914 by sculptor A. Phimister Proctor to fashion fifty-six heads, bearing a semblance of a Sioux war bonnet, used to decorate the Buffalo Bridge in Washington, DC. The Buffalo Bridge is also known as Dumbarton Bridge. The bridge is suspended over the Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park.

In 1989 Kicking Bear created his famous pictograph of the Battle of The Little Big Horn for renowned western artist Frederic Remington. While in Montana, Kicking Bear became a Presbyterian missionary. In 1902 he renounced that version of Christianity and began teaching the Ghost Dance again to new converts. Shortly before his death Kicking Bear went to the grave of his father, and lifted Black Fox's skull from the grave and removed a Crow arrowhead that had killed him. When Kicking Bear died on May 28, 1904 he was buried with the arrowhead as a symbol of the ways he so dearly desired to resurrect. I was unable to locate a burial site for Kicking Bear but he is believed to be buried in the vicinity of Manderson, South Dakota.

General George Armstrong Custer can be seen in yellow buckskins on the left side of the painting. Sitting Bull , Rain-In-The-Face, Crazy Horse, and Kicking Bear stand in the open center area. The figures rendered in a line in the upper left corner represent departing spirits of dead soldiers.

Kicking Bear

Buffalo Bridge


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