The Ghost Shirt & the Gold Medallion

a fictionalized historical story by Larrie Wanberg

Illustration supplied by author from previous publications in Stavanger Aftenbladet & Norges Jul in 1977

It happened some time ago on the day before Christmas.

The days were short in that season and mornings came late. But on this evening in history, a pioneer Norwegian family of three were heading west in a covered wagon to seek land in the opening of Dakota territory to homestead. They had ventured hours ahead of their wagon train in hopes of finding choice land for settlement.

But in the darkness of this evening, there were others lurking in the shadows of darkness—Indians.

Nine-year-old Lars peered out of an opening in the abandoned sod hut where they had sought refuge for the night. A small wood fire on the dirt floor in the center of the single-room hut gave them warmth.

The mother became frightened, for she had heard stories of Indians from other pioneers from the wagon train. The father was concerned about the horses in an adjacent shelter. But Lars was excited, for he saw a young Indian boy of his age nearby, digging in the snow in search of firewood. The Indian boy was close enough so that Lars could see glimpses of the ceremonial shirt that he was wearing.

“They’re freezing,” Lars whispered to his father. “And they must be hungry too! It’s Christmas Eve. Can’t we do something?”

The father reflected, for he had heard that bands of Sioux Indians from Canada were returning to their original homes on Pine Ridge Reservation and Wounded Knee spiritual grounds to pray. He heard stories at Wagon Trail campfires that Indian Chief Sitting Bull was killed two weeks ago while resisting arrest by soldiers and 350 Indians were being held as prisoners. An Indian prophet named Wavoka was massing bands to return to their homelands. He believed that wearing ceremonial ghost shirts made one impervious to soldiers’ bullets.

The father replied to Lars, “All we have is flat bread and some dried beef jerky. We’ll bring a stack of flatbread to the Indians!”

Lars grabbed a single round of flatbread and ventured into the snow to hand it to the Indian boy. The boy spoke some words of English. “Come in to the fire to warm up,” Lars said, “and we’ll bring some Norwegian bread to your people.” The boy accepted.

In the light of the warming fire, the artful brilliance of the ghost shirt the Indian boy was wearing dazzled Lars. In a Native tradition among many tribes with a sharing culture, if someone genuinely admired something of yours, you were obliged to give it to the admirer. The Indian boy took off the shirt and handed it to Lars.

Illustration supplied by author from previous publications in Stavanger Aftenbladet & Norges Jul in 1977

“It’s yours,” he said.

Stunned, Lars didn’t know what to do. He thought for a moment. Then he reached for a leather lanyard around his neck and pulled from under his shirt a gold-tinted medallion. His grandfather in Norway had given him a commemorative medallion, dated 1659, with the image of a cloud with an arm reaching upward for a crown and another arm extended downward with sword in hand. The inscription read “Soli Deo Gloria”—a Latin phrase meaning “Glory to God Alone.”

“Then, this is yours,” he said putting the lanyard and medal over his head and around the boy’s neck.

The father gathered up a stack of flatbread and the mother put an extra blanket over the shoulders of the Indian boy. Lars and the boy led the way to the Indian band that was setting up a tepee encampment close by. The father and Lars were invited to sit for a time in a tepee with the chief of the band where a few stories were exchanged.

At daybreak the next morning, the Indian band was on its way south. The Norwegian family decided to homestead the land surrounding the sod hut, for they believed this was the spot meant for their new beginnings.

Illustration supplied by author from previous publications in Stavanger Aftenbladet & Norges Jul in 1977

A week later, on December 29, 1890, the band was at Wounded Knee, when at eight o’clock in the morning, soldiers surrounded the encampment band and began searching the tepees for weapons. A sergeant spotted the medallion around the Indian boy’s neck and grabbed it, saying, “Where did you steal this?” He dragged him by the lanyard into Captain Varnum’s tent for interrogation.

Moments later a shot rang out from an Indian warrior named Black Coyote who was holding a rifle that he had hidden. While wrestling over it with a soldier, the gun fired.

Then more shots, and a mounted hotchkiss gatling gun—a revolving cannon with exploding shells—began cranking a barrage of bullets into the crowd of Indians.

More than 250 Indians died that day; many were woman and children.

On that day, the “Battle of Wounded Knee” officially closed the Indian Wars. The Indian boy was returned to live out his life on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Amidst this tragedy, this young Indian boy survived as a result of a heartfelt exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve between a Norwegian immigrant boy and a young Indian boy. His name was never known but his story lives on in oral history.

Soli Deo Gloria

Larrie writes features that draw on eight decades of life experience in three career fields. He served 21 active-service years in U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, retiring as a Colonel. He completed over two decades as a college professor in mid-west and eastern and western major universities, and currently is a digital storyteller in print and film media. This story combines fiction and historical facts that give meaning and message to recorded events from the past.

This article appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.