Echoes Of The Little Bighorn

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No single battle in American history has won more attention from more writers than the relatively insignificant defeat of a handful of cavalry by a few thousand Indians on the Little Bighorn River in 1876. How could there be anything new to say about it? Yet there is—the recollections of the Indians themselves—and that is the story we have to tell in this collection of reminiscences gathered before the survivors all died and translated by David Humphreys Miller, the author of several books on Indians, including Custer’s Fall (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1957), and a writer for motion pictures. An artist as well, Mr. Miller has done all that any man can to bring to life once again this desperate moment in American history.

Indian country—the sprawling Sioux and Cheyenne reservations—lured me to the Dakotas and Montana in 1935, when I was sixteen. Having sketched, painted, and written since I was old enough to hold pencil or brush, I was prepared to fill many sketchbooks and notebooks with all I expected to see and hear.

The historic Battle of the Little Bighorn had occurred fifty-nine years earlier, so I calculated there still must be Indian survivors of Ouster’s Last Stand who could tell me their side of the story. My high school history books dealt sparingly, if at all, with the Indian wars of the Plains. It seemed vital in exploring the past to find oldtimers who had actually lived the battle.

I soon discovered that none of the older Indians I wished to depict and interview spoke English, and it soon became obvious that the language barrier and constant need for an interpreter would be a handicap in securing full and complete statements. Already armed with a knowledge of the indispensable sign language every old Plains Indian used, I assiduously studied the Sioux tongue and, later, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, and Kiowa, as I came into contact with those tribes.

Overcoming the linguistic hurdle opened the minds and memories of the old warriors to me as nothing else could and, moreover, helped ameliorate their still considerable resentment and distrust of white men generally. Tribes that had fought the frontier army and had finally been defeated were shabbily treated; even in the thirties many of these former “hostiles” were starving. I did what I could to help them, shared their privations, and gradually won their confidence. I was formally adopted into five Plains tribes and made a “relative” by many Indian families.

Some old-timers, however, still clung to the superstition that if their likenesses were sketched, painted, or photographed, part of their souls would leave them to go with their portraits. One bitter old Sioux named Crazy Bull refused for more than a year to submit to an interview or sit for his portrait. Appealing to his somewhat rusty sense of humor, I finally won his cautious friendship and trust, although I deliberately refrained from asking him again to pose or to engage in anything but small talk. Then one day he came to ask me to paint his likeness and listen to his story of Little Bighorn.

In all, I interviewed seventy-one old-timers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who had taken part in the Custer fight : fifty-four Sioux, sixteen Cheyennes, and one Arapaho. I questioned them in their own languages and found, with very few exceptions, that none of them had ever before told their stories to a white man or had their portraits painted. It was my purpose to tax their memories. Whenever possible, I arranged joint conferences with several survivors, who often reminded each other of various details that might otherwise have been overlooked. It was considered bad form, however, for any warrior to talk of something he had not personally seen or done. At the same time their somewhat complicated system of tabulating battle honors and counting coups required reliable witnesses, and sometimes two or three interviews were necessary to crosscheck certain points against the white soldiers’ version in the military annals. However, since Little Bighorn was the greatest battle of these warlike Indians, I was not surprised to find their recollections of it honest and lucid. After all, no white man survived to tell of Ouster’s final hour; only these Indians who fought him could describe the climactic events.

The matter of which Indian killed Custer has bothered generations of historians. It may simply boil down to a question of identity. White Bull was firmly convinced, I am sure, that he had killed Long Hair, for he had undoubtedly slain a leader of the soldiers who wore a buckskin jacket after this white man had fired twice at him and missed. But White Bull may have been unaware that Ouster’s brothers, Tom and Boston, who died with him, also wore buckskin jackets, or that officers Yates, Cooke, Smith, Porter, Calhoun, and possibly Keogh wore buckskin blouses (as described in a special report dated January 16,1896, by General—then Major—E. S. Godfrey). The leader White Bull killed could have been any of these men, for no warrior knew Long Hair was on the field until after the fight. Only a handful of hostiles had ever seen Custer, who at his wife’s request had had his . flowing locks, his frontier trademark and most identifying feature, trimmed short before the battle.

Dewey Beard may also have been honestly mistaken in his identification of Long Hair, although I do not question his testimony that he thought the white man killed by Charging Hawk was the leader of the soldiers.