On the plains of 19th-century America, warring bands of Native Americans battle for a land that’s changing before their eyes. In the midst of this chaos, a ten-year-old girl is abducted by an enemy tribe. Years later, she will become a warrior in her own right – earning her place as an equal among men.
The story began in 1806, when a baby girl was born into the Gros Ventre tribe. Originally from the lands west of the Great Lakes, her people – whose name means “big bellies” in French – had migrated south to escape conflict with rival factions. And 50 years earlier, they had encountered white men for the first time.
With their numbers decimated by smallpox and attacks by enemy tribes, the Gros Ventres were caught in a battle for survival. And it was in this challenging, violent environment that the girl spent much of her childhood. But when she was just ten years old, something happened that would change the course of her life for good.
Apparently, a party of raiders from an enemy Crow tribe attacked the girl’s camp and took her prisoner. But instead of death, she found herself facing a different fate. For reasons unknown, a Crow fighter decided to take the girl under his wing and bring her up as one of his own.
From an early age, the girl showed an interest in activities and pursuits that were usually the preserve of men. And although the Crow, like many Native Americans, recognized the gender-fluid concept of Two-Spirit people, she continued to dress and present herself as a woman.
Having lost all his sons to either death or capture during the Crow’s ongoing battle with the Blackfoot, the girl’s foster father endorsed her unusual interests. And as she grew, she developed a reputation as a proficient horsewoman and an excellent shot. Moreover, her ability to slaughter and butcher wild buffalo was renowned.
When her foster father passed away, the girl – now a woman – took over his role as the number one in their lodge. However, it took a raid from a rival band of Blackfoot for her to earn true respect from her peers. According to the story, she was part of a group of Crow taking shelter in a fort along with white families when the enemy struck.
Apparently, the woman bravely stood her ground against the Blackfoot attackers, putting up such a fierce fight that her efforts helped see them off. And that wasn’t all. In the aftermath of the attack, she gathered together a group of Crow fighters and launched a number of retaliatory assaults on surrounding Blackfoot communities.
After taking many of the enemies’ horses – not to mention their scalps – the woman was finally accepted as a warrior by the rest of her tribe. Renamed Bíawacheeitchish, which means Woman Chief in the Crow’s Siouan language, she was at last able to represent her lodge at the Council of Chiefs.
As a chief, Bíawacheeitchish thrived, eventually rising to the the very top of the Crow hierarchy. In fact, out of the 160 lodges represented at the council, she became the third most powerful leader. Moreover, she took four women as wives over the course of her life, further improving her position within the tribe.
In 1851, representatives of the Crow tribe – along with members of the Sioux, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan Nations – met with commissioners from the United States government for peace negotiations. Eventually, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, enshrining the boundaries of their native territories in law.
In the aftermath of the treaty, Bíawacheeitchish was instrumental in negotiating peace with other Native Americans in the Upper Missouri region. Furthermore, she even managed to establish good relations between the Crow and the Gros Ventres – the tribe into which she had been born.
Throughout her life, Bíawacheeitchish encountered westerners on a number of different occasions. And by all accounts, they seem to have been fascinated by the female chief. In fact, both the fur trader Edwin Denig and the artist Rudolf Kurz developed a keen interest in her, drawing parallels between her life and those of the mythical Amazonian female warriors.
Although few modern scholars consider Denig and Kurz to be entirely reliable observers, their accounts have helped to flesh out the story of Bíawacheeitchish’s life. Furthermore, the American adventurer James Beckwourth told of a female Crow warrior known as Bar-chee-am-pe, meaning Pine Leaf, who some believe may have been the same person.
Although there are a number of parallels between Beckwourth’s Pine Leaf and Bíawacheeitchish, there is some doubt over her true identity – as well as the accuracy of the explorer’s account. According to Beckwourth, the female warrior that he encountered was fearsome and violent, determined to slaughter scores of men before settling down.
In fact, Beckwourth even boasted of a romance with Pine Leaf, eventually proposing marriage. However, some later historians have dismissed this as little more than fantasy. Whatever the truth, there is no evidence that Bíawacheeitchish ever took a husband, seeming instead to be content with her many wives.
Interestingly, Bíawacheeitchish wasn’t the Crow Nation’s only female warrior. In the 19th century, Akkeekaahuush, whose name means Comes Toward The Near Bank, was renowned for her skill in battle. And even though she was once kidnapped by an enemy tribe, she managed to get away and make her way back home.
Meanwhile, Biliíche Héeleelash, or Among The Willows, was busy leading bands of warriors fighting the Lakota. And in 1858 she took part in the Battle of Rainy Butte, a famous conflict that saw the Crow defend their territory against incoming enemy tribes. Eventually, they emerged victorious.
Moreover, it isn’t just the Crow people who have seen women take on traditionally male roles over the years. In fact, some of the most significant struggles in Native American history have involved at least one female participant – such as Moving Robe Woman, who helped to defeat General Custer at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, and Colestah, who wielded a stone club against the U.S. Army at the Battle of Spokane Plains.
Although Bíawacheeitchish eventually managed to broker peace between her birth tribe and the people who kidnapped her as a child, the truce was to be shortlived. And in 1854, she was killed during an ambush by Gros Ventre raiders. Nevertheless, Woman Chief will always be remembered for the bravery that won her respect in a man’s world.