Siege of the Courthouse Rock
[White River Sioux]
Nebraska is green and flat, a part of the vast corn belt. There are farms everywhere, and silos, and the land does not look like the West at all. But as you travel on toward the setting sun, you find three great, wild rocks which rise out of the plains. First you come to Chimney Rock, towering lie a giant needle on the prairie. It was a famous landmark for the settlers in their covered wagons as they traveled west on the Oregon trail or took the more southerly route to the Colorado goldfields.
Then you come to the twins–Courthouse Rock and Jailhouse Rock. Formed of yellowish stone, they are covered with yucca plants and sagebrush. Mud swallows nest in the rock faces. If yo climb one of the twins, there is a wonderful view of the plains all around. And westward beyond the plains rise the chalk cliffs and the sandhills of Nebraska, home of many western Sioux.
A long time ago a Sioux war party surprised a war party of Pahani near Courthouse Rock. We Sioux had been fighting many battles with the Pahani. The whites had pushed nations like ours, whose homeland was further east near the Great Lakes, westward into the prairie and the hunting grounds of other tribes. Maybe the Pahani were there before us; who knows? At any rate, now we were hunting the same herds in the same place, and naturally we fought.
I guess there must have been more of us than of the Pahani, and they retreated to the top of Courthouse Rock to save themselves. Three sides of Courthouse Rock go straight up and down like the sides of a skyscraper. No one can climb them. Only the fourth side had a path to the top, and it could easily be defended by a few brave men.
Thus the Pahani were on the top and the Sioux a the foot of Courthouse Rock. The Sioux chief told his warriors: “It’s no use trying to storm it. Only three or four men can go up that path abreast, so even the women and children could defend it. But the Pahani have no water, and soon they’ll run out of food. They can stay up there and starve or die of thirst, or they can come and fight us on the plain. When they climb down, we can kill them and count many coups on them.” The Sioux settled down to wait at the foot of the rock.
On the summit, as the Sioux chief expected, the Pahani suffered from hunger and thirst. They grew weak. Though there was little hope for them, they had a brave leader who could use his head. He knew that three sides of the rock were unguarded but that one would only have to be a bird to climb down them. On one of the three steep sides, however, there was a round bulge jutting out from the rock face. “If we could fasten a rope to it, we could let ourselves down,” he thought. But the outcropping was too smooth, round, and wide to hold a lasso.
Then the Pahani leader tried his knife on the rock bulge. he found that the stone was soft enough for the knife to bite easily into, and he began patiently whittling a ground around the bulge. He and his men worked only at night so the Sioux wouldn’t see what they were up to. After two nights they had carved a groove deep enough. When they tied all of the rawhide ropes together, they found that the line would reach the ground.
On the third night the Pahani leader tied one end of the rope around the bulge in the rock. He himself tested it by climbing all the way down and then up again, which took most of the night.
On the next and fourth night, he told his men: “Now we do it. Let the youngest go first.” The Pahani climbed down one by one, the youngest go first.” The Pahani climbed down one by one, the youngest and least accomplished first, so that a large group of people could belay them, and the older and more experienced warriors later. The leader came down last. The Sioux did not notice them at all, and the whole party stole away.
The Sioux stayed at the foot of the rock for many days. They themselves grew hungry, because they had hunted out all of the game. At last a young, brave warrior said: “They must all be dead up there. I’m fed up with waiting; I’ll go up and see.” He climbed the path to the top and shouted down that nobody was up there.
That time the joke was on us Siox. It’s always good to tell a story honoring a brave enemy, especially when the story is true. Are there any Pahani listening?”
–Told by Jenny Leading Cloud at White River, Rosebud
Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 1967.
Recorded by Richard Erdoes.