London to Wounded Knee: Custer's conqueror goes home

An American Indian's dying wish that his body be returned to his tribal homeland is being granted more than a century later. Yesterday a colourful band of his relatives from several generations of the Oglala Sioux nation gathered in Brompton Cemetery, west London, to collect his remains and take them home so his spirit can finally rest. Who was Long Wolf, asks Clare Garner, and why was he buried in London?

The tragic tale of how Long Wolf went to London and never came home is legendary among members of the Oglala Sioux nation. Now, more than a century later, this modern folk story has found a happy ending.

Long Wolf was among the warriors who wiped out General Custer's 7th Cavalry at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Retribution from the US forces was swift and the Sioux suffered a shattering defeat. Rather than be rounded up with other survivors, Long Wolf decided to enlist in Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show.

The show, which re-enacted Indian fights, stage coach robberies and buffalo hunts, was a runaway success across the US and Europe, and the audience at the Earl's Court Arena included Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

But Long Wolf, then 59, was ailing and, realising his death was imminent, he drew a picture of a wolf and asked for it to be carved on his gravestone. Now, 105 years later, that wolf image still survives. In fact, it turned out to be the vital clue when Elizabeth Knight, a housewife from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, set out six years ago to trace his grave.

When Mrs Knight picked up a dog-eared book in a local antiques market and read a lament on Long Wolf's tragic life and burial, she was so touched that she felt she "just had to do something". Having located his grave, neglected in a lone corner of the crowded cemetery, she set about tracing his descendants. With the help of George Georgeson, the founder of Britain's own American Indian Support Group, Twin Light Trail, she traced Long Wolf's great-grandchildren and discovered that among his own people he was far from forgotten.

In 1993, John Black Feather, 60, a great-grandson of Long Wolf, responded to an advertisement placed by Mrs Knight in a South Dakota newspaper. He was anxious to assist - for "Medicine Men and Holy Men say that the spirit doesn't rest until the body is brought home".

Yesterday, bedecked in an eagle feather head-dress and beaded slippers, he stood in Brompton Cemetery, west London, and spoke of his happiness. "I've been hearing about Long Wolf since I was a little boy. It's sort of like a fairytale story. He's someone I never knew, but my mum talked about - and here I am 60 years later."

His mother, Jessie Black Feather, 87, is Long Wolf's senior surviving descendant. She has always wanted to find her grandfather, but had never known where to begin. Her mother, Lizzie Long Wolf, was 12-years-old when Long Wolf was performing in London. She heard him say, as he lay dying of pneumonia, how much he yearned to go home. And now he is. Generations of relatives, as well as a Medicine Man named Wilmer Mesteth, have flown to Britain to oversee the exhumation of their ancestral chief, as well as those of his 17-month-old daughter, Star Ghost Dog, who was buried with him.

The remains will be taken back home to the Black Hills of Dakota, where they will be wrapped in buffalo hide and laid to rest in his ancestral burial ground, on the open plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Wounded Knee.

Yesterday they gathered near his graveside to sing songs: "Takala kun miye ca/ ohitiye waun kun/ wana henamala yelo" ("My people, take courage/ a warrior I have been/ Now I am no more").

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