FORT SILL, Okla. (April 5, 2023) — The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum boasts over 12,000 artifacts in their museum alone. Among these many items is 1st Sgt. I-See-O’s uniform jacket from his time in the United States Army.
I-See-O, also known as Tahbonemah, was a member of the Kiowa tribe who served at Fort Sill in an all-Native American unit as a scout. During the “Ghost Dance” phenomenon of the 1890s, I-See-O played a key role in persuading the Apache and Kiowa tribes not to go to war. His actions are attributed to saving the lives of many Native Americans and white settlers. Later, when Hugh L. Scott became Chief of Staff of the Army, he allowed I-See-O to remain on active duty for life as a token of gratitude.
Segregated Native American units emerged at various military posts starting in 1891. However, by 1897, the concept was considered a failure, and only one unit at Fort Sill remained. Unfortunately, due to the scarcity of such units, it was eventually deactivated, but not because of any wrongdoing on the part of the Soldiers.
The success of I-See-O’s specific unit was largely attributed to future Major General and Army Chief of Staff Hugh L. Scott. While stationed at Fort Sill, he was taught Native American Sign language by I-See-O, which enabled him to communicate effectively with the Native Soldiers who, like I-See-O, did not speak English. Scott also implemented policies such as allowing Native Soldiers to live with their families and not requiring them to cut their hair, which helped build a close friendship between him and I-See-O.
While the concept of segregated Native American units ultimately failed, the Fort Sill unit, under Scott's leadership, was a rare exception and remains a testament to the positive outcomes that can result from effective communication and mutual respect, said Noell Scarfone, curator of the Museum Special Collections department. This relationship proved to be incredibly useful during the Ghost Dance, a native ritual which some government officials viewed as a war dance and direct threat to the United States.
“During the reservation period Native Americans were looking for a return to their traditional ways of life. They had been taken from their homelands and put on reservations and there was a lot of sickness and deaths during this time. Additionally, the buffalo had been almost entirely wiped out,” Scarfone said. “Then, along came a prophet named Wovoka who explained that doing this dance would bring the buffalo as well as their dead loved ones and the white man would be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
While this assumed threat led to violence and bloodshed at the hands of the government in some parts of the country, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, I-See-O and Scott worked together to speak with different chiefs and ensure peace was kept and there were no misinterpretations of these events. In fact, they were able to ensure there was no bloodshed at Fort Sill and even hosted a performance of the Ghost Dance for officers and their wives to allow them to have a better understanding of what the dance was and what it meant, said Scarfone.
For his service during this time, I-See-O was awarded the rank of First Sergeant for life, meaning he could never be reduced in rank or forced to retire. He died in 1927 at the age of 78 as the last remaining active-duty Army Indian Scout. He was buried with full military honors at the old post cemetery, with his funeral being held at the old post chapel.
To see more artifacts like this one, visit the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum and its archives located at 372 Gannahl Road, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Admission is free and the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.