The Huk Rebellion: Guerrilla Amazons

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Welcome to Amazon Month Week 5! Sorry for missing last week, things got crazy busy. But we’re back, and ready to wrap up Amazon Month! I’d like to give a shout-out to Rejected Princesses; without their coverage of Kumander Liwayway, I would never have known about such a perfect story for Amazon Month!

Though most of these stories have been somewhere from old to ancient, the Huk Amazons are quite recent!

First, a brief history of the Philippines.

Originally, the islands were settled by peoples coming from all over the Asian continent; who blended together with varying degrees of success. In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan reached the region as a representative of Spain; and Spanish colonization began several decades later. This was not an easy task; along with the difficulties which usually accompany colonization efforts, Spain also had to fight off other Asian nations who wanted the islands for themselves. However, Spain prevailed, becoming the unquestioned ruler of the Philippines (named after then-prince and eventual King Philip II) in the early 17th century.

Though the Spanish weren’t exactly gentle colonists, a side effect of their activities in the Philippines meant the islands gained a sense of national identity and cultural unity where none had existed before. Of course, this was largely because native Filipinos from various ethnic groups banded together to resist the Spanish. Rebellions flared up with some regularity; and though the Spanish were able to put down most of them, they eventually lost. In 1898, the Philippines declared themselves independent from Spain.

The Philippines in geographic context.

The Philippines in geographic context.

Spain took a unique approach to the problem. They had just lost the Spanish-American War, and as part of the peace treaty, handed the islands over to America. The United States proceeded to thoroughly ignore Philippine claims to independence, dismantled the nascent republic, and fought for three years to assert their ownership of the territory. Eventually, the First Republic of the Philippines folded, and America assumed rule.

However, the Americans were much more moderate than the Spanish. Filipino culture, especially cinema, flourished in the first part of the 20th century. In 1936, the Americans began to grant the Philippines some measure of independence, and planned to eventually bring self-rule to the nation. However, the advent of World War II, and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, severely disrupted these plans.

And thus began the Hukbalahap Rebellion, often shortened to Huk Rebellion.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Communism had spread to the Philippines, and many peasant farmers, tired of being oppressed by landlords and dreaming of owning land themselves, embraced the ideology. And most of the islands’ residents, especially those of fighting age, had grown up under American rule and were largely pro-American (or, at least, had friendlier feelings towards Americans than the Japanese, who were not kind to the islands during occupation).

So when the staunchly imperialist Japanese invaded and proceeded to commit several famous atrocities. the peasant farmers decided to rebel. They formed what was called in Tagalog Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, which means something roughly like ‘National Anti-Japanese Army,’ or ‘People’s Army Against the Japanese.’ A difficult phrase for most English-speakers to get their tongue around, so it’s often shortened to the Hukbalahap or Huk Rebellion.

The army officially formed in 1942, under the command of a four-person military committee – including Felepa Culala, also called Dayang-Dayang.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it's done.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it’s done.

Felepa led one of the first armed attacks against the Japanese. She formed her own resistance group before the official founding of the Hukbalahap, and when several of the men under her command were taken prisoner by collaborators, Felepa organized and led a successful mission to rescue them. When the Japanese army tried to retaliate, Felepa was there and ambushed them, driving the Japanese back to their outposts. Felepa led other missions, largely attacks on collaborators and policemen, where she captured weapons and ammunition for her cause. Inspired by Felepa’s example, many women left home to join her.

According to some estimates, approximately 10% of the Huk warriors were women (by way of comparison, approximately 14.5% of the US Armed Forces are women). And these women were fighters. They were not content to stay back and camp and work as nurses – these women hiked into the jungle, stole supplies from downed planes, disrupted supply lines and cut off lines of communication for the Japanese forces. Felepa even rescued some American soldiers from the infamous Bataan Death March!

The local media absolutely loved the Huk women, calling them amazonas. While these women weren’t actively conducting missions into the jungle, they were dedicated to making life better for the average Filipino or Filipina. Women (and men) in Huk camps were taught to read, and land controlled by the Huk army was distributed equally to member farmers.

In addition to Felepa, known amazonas are:

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano

Born into the property-owning class, Celia was moved by compassion when seeing how her family’s tenants lived. She joined the Filipino Communist Party shortly before the war; and successfully convinced her family to donate two of their farms for use as Huk training camps. When the former editor of the Huk newspaper was captured and tortured to death by collaborators, Celia bravely stepped up and ensured the newspaper continued to operate. In 1944, she was elected to the central governing committee of the national Communist Party, and dedicated many of her post-war efforts to improving the lives and status of women in her home country, including establishing trade schools.

Kumander Liwayway

A former beauty queen, Kumander was known to do her makeup and nails before a raid. When challenged over her supposed vanity, Kumander said she was fighting for the right to be herself. And fight she did; leading up to 100 Huk soldiers in guerrilla raids.

Kumander Liwayway

Kumander Liwayway

Filomena Tolentino

Growing up impoverished in Luzon, Filomena had to leave school after the third grade. Under Japanese occupation, she lived under the continual threat of rape by Japanese soldiers. Joining the Huk rebellion not only allowed Filomena to escape this threat, but also to complete her education. Though Filomena did not fight, she nevertheless risked her life by spreading anti-Japanese propaganda. This she did by going from village to village, and using performance to communicate revolutionary ideas to the people living there. Only Japanese ignorance of her native language kept her safe.

Marcosa de la Rosa

The daughter of the ‘Bandit King’, named because he would so often incite peasant farmers to rebel against their landlords, Marcosa grew up with political activism in her blood. As a Huk amazona, Marcosa worked in propaganda. She also became part of the intricate and highly effective courier network, carrying messages between Huk camps (and often traveling through occupied territory to do it).

By Vina A. Lanzona

By Vina A. Lanzona

However, the end of the war did not necessarily mean the end of the Huk rebellion. Though the Philippines gained independence on July 4, 1946, many members of the Huk army strongly disapproved of the new government. The Huks, remember, had a strong Communist foundation, and many rebels saw the new government as simply continuing many of the problems the Huks fought against.

And so the army transitioned, from a group of guerrillas resisting foreign occupation to a group of guerrillas instigating civil rebellion. As one might imagine, this did not endear them at all to the ruling class – but crackdowns only empowered the Huk army.

In the end, it was war weariness which brought an official end to the Huk rebellion. With the war over, few members of the guerrilla army had the heart to keep living and fighting in the jungle – especially because so many of them missed their families. Slowly, Huk fighters moved back to the cities. Some, such as Celia Mariano, were imprisoned (though she was eventually pardoned on the condition she relocate; Celia spent the rest of her life advocating for working-class causes from England).

However, this does not mean they gave up the fight entirely. Surviving Huk women often became political or academic leaders, and many notable Filipina feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s got their start as rebels (Dayang-Dayang, sadly, was executed by her own people in 1943 for an anti-Communist ideology and accusations she was using the Huk rebellion to enrich herself). Though they did not get the Communist government they wanted, the Huk amazonas did improve life for the Filipino peasant and working classes; especially for women.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Though life for women in the Philippines is certainly challenging (the Philippines ranks 77 out of 139 on the Global Gender Equality Index), Filipinas do enjoy relatively more independence than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. And while this is partly due to long-standing cultural traditions (placing the family as the center of Philippine culture and the woman as center of her family), some credit must be given to a robust feminist movement which found its voice fighting in the jungle, and has helped inspire subsequent waves of Filipino feminist thought.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about the Huk amazonas in pop culture. Not in English language pop culture, anyway – I can only hope that these women show up in the art and culture of the Philippines more often than they appear in American culture!

And with that, Amazon Month concludes! We’ll return to our regularly scheduled roster of amazing women next week – if you have a woman you’d like to see featured, use the Suggestion Box or leave a comment below! Also leave feedback if you like themed months like Amazon Month; I’m considering doing a Women of World War Two month sometime in the summer or fall.


Amazons of the Huk Rebellion: Gender, Sex and Revolution in the Philippines

Celia Mariano Pomeroy Obituary

Felepa Culala

Flight of the Filipina Phoenix: The Rise of Pinay Feminism

Rejected Princesses

Tales of the Amazonas

The Making of the Philippines

Calafia: Amazon of the Americas

Califia, Disney

Calafia, from the Spirit of California mural at Disney’s California Adventure

Welcome to Amazon Month, Week 2!

Today we’re going to depart a little bit from the nature of this blog, and cover a woman whom we know absolutely did not exist at any point in time. Not even in the vague sense of Mulan probably existing in some real way but then evolving into a literary figure. Her story is 100% fiction, written by a Spanish novelist inspired by the classical Amazons.


The story of Calafia (sometimes also spelled Califia or Khalifia), and what it inspired others to do, is so damn fascinating that it deserves to be told anyway! This entry will be half about Calafia, and half about the story of her story.

Around the year 1500 C.E., a Spanish author by the name of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote The Adventures of Esplandiána chivalric, historical romance in which the character of Calafia appears.

Her name is probably a derivation of the Arabic word for ruler, ‘khalifa’. However, Calafia was not Muslim – she was pagan. And she ruled over an island nation, populated entirely by women. Montalvo describes her as a tall woman, ‘as black of the ace of clubs‘ and surpassingly beautiful. She is also described as being a very wise ruler, who wanted to do the best for her people and thereby leave her mark on history.

A griffin.

A griffin.

Montalvo does not hold back when he describes Calafia’s kingdom – far beyond the Indies (Montalvo does not specify East or West Indies), full of gold (but no other metals), and well-protected from invaders by tall cliffs and other geographic features.

Oh, and griffins. Lots and lots of griffins, ridden by Queen Calafia’s Amazon warriors and trained to tear apart any many they came across.

And the name of this wondrous place? The island of California.

The rough outline of Calafia as she appears in Montalvo’s work is thus:

Radiaro, a Muslim man, somehow makes it past the man-eating griffins and is granted an audience with Queen Calafia. He requests aid from the pagan queen; his home city of Constantinople is overtaken by Christian invaders and he needs help to fend them off. Queen Calafia, thinking now is as good a time as any for a fight, agrees to help him. She marshals her army of griffin-riding warrior women and they sail from California to Constantinople.

At first, Calafia’s forces are successful, as the griffins gleefully snatch Christian men from the ramparts surrounding the city and destroy them. However, as the Muslim forces move in to take the city, the griffins don’t stop. They can only distinguish between male and female; they can’t tell Christian from Muslim, and keep up the snatch-and-eat until the Muslims are forced to retreat and Calafia calls her griffins back.

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia

Calafia’s new strategy is to challenge the Christian king in Constantinople to a duel – single combat, winner-take-all. The King accepts, and brings his entourage out to meet Calafia and her entourage. There’s a bit of love at first sight between Calafia and one of the king’s sons, Esplandián himself. Calafia tries to show off and attract his attention, but Esplandián isn’t interested in a pagan woman who doesn’t know her place.

The next day, Calafia and her buddy Radiaro fight the king and Esplandián. Predictably for a book written by a 16th century Spaniard, the forces of Christianity prevail. Not only is Calafia defeated, but she converts to Christianity, marries a knight named Talanque and returns back to California with the intent of opening up the island to men. The story continues without her, but Calafia had captured the Spanish imagination, as The Adventures of Esplandián became wildly popular in Spain. Most readers sort of ignored Calafia’s end, and kept alive the idea of the pagan Amazon queen.

Among the readers was explorer and conquistador, Hernando Cortez (most famous for hastening the fall of the Aztec Empire and bringing Spanish influence to Mexico and the American West). He does not seem to have understood that The Adventures of Esplandián was fiction. Judging from his behavior, he seemed to think that Montalvo had written about a real place – and he was determined to find this fabled island of black Amazons decked out in gold and pearls.

After breaking apart the Aztecs and declaring himself Governor of Mexico, he funded several Spanish expeditions west, with the intention of finding California. When the leader of this expedition found Baja California, he at first believed he’d found an island. And more out of a sense of hope and optimism than anything else, he named the region ‘California’.

The 'island' of California.

The ‘island’ of California.

The name spread, with Spanish cartographers and explorers believing that the entire West Coast must be an island… because after all, that’s how Montalvo described it! As a result, many old maps often show Baja California and California as a large island. The captain of the expedition, Fortun Ximenez, was convinced he’d found the island of the Amazons, and really, really wanted to find the gold and griffins. He found neither – the griffins didn’t exist, and gold wouldn’t be discovered in California until 1848.

It does seem, however, that Ximenez kept wandering through California, asking the local tribes where all the women were, and was frequently told that a tribe comprised solely of women existed ‘somewhere over there.’ It’s possible the tribes were trying to get him to go away and leave them alone (or at least go mess with their enemies), and Ximenez kept up his ultimately fruitless search for quite awhile.

However, despite utterly failing to find the kingdom (queendom?) of Calafia, the name stuck – Spanish explorers kept labeling the area ‘California’ on their maps, even when cartographers finally realized the land was firmly attached to the rest of the North American continent and had nary a griffin in sight. Spanish settlers kept the name, referring to themselves as ‘Californios.’ And by the time the United States picked a fight with Mexico, the name had become permanently attached to the region, and California became the 31st state in 1850. Because of this, the American state of California, Baja California in Mexico and the surrounding regions have become linked to the mythical California – despite the fact that Montalvo never really described where Calafia’s island was, other than ‘really far away’ (using language meant to imply that you couldn’t get to California, it was a semi-mythical place).

A mural depicting Calafia

A mural depicting Calafia

Since then, Calafia has evolved into a symbol for women of color, especially Hispanic, Latina and black women, living in California and the Southwest. She’s become a favorite subject of folk art, often depicted as a black queen, sometimes surrounded by symbols of Californian identity.

Many Afro-centric historical revisionists wholeheartedly embrace the legend of Calafia, holding her up as a symbol of strong black womanhood and an indication that black people have lived in California for a very long itme. As her legend has evolved in this context, Calafia has been described as a Muurish woman, of direct African ancestry who ruled an empire stretching from Colorado to Mexico to Oregon. These stories usually leave out the griffins, instead focusing on a black African empire ruled by women which existed until the arrival of the Spanish. Again, there’s no archaeological evidence that this empire ever existed in the same land as Hollywood and Napa Valley; this is instead a legendary history.

Visitors to Disney’s California Adventure between 2001 and 2009 could watch Golden Dreams, a film about the history of California, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia. In addition, a wide variety of places in California have been named after her. The collection of California university resources on Latin American history and culture is called the Calafia Collection; you can visit Calafia State Park in San Diego County or purchase wine from Calafia Cellars in Napa Valley; and even a Californian chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism calls itself the Barony of Calafia (though why the barony’s heraldry includes a sea serpent and not a griffin, I couldn’t tell you!).


Atlantic Monthly, 1864

His Level Best: And Other Stories

Ms. Magazine

The New Pacific



Buffalo Calf Road Woman: Custer’s Killer

A sepia-toned photograph of a Native American woman. She wears a loose shirt and a thick string of bone pipe beads as a mantle. She has long hair, put into two braids and silver medallion earrings

Unverified Photo

Despite living relatively recently, not much is known about Buffalo Calf Road Woman – partly because her people kept some of her exploits secret for over a century. As such, this entry will play up the storytelling aspect of this blog as I use the history of her tribe, the Cheyenne, to tell her story. Though I’ve established a rough timeline of her life, nowhere does anyone describe what sort of person she was. So I’ll be reading between the lines a bit and drawing my own conclusions. This is going to be a long one!

Born in 1844 in Wyoming, she would have called herself Muts-i-mi-u-na of the Tsitsistas. The photo you see is said to be her, but has not been conclusively verified.

At the time of her birth, the Cheyenne lived according to the Treaty of 1825, in which the Cheyenne agreed to the ‘supremacy’ of the United States government and to obey certain trade restrictions (while still largely being left to their own devices).

As you can see from the map below, which includes territories ceded in various treaties, her people spread out over Wyoming, Montana, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and western Nebraska. The would often skirmish over resources with other Plains tribes, such as the Sioux, Lakota or Crow; though they were on friendly terms with the Arapaho.


Cheyenne Territory

Cheyenne Territory

Growing up, she witnessed the first murmurings of Manifest Destiny, as white settlers crossed through her people’s lands on their way to Oregon, California or Utah. Tensions began to build as the Cheyenne competed with these settlers for local resources. As a result of these pressures, the Cheyenne split into two separate bands, Southern and Northern. Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived among the Northern Cheyenne.

A black and white photograph of a small Native American girl. She has her long hair in two braids, and wears a decorated buckskin dress and large beaded necklace. A quilted object rests next to her.

A Cheyenne child

Tragedy struck in 1849, as travelers poured through her homeland on their way to the California gold fields. Unlike other settlers, the Forty-Niners were not particularly hygienic, and their untidy practices caused cholera to ravage the Cheyenne nation. Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her brother Comes in Sight survived, but lost between one third to one half of their people. This tragedy, and the social upheaval it caused, would shape the destiny of the Cheyenne for the decades to come. Buffalo Calf Road Woman grew up in a village full of ghosts, her earliest memories of plague and death. Though Cheyenne culture embraced gender roles, these were less restrictive than those of Euro-American society, and would have loosened even further due to plague-driven depopulation. Few, then, batted an eye when Buffalo Calf Road Woman learned to shoot and hunt.

In 1851, her people, along with several other Plains tribes, signed another treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Wanting to make the overland crossing safer for white emigrants, the United States attempted to bring an end to intertribal conflict. Official boundaries were established for each tribe, and a general cease-fire called. The Cheyenne were given parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. In addition, the government secured permission to build roads and forts in Cheyenne territory, promising to pay an annuity in exchange for the land usage.

War on the Plains

War on the Plains

However, white settlers often refused to respect Cheyenne sovereignty. Open hostilities broke out in 1856, when Buffalo Calf Road Woman was 12. Perhaps aware of how the Cherokee had been treated, the Cheyenne began to resist white incursions by raiding wagon trains. In retaliation, the army attacked several Cheyenne settlements. Though few on either side were killed, the Cheyenne’s winter food stores were destroyed and their annuity that year went to the Arapaho in punishment. The hungry winter Buffalo Calf Road Woman spent that year certainly did not inspire any warm feelings towards white men.

A fragile peace held over the next few years; however, the discovery of gold in Colorado created more incursions and more anger on the part of the Cheyenne. In 1861, the US government negotiated another treaty, the Treaty of Fort Wise. The Cheyenne were offered a reservation in Colorado, one-thirteenth the size of their current holdings. Though Chief Black Kettle, a dedicated peacemaker, supported this treaty, most Cheyenne firmly rejected it – including Buffalo Calf Road Woman.

Here, she largely vanishes from the record until 1876, but we do know a few things about her.

She married during this time, a warrior named Black Coyote known for his passionate nature and short temper. She stayed with him until her death; and since divorce was remarkably easy among the Cheyenne, we can assume they made each other happy. They had two children together, though I could not find their names.

An example shield

An example shield

And, at some point, she joined the Elk Scraper Society. As a warrior culture, the Cheyenne had several exclusive martial fraternities. The most famous, of course, are the Dog Soldiers, but several others also existed (and some still exist today, or are in the process of being revived). Though most societies admitted only men, the Elk Scraper Society was expressly for the few Cheyenne women who chose to fight. Their standards were quite high, and a woman would have to prove her skill, bravery and determination before being initiated by a medicine woman (no men – men were expressly forbidden from witnessing or participating in Elk Scraper rituals).

As a sign of her membership in this elite society, Buffalo Calf Road Woman began carrying a specially-crafted shield along with her rifle. Likely, she went on raids with the other warriors, letting other mothers in the tribe care for her children while she did so. The Cheyenne increased the severity and frequency of their raids on white settlers, often kidnapping women and children in an attempt to replenish their numbers (remember, this is barely a decade after the cholera plague wiped out a significant number of Cheyenne).



Notable events for the Cheyenne were the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and the Battle of Washita River in 1868. Both times, ostensibly peaceful Cheyenne settlements were attacked by the United States Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, several hundred Cheyenne died in these two battles – mostly civilians, elderly and children.

Some accounts of Sand Creek in particular tell the story of Mo-chi, a woman who fought off a rapist and helped bring survivors to safety among their northern relatives. Mo-chi, also called Mochi or Mochis, is sometimes confused with Buffalo Calf Road Woman, as her name translates out to a roughly similar meaning, and Mo-chi became a warrior after Sand Creek. However, they are two separate women.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her kin could see the writing on the wall: they were among the last free Native Americans. Even those Cheyenne who followed Black Kettle and tried to live on a reservation found that government corruption and indifference made the land unlivable (Chief Black Kettle himself died at Washita, and with his death went the last Cheyenne leader interested in trying to come to a peaceful accord). Settlers and prospectors continued to flaunt the treaties; and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which disrupted the migration patterns of the wild buffalo upon which all Plains tribes relied, loomed large as a serious threat to their traditional way of life.

These are the conditions which set the stage for the rise of Crazy Horse, a Lakota who brought his tribe, Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne together against the United States. Buffalo Calf Road Woman gathered her shield, her gun and her horse, and with her brother Comes in Sight and husband Black Coyote, joined Crazy Horse’s army.

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Crazy Horse and his army first met the U.S. Army near Rosebud Creek, after which most American history textbooks name the battle. The Army was led by General Crook, leading approximately 1,000 cavalry and supported by Crow scouts eager to attack their tribal enemies (and Calamity Jane, then a teamster disguised as a man!).

At first, General Crook’s forces gained the upper hand, and Crazy Horse signaled a retreat. Comes in Sight stayed near the rear, providing covering fire to the retreating soldiers. A bullet hit him, and he fell from his horse.  Buffalo Calf Road Woman saw this, and when the other men did nothing, she spurred her horse onward and rode directly into the line of fire. She found her brother, dragged him onto her horse and rode them both to safety. Her bravery set an example for the other warriors, and, thus inspired, they turned retreat into victory. Among the Cheyenne, this battle is known as The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

I would like to mention the heroics of two more women on the battlefield that day, Osh Tisch and The Other Magpie, Crow women on Crook’s side, whom you can read about at Rejected Princesses.

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Eight days later, Crazy Horse and his army met with Custer at Little Bighorn. Alternately called the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand, this has become perhaps one of the most studied battles in American military history. On this fateful day, roughly 700 American soldiers met 1,500-2,000 Native American warriors. As we learned last week from Boudica, sometimes superior firepower can make up for being outnumbered, but not at Little Bighorn. Accounts of the battle are conflicting, and archaeological investigation has provided largely circumstantial evidence.

Another Native depiction of the battle

Another Native depiction of the battle

However, this much is clear: Custer made several significant tactical errors, and died on a hilltop after being overwhelmed by Native American forces. According to various Native accounts, Buffalo Calf Road Woman knocked Custer off his horse, a Sioux named Fast Eagle held him down while another Sioux, Moving Robe Woman, stabbed him (though this last detail conflicts with the post-mortem reports of Custer’s body – however, I do entertain the notion that stab wounds to the back might have been suppressed information by a government less than thrilled at having the press try and brand Custer a coward as well as an incompetent general). The Cheyenne storytellers and historians assert, however, that Buffalo Calf Road Woman did knock him off his horse, which led quickly to his death.

For her actions at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, Buffalo Calf Road Woman earned a new name, Brave Woman.

Though Crazy Horse’s army won the battle, Little Bighorn has become the textbook definition of ‘winning the battle but losing the war.’ The US Army only increased their determination to force the Plains tribes onto reservations, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman resisted. She and a small band of her people stayed on the move, fleeing the advancing army. Slowly, other Cheyenne surrendered, allowing themselves to be taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. But Buffalo Calf Road Woman, despite being pregnant, giving birth and having an infant with her during this time, fought back hard. She helped defend a small band of approximately 30 Cheyenne from being captured.

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

However, she could not hold out forever. Eventually, she and the other holdouts relented, and were force-marched by the Army to the reservation in Oklahoma. However, conditions there were awful, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman felt homesick for her prairies. Likely, she also abhorred the idea of raising her children on the reservation. And so, with 300 similarly-minded Cheyenne, she snuck out of the reservation and fled to Nebraska.

The government didn’t let them go easily, and her band of Cheyenne had to continually run and hide from the soldiers hunting them. Unfortunately, her husband Black Coyote got into an argument with another warrior, Black Crane, and killed him. For his crime, Black Coyote was banished from the group, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, their children and a few relatives went with him into exile. As one might expect, she and her family were quickly captured by Army officers. Black Coyote killed one American soldier while trying to defend his family, for which he was tried and sentenced to be executed at Fort Keogh (it’s a good thing her people swore to keep her story secret for ‘100 summers’, or else she might have been in more trouble than him!).

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Heartbroken and alone, Buffalo Calf Road Woman fell ill with either malaria or diptheria. She died in Miles City in May, 1879. The Cheyenne were one of the last tribes to surrender to Manifest Destiny, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman was one of the last Cheyenne to surrender. She displayed a depth of bravery and devotion to defending her people and their way of life, giving her all to resist the forces of colonialism and a government which refused to acknowledge her personhood on several levels.

She did not live to see the establishment of the Lame Deer Reservation in 1884, in her ancestral homeland of Montana, and current home of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.  However, she surely would be pleased to know that her people, though they no longer live exactly as she or her ancestors did, have still managed to retain much of their culture and traditions.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman was not the only Native American woman who fought. At least two other women fought at the Battle of the Rosebud, and several women warriors were present at Little Bighorn. One woman, Minnie Hollow Wood, earned the right to wear a war bonnet because of her bravery at the battle. I also uncovered the story of the intriguingly-named Yellow Haired Woman, another member of the Elk Scraper Society. The stories of many Native warriors have been erased, the sad result of a culture with a strong oral tradition going to war against a wealthier, more advanced culture with a tradition of literacy.


Cheyenne Nation

Some historians have argued that what happened to the Cheyenne and other Native Americans was inevitable. To a certain extent, they are right – cultures cannot come into contact with each other and remain unchanged. The Cheyenne, as a horse-centered tribe, had already changed as the result of Europeans – horses didn’t exist in North America until brought by 16th-century Spanish explorers. But that does not absolve the United States of the choices they made, to deliberately and systematically dispossess Native Americans of their resources, strip them of their culture and treat them as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a people to be respected. So I hope Buffalo Calf Road Woman stands as a representative of the other women and men, known and unknown, who fought like hell to protect their people.

Click for Store Link

Click for Store Link

Buffalo Calf Road Woman features as the heroine of an award-winning historical fiction inspired by her story. You can also purchase a figurine of her firing a gun from horseback. If you’d like to know more about the Cheyenne or the wars they fought in the late 19th century, Ken Burns’ documentary series The West covers these battles and more in greater detail. The TV show Longmire, though it fictionalizes quite a lot, does a good job capturing modern Cheyenne culture.



Amazing Women in History

Battle of Little Bighorn – Native Participants

Battle of the Rosebud

Cheyenne History

Cheyenne Language

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight

Mad Mike’s America

Native American Encyclopedia

Northern Cheyenne Nation

Resurrecting History’s Forgotten Women

Sunshine Skyways

Washita Memories: Eyewitness Views of Custer’s Attack on Black Kettle’s Village


Boudica: Rebel Queen

Originally, I hadn’t intended to cover Boudica – she’s a familiar figure to many, and I want this blog to focus on more obscure-yet-awesome ladies. However, I received this request through the Suggestion Box, so here we are!

Unfortunately, all we know of Boudica comes from Roman authors writing decades after the fact, so expect a lot of reading between the lines on this one.

A stained glass image of a woman holding a spear. The name below her picture says Boadicea. Her name means ‘victory’ in Celtic, and has been spelled alternately as Bouddiccea or Boadicea. It’s possible Boudica may not even be the name she was born with – perhaps she only assumed the name after declaring war on the Romans. We’re also unsure when Boudica was born; only that she died in 61 C.E. with two adult daughters.

Boudica came from a culture far more woman-friendly than the Romans. Some Roman writers have expressed shock at the sexual licentiousness of Celtic women; which I personally interpret to mean that Briton women enjoyed a higher degree of sexual freedom. And sexual freedom for women often correlates to more economic and political power in their hands. Celtic women were taught how to fight (and, judging by recently uncovered graves, some made a career out of it), so Boudica likely knew how to use a sword and drive a chariot by the time she reached adulthood.

At some point, she married an Iceni king, Prasutagus (the Iceni were a sub-culture of Celtic Britain, settling mainly the eastern coast of England now known as Norfolk). We don’t know how many children Boudica had in total, but two daughters survived into adulthood.

A circle of gold chain with dragons at either end.

A torc

According to the historian Cassius Dio, Boudica was a tall woman with a husky voice and wild, red hair down to her hips. She wore a multicolored dress (possibly an early version of plaid), a thick mantle and a large gold torc (a necklace which was the Celtic equivalent of a crown).

We don’t know anything about her marriage to Prasutagus, though likely she enjoyed some measure of power in her own right. And though much of what happened in 60 and 61 C.E. was squabbling over Prasutagus’ property after his death, some of the disputed property may have been hers.

After a semi-failed rebellion in 43 C.E., Prasutagus and Boudica agreed that the Iceni would become a client kingdom of Rome. During Prasutagus’ life, he could retain all his power and property (though still had to pay tribute to Rome). Upon his death, Iceni territory would become a Roman civitas and officially join the Empire. However, Prasutagus, in his will, attempted to give half his property to Boudica – likely an attempt to make sure his widow and children were cared for after his death. However, the Romans disagreed, and refused to honor his will.

To exacerbate matters, the Roman governor of Britain, Suetonius, was currently occupied burning down the sacred Druid groves on the isle of Mona, and killing any Druid he could catch. As the Druids were the spiritual leaders of the British Celts, and the groves of Mona tantamount to the Vatican, the Britons understandably felt horrified and outraged by what Suetonius had done.

A colored drawing of boudica. She wears a plaid dress, an orange apron and a blue cloak She has long strawberry blonde hair, slightly waving, and she holds a spear aloft. After Boudica found herself a widow, the Romans moved in like a swarm of locusts. They seized all of Prasutagus’ property, and demanded immediate repayment of the late king’s considerable debts. Steep taxes were levied, and Iceni nobles were reduced to slavery (the peasantry and other slaves probably fared poorly, too). Boudica, no doubt grieving her husband, traveled with her daughters to the local Roman magistrate and petitioned him for leniency.

The magistrate did not respond well.

He ordered Boudica publicly flogged, and her daughters raped.

He would later come to regret this.

See, Boudica had run out of options. Would she still have rebelled if the Romans left her alone, letting her keep her house and some income? Her husband wanted to live in peace with the Romans, and perhaps Boudica would have made the same choice. If they’d let her. But the Romans took away her wealth, and, with the rapes and beatings, the dignity of her and her surviving family. Of course Boudica would fight back – what else could she have done?

A film still. Boudica, with wild red hair, rides a rough chariot into battle

From the film ‘Warrior Queen.’

And so Boudica began building her army. She accepted anyone willing to fight the Romans – even the very old or the very young. She quickly raised over 100,000 fighters: nobles who had been dispossessed, Iceni furious at the disrespect paid their queen, and Celts who could still smell the ashes of burning Mona.

Before beginning her march, Boudica supposedly released a rabbit from her skirts as a divination. The rabbit hopped in an auspicious direction, and Boudica prayed loudly to Andraste, the Celtic goddess of victory. As a die-hard fan of a particular franchise involving another Andraste, this story fills me with glee.

The army marched first to Camulodunum, a retirement community for Roman soldiers and home to a temple which had become a symbol of Roman oppression. The residents of the city knew Boudica was on her way, and sent frantic pleas to the governor for help. But Suetonious, doubting that an army of ‘barbaric’ Celts led by a woman could pose any real threat, did not take the pleas seriously.

He should have.

A picture of soil from an excavation site. A red streak shows the layer where Boudica left her mark. A few blue and white tabs indicate spots of interest.

Boudica left her mark.

Boudica and her army systematically took the city apart. Over a period of two to three days, the soldiers went street by street through the city, setting fire to civilian homes and murdering the residents (and, of course, destroying the temple). She then turned towards the new-but-thriving trade city of Londinium, and gave that city the same treatment. Her army utterly destroyed Londinium, so much that archaeologists now have a handy guideline when excavating ancient London and Camulodunum – a ruddy layer of ash and rubble, a meter thick in some places.

After wrecking two Roman cities, Boudica then moved to Verulamium and began laying siege.

According to Tacitus, Boudica killed between 70,000 and 80,000 civilians during her campaign, and he accuses the Iceni of committing various atrocities and war crimes. Tacitus certainly isn’t an unbiased resource, but, if I may quote another video game franchise, “War never changes.” Though Boudica fought to avenge the sexual violence perpetrated against her and her daughters, she nevertheless caused the deaths of many other innocent women and their families. It’s not beyond comprehension that, even if Tacitus exaggerates, the Celtic soldiers were themselves responsible for more rapes as they systematically put the people of Camulodunum to the sword (few human remains have been found in Londinium; likely the residents of that city had time to evacuate).

A painting of Boudica. She wears a white gown and red robe, and leads men into  battle.At Verulamium, Boudica’s army met the Romans for the final time. Suetonius, now taking her seriously, sent several Roman legions to meet her. Her army still greatly outnumbered the Romans, but it’s not for nothing that the Roman military has been acknowledged as one of the greatest war machines in human history. The Romans, taking advantage of some local geography and forcing the Britons into a bottleneck, used their superior equipment and discipline to rout Boudica’s army. Unquestionably, the Romans emerged the victors, and the survivors on the Celtic side scattered.

Boudica herself evaded capture, and her final fate remains unknown. She may have poisoned herself, or succumbed to illness or injury soon after the battle. Historians have yet to locate her grave, or even the place where she fought her last battle.

A map of England, showing the spread of Roman control

Roman Conquest of Britian

Unfortunately, Boudica ultimately failed in her goals. Generation by generation, Roman control spread across Britain, peaking in 209 and remaining that way until the fall of Rome in 410. Only Scotland (and possibly Ireland) remained free. And while some sub-groups of Celts (such as the Welsh) survived the Roman occupation with their cultural identity intact, the Iceni effectively ceased to exist as a distinct group.  And the cities which Boudica attacked survive – London, of course, but Camulodunum is now known as Colchester and Verulamium as St. Alban’s.

Interestingly enough, though Roman Britons would have known Boudica’s legend, receding Roman influence after 410 meant that, throughout the medieval era, Boudica was largely forgotten. The Celtic people were superstitious about writing, and the bards who told her story would not have written it down. As such, she cannot be found in medieval histories of Britain. However, with the advent of the Renaissance and the rediscovery of Roman writers, the British became re-acquainted with her. She became a symbol of fierce British independence, and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the Victorian era, becoming a subject for English painters and sculptors. Currently, archaeologists working in Colchester have uncovered several valuable treasures from Boudica’s revolt!

One of the more fanciful tales about Boudica is that she lies buried between Platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station (King’s Cross itself being dubiously indicated as the site of her final battle). There’s absolutely no evidence for this assertion, and it’s likely a post-WWII fabrication. However, I prefer to think that the woman who once prayed to Andraste is buried beneath Platform 9 3/4.

Civ IV's Boudica

Civ IV’s Boudica

As a symbol of British nationalism, Boudica appears in a long list of books, plays and films, and has been the subject of various documentaries. You can play as Boudica in Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (a good choice if you want to conquer your neighbors), and she’s even got a strand of DNA named after her. There’s also a no-sew guide to dressing up as Boudica for Halloween. A few historians doubt she ever existed at all… but there’s that meter-thick deposit of ash and ruin which indicates something happened, and it might as well have happened roughly as Tacitus and Dio said it did.

Next week!

I’m now 2 for 3 when it comes to British women. It’s time to get off the island and visit somewhere else. If you have a suggestion, leave a comment or drop me a note!


Colchester Archaeological Trust




Stuff You Missed in History Class

Edith Margaret Garrud: The Fighting Suffragette

Let’s get this blog started with a bang!

How about feminist ninjas?

A black and white photo of a woman in Edwardian clothing holding a British police officer in a joint lock

Edith Garrud

When deciding the lady with which I wanted to start this blog, I had several choices to make. Should I choose a fighter or a leader? A woman who led troops, or an activist who promoted women’s rights?

Fortunately, a woman exists who did both!

Okay, so she wasn’t technically a ninja. But she did practice ju-jitsu, a Japanese style of combat developed for smaller, unarmed opponents to defeat larger, armed enemies. And she did teach ju-jitsu to others. Not just taught – she trained up to 30 women to serve as a bodyguard squad for feminist leader and professional troublemaker Emmeline Pankhurst.

And by ‘bodyguard squad’, I mean ‘let’s fight off the cops trying to arrest us.’

A black and white photograph of a white woman with dark hair. She wears a high collard Victorian gown, and has her hair pinned up. She looks slightly to the left.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Let’s set the scene: 1908, London. The past few generations have not been kind to women. Though England had recently been ruled by a woman (Queen Victoria, reigned 1837-1901), the advent of industrialism found women’s social and political power severely curtailed. A few women thought these attitudes were just so much bullshit, and figured the best way to fight back was by giving women the vote; among them Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline was rather like the Malcolm X of the British suffragette movement. Impatient with Parliament, she decided to take action. And by ‘action’, I mean throwing rocks through windows, setting fires and generally causing mayhem in the name of women’s suffrage. The long-term effectiveness of her methods have been criticized, but she did keep her movement in the papers. As you might imagine, Pankhurst found herself dragged off to jail on more than one occasion.

An Edwardian Propaganda Poster. The background is bright green. A large cat holds an unconscious suffragette in it's jaws. Large text reads 'The Cat and Mouse Act'. Smaller text reads 'Passed by the Liberal Government. The Liberal Cat. Electors Vote Against Him! Keep the Liberal Out!'

What ensued, starting in 1913, quite literally became a game of Cat and Mouse: Emmeline gets arrested. Emmeline stages a hunger strike while imprisoned, becomes ill. Emmeline gets released. Emmeline gets better. Cops come looking for Emmeline to throw her back in jail.

Enter one Edith Margaret Garrud. Even without her connection to the suffragettes, Edith would still have gone down in history as the first European woman to teach martial arts in the West. She and her husband learned ju-jitsu from Mr. Edward William Barton-Wright (known as the founder of Bartitsu, which hardcore Sherlock Holmes fans might recognize). Edith also appeared in film and theatrical productions, using her skills as a fight choreographer to stage some very cool combats. An impressive career for a Victorian lady, indeed. Especially for one who never grew past 4’11”.

But wait, there’s more!

Edith joined up with Emmeline and the other suffragettes in 1908. And in 1913, with the passage of the “Cat and Mouse Act,” Edith began training more women in the art of ju-jitsu; so that when those cops came to re-arrest Emmeline, the Bodyguard (as they were called) could successfully fight them off. Of course, this didn’t thrill the cops, which meant Edith had to teach her students in secret.

Yes, that’s right. She not only taught ju-jitsu, she founded a secret society of martial-arts suffragettes. Aside from ju-jitsu, the Bodyguard also employed various diversionary and deceptive tactics to foil the police trying to tail them. You know. Like ninjas.

A Victorian cartoon. A woman stands against a fence, with several unconscious police officers draped over it. More police officers balk at arresting her. The woman has a belligerent demeanor.The press called it ‘suffrajitsu.’

When Emmeline showed up at rallies, the police then arrived with the intent of subduing and arresting her. At which point, the Bodyguard surrounded Emmeline and engaged the cops long enough for Pankhurst to make her escape. Though ju-jitsu emphasizes unarmed combat, these women would sometimes come armed with meels – weighted wooden bowling pins, ideal for hiding under long Edwardian skirts. And in lieu of corsetry, the Bodyguard instead wore several inches of cardboard around their midsection to avoid getting their ribs cracked.

And rib-cracking was a very real risk. It turns out the gentlemanly ideal of ‘not hitting a woman’ flies right out the window when said woman threatens a gentleman’s other ideal of ‘the men get to be in charge.’ No Bodyguard died or faced serious injury (that I could uncover), but these women often went home with exactly the sort of injuries you’d expect from such brawls. And they did it repeatedly. In one famous case, after fighting through the Bodyguard (and some cleverly hidden barbed-wire booby traps), the cut-up police knocked out and arrested Emmeline Pankhurst… only to discover they’d captured her body double. The real Emmeline Pankhurst had escaped.

Edith, for her part, largely stayed away from these fights. As the leader and trainer of the Bodyguard, her position was too valuable to risk her arrest. However, her students applied the tactics and techniques they’d been taught with an iron-willed determination. Even though Edith wasn’t on the front lines for every scrap, she still deserves quite a lot of credit for her bravery and dedication to promoting the rights of women. And the idea of a fighting force of women was so novel to the Victorians that the press couldn’t get enough of them. As a result, Edith helped keep the suffragettes and their movement in the newspaper – Priority #1 when you’re an activist.

A black and white photo. A woman in Edwardina clothes lies (possibly unconscious) in the middle of the street. Several men and police offers are bent over her.To that last end, Edith also wrote. In her article Damsel v. Desperado, published in 1910, Edith promotes ju-jitsu as a way for women (and men, she adds almost as an afterthought) to protect themselves from criminals. When many recommended women find men to keep them safe, Edith said women could, and should, protect themselves.

In addition to her activism, writing and choreography, Edith participated in a strange little sketch called “Ju-Jitsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play with a Moral!” The extent of her involvement is unknown, but one writer describes watching a rehearsal in her studio – undoubtedly, Edith lent her choreographic talents at the very least. In this sketch, a lower middle-class woman must cope with a husband who gets drunk and beats her. She responds with ju-jitsu, and the husband and wife eventually reconcile after the husband finds himself knocked on his arse (and forswears alcohol. Remember, early 20th century women’s activism was tied up in the temperance movement). It’s a morality play of sorts, and while the tactics described would likely not work in a real-world setting, the idea remains that women ought to be prepared to literally fight back against those who would oppress or abuse them.

Emmeline and Edith suspended their activities with the onset of World War I, when both women decided to support their government during the war. As it happened, women slowly gained greater suffrage both during and shortly after the war, gaining full suffrage in 1928.

A black and white photo. A woman with short brown hair rests her face on her hands.

Edith Garrud

Edith retired from public life at age 53, in 1925. However, she lived to be ninety-nine years old, living long enough to see men land on the moon and the birth of Second Wave feminism.

Edith Margaret Garrud has been commemorated with a plaque in Islington, where she lived for many years.

A webcomic featuring Edith has been published, under the entirely-appropriate title Suffrajitsu! She also has a children’s book about her, Edith Garrud: The Suffragette Who Knew Jujutsu. You can also watch a short YouTube documentary about her. She also appeared as a character in a 2012 play about British suffragettes, The Good Fight. Edith also appeared in a 1984 docu-drama which no one seems able to locate. However, a movie called Suffragette is due to be released in 2015. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, and Helena Bonham Carter is credited as… Edith New? But another actress, Charlotte Day, gets credit as ‘Jujitsu Lady’; and Corinne Curtis as ‘Jiu Jitsu Suffragette’, so here’s hoping Edith has at least a cameo!


Bad Reputation

Badass of the Week

The Guardian