- Historic Sites
Last Ghastly Moments At The Little Bighorn
A Cheyenne historian whose grandfather was in the battle sheds new light on the slaughter of Custer and his troopers
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
There was good reason for them to watch well. The people usually obeyed the orders of the military bands. Punishment [ranging from a beating to destruction of horses, tepees, or other property] was too severe if they did not. But that night young men [who had not yet gained war honors, and in their eagerness to achieve them often put personal goals above tribal welfare] were determined to slip through. Soon after the bands had begun patrolling, my stepgrandfather’s friend, Bigfoot, came to him. “Wolftooth,” he said, “we could get away and go on through. Maybe some others will too, and meet the enemy over on the Rosebud.”
They began watching to see what the military bands were doing, and to make plans. They saw a bunch of them start across to the east side of the river and another bunch on the hill between what became the Reno and Custer battlefields. Many more were on the high hills at the mouth of Medicine Tail Creek. So they decided what to do. After sundown they took their horses way up on the west side of the river and hobbled them, pretending to be putting them there so they could get them easily in the morning. Then they returned to camp. But when it was dark, they walked back out there and got the horses, and went back down to the river. When they did, they heard horses crossing and were afraid to go ahead. But the noise died away, and they went on into the river slowly, so even the water would splash more quietly. They got safely to the other side and hid in the brush all night there so they would not be discovered.
In the meantime, there was some excitement in the camp. Some of the Sioux boys had just announced that they were taking the suicide vow, and others were putting on a dance for them at their end of the camp. This meant that they were throwing their lives away. In the next battle they would fight till they were killed. The Northern Cheyennes claimed that they had originated the suicide vow; then the Sioux learned it from them, and they called this dance they put on to announce it “Dying Dancing.”
A few Northern Cheyenne boys had announced their decision to take the vow at the same time, so a lot of Northern Cheyennes were up there in the crowd watching. Spotted Elk and Crooked Nose are two that remembered that night and told me about it. They said the people were already gathering, early in the evening. By the time they got to the upper end there, a big place had been cleared and they were already dancing. When those boys came in, they could not hear themselves talk, there was so much noise, with the crowd packed around and both the men and women singing.
They did not remember how many took part, and never thought of counting them, but Spotted Elk said later there were not more than twenty. They remembered the Northern Cheyenne boys that were dancing: Little Whirlwind, Cut Belly, Closed Hand, and Noisy Walking. They were all killed the next day. But none of them knew that night that the soldiers were coming next day for sure; they were just suspicious.
The next morning the Indians held a parade for the boys who had been in the suicide dance the night before. Different ones told me about it; one was my grandmother, Twin Woman, the wife of Lame White Man, the only Northern Cheyenne chief who was killed in the battle. It was customary to put on such a parade after a suicide dance. The boys went in front, with an old man on either side announcing to the public to look at these boys well; they would never come back after the next battle.
They paraded down through the Northern Cheyenne camp on the inside and back on the outside, and then returned to their own village.
While the parade was still going on, three boys went down to the river to swim: William Yellowrobe, Charles Headswift, and Wandering Medicine. They were down there in the water when they heard a lot of noise, and thought the parade had just broken up. Some riders in war clothes came along the bank yelling and shooting. Then somebody hollered at them, “The camp is attacked by soldiers!” So they never thought about swimming any more. They jumped out and ran back to their families’ camps. Headswift’s people had already run away toward the hills at the west, but his older brother came back after him. They had to run quite a distance to get his brother’s horse. Then they rode double to join the women and children where they were watching the beginning of the fight.
Meanwhile, after the parade had ended, my grandmother said a man named Tall Sioux had put up a sweat lodge, and Lame White Man went over to take part in his sweat bath there. It was just a little way from the tepees. She said they had closed the cover down a couple of times—they usually did it four times in all, pouring water over the hot stones to make steam —and the second or third time, the excitement started in the valley above the village [where Reno was attacking the Hunkpapas]. She did not see which way the soldiers came, but there were some above the village. And some more [Glister’s troops] came from straight across the river.
The men in the sweat tepee crawled out and ran to help their families get on horses and get away. Lame White Man did not have time to get war clothes on. He just wrapped a blanket around his waist and grabbed his moccasins and belt and a gun. He went with Grandmother a little way to the west of some small hills there. Then he turned down below and crossed after the rest of the warriors.