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Little Priest

Ira Hayes died in 1955 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery, but, without a doubt, you've seen him.

The Japanese were dug in deep to protect themselves and, more importantly, the path to Tokyo. On February 19, 1945, Ira Hayes and his 5th Marine Division, met deadly gunfire on the beach. Only after four long days of fighting did they take the 554-foot hill where six of them raised Old Glory, oblivious to some civilian with a camera, a man named Rosenthal, who just happened to take an iconic shot America today regards as precious. I’m sure you know that picture or the monument—everyone does: six Marines hoisting the flag at Iwo Gima.

It should come as no surprise that one of those marines, Ira Hayes, was Native. Even though millions of white folks stampeded over open land, even though a million Euro-Americans homesteaded on a Native frontier, killed off buffalo and erected barbed wire fences, Native American cemeteries still offer a flowing sea of Old Glories, because the warrior spirit is no small thing to tribal people. A host of powwows begin traditional ceremonies by honoring local veterans. A dozen businesses, a main street, and a tribal college just down the road on the Winnebago reservation all take the name of a celebrated Ho-Chunk warrior named Little Priest, who happened also to be the last traditional Winnebago war chief.

His people watched him grow stronger--or so the story goes, until one day, miraculously, he stood and began to dance.

In April of 1866, out in Wyoming Territory, far, far from home, Little Priest let his men know the immediate future. "Today I will be fighting all day," he told them, which turned out to be true. Vastly outnumbered by the enemy, Little Priest got separated from his men that morning and was shot four times. Even then, he put up impossible resistance in an all-day battle he'd said he would fight. Several of his attackers were killed.

When reinforcements arrived, they simply presumed Little Priest was gone but were delighted to discover he hadn't as yet passed into the Spirit World.

Little Priest’s friends sang and danced over him for four days--Grizzly Bear songs, especially, because Little Priest had insisted in a previous life he was himself a grizzly. His people watched him grow stronger--or so the story goes, until one day, miraculously, he stood and began to dance.

Just a few months later, on September 12, 1866, those battle wounds put him down, or maybe we should say, brought him up. You can find his grave at Decatur, NE. Little Priest has been gone for a long, long time; but he’s not been forgotten.

If your pedigree is European, not Native, it may surprise you to know the enemy that fateful day in Wyoming Territory wasn't some rogue unit of the U. S. Cavalry, not white men. The Winnebago scouts fought the Arapaho. Little Priest and seventy of his warriors were scouts for U. S. forces during Red Cloud’s War.

Just outside of Winnebago, Nebraska, pull over at the historical marker that still celebrates "the Winnebago Scouts." You can’t help but appreciate the deep reverence the Winnebago people still hold for its warriors, past and present.

"In the summer of 1866, upon the return of the Winnebago veterans, a homecoming festival was held," the sign says. Get that—1866. "Shortly thereafter, Chief Little Priest died of wounds received in army service."

There's more. “An annual memorial celebration is held in remembrance of his sacrifice. The year following his death, Little Priest's service flag was raised as a symbol of the tribe's allegiance to their country,” the sign says. “This ceremony remains an important part of each celebration. Later the gatherings became known as the Annual Pow-wow.”

Just thought you’d like to know about the warriors among us.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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