April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
So much has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn that it would seem that everything that can be said about it is already known. But interest in the slaughter of some 225 soldiers and civilians under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer by Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors in June of 1876 has remained high, and the search for new scraps of information about it continues unabated. At the heart of this interest is a mystery which has never been fully solved. It is this: How was it that Custer and all his men were killed?
Some students of Indian warfare have speculated that the warriors simply wore down the surrounded troopers of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry from a distance until casualties were so severe that they could ride in on the survivors. But, in direct contradiction to this, others point to many notable Indian fights of the Plains (Beecher Island, the Wagon Box, the Big Hole, and even another sector of the Little Bighorn battle itself—the attack on Custer’s subordinates, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen) to show that such tactics woidd have been contrary to Indian custom. In all of these cases the Indians encircled troops for long periods of time, riding around the besieged whites at a safe distance, potshotting at them, dashing at them from time to time, and finally breaking off the engagement and riclina; away.
Such tactics were traditional with the Plains Indians. Once the warriors were satisfied that they had acquitted themselves well and gained honors, had halted the enemy and rendered him powerless, or had secured their camps and enabled their women and children to get safely away, they saw no sense in risking further the lives of their brave men. This was especially true when the Indians began to suffer casualties; then the chiefs would usually counsel their men to end the fight quickly and withdraw.
The following document suggests a hitherto unsuspected factor in the battle: a group of warriors who formed a kind of suicide squad. Their example may provide an explanation of why Glister’s detachment was slaughtered to the last man. Nothing resembling this story has appeared in any previous account of the fight. The question naturally arises, Why not? One answer is that only a comparatively few individuals in the two tribes knew enough about the event to talk about it, and white questioners never happened to talk to these individuals. Another and more likely answer is that those who did know about it considered it too revered a rite to discuss with the race that had conquered them.
It should be remembered that Indians were the only surviving witnesses to the Last Stand and that everything written about Custer’s final moments stems from these Indian informants. The value of many of these accounts is questionable. Most were collected, under extreme pressure, soon afier the battle. The Indians who did talk feared, on the one hand, punishment by the whites, and on the other, contempt from their own people for being informers. Under these circumstances, they often said what they thought their questioners wanted them to say, and concealed information which they thought might bring trouble upon the Indians. They also withheld information concerning tribal customs and beliefs which they felt they had no right to impart to white men, or which white men might have misunderstood. Thus it is not surprising that a number of events at the Little Bighorn went unrecorded except in the oral traditions of the tribes who fought there.
The story that follows is based entirely on the traditions of the Northern Cheyennes, who today live in Montana close to the field on which their forebears fought Custer. The battle accounts were gathered with care and devotion over many years by John Stands in Timber, a Northern Cheyenne who some fifty years ago dedicated himself to the task of being the historian of his people. He decided then that when the time was right he would tell the white man the history of his tribe as his own people knew it. Stands in Timber, a grandson of Lame White Man, who was killed at the Little Bighorn, was educated at the Haskell Institute, a school for Indians in Lawrence, Kansas, and part of his dedication to the history of his people is the result of hearing white men’s versions of events that contradicted what the Indians knew. After returning to the reservation from Haskell, he began to collect tribal stories, gathering them, when possible, from eyewitnesses to and participants in important events. The fear of punishment by whites and the reluctance to reveal many aspects of Indian history persisted among his people for decades. But the old people of the tribe who might be hurt or who might resent the recording of their actions for the whites are now dead. Today, with John Stands in Timber in his eighties, his document can at last be made public.
It will be helped by a brief summation of what is already known of the battle. The command led by Colonel Custer had been an element in a threepronged drive designed to trap a large group of Sioux and Northern Cheyennes who had refused to go onto their reservations. One prong, commanded by General George Crook, moving north into Montana from the North Platte River, had been mauled and turned back by Sioux and Northern Cheyennes at the Rosebud River on June 17, 1876. The second prong, troops from western Montana, and the third prong, a force moving west from the Missouri River, had met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud. In the third prong was Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. Unaware of Crook’s withdrawal, the troops on the Yellowstone now planned to turn south and catch the hostile Indians between themselves and Crook’s force.
One unit, under Colonel John Gibbon, was ordered to go up the Yellowstone to the Bighorn, then march south along that river to the Little Bighorn. Custer was directed to move south along the Rosebud, parallel to Gibbon; the idea was to trap the Indians between them. Custer, it is believed, was to make a leisurely march and not start across from the Rosebud to the Little Bighorn until the evening of June 25, when Gibbon would have had time to arrive opposite him for a joint attack on June 26. The units separated, and at noon on June 22, Glister started up the Rosebud with some six hundred soldiers, forty-four Arikara and Crow Indian scouts, about twenty packers and guides, and a civilian newspaper correspondent named Mark Kellogg.
The Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors who had repulsed Crook on the Rosebud had meanwhile moved their camps to the Little Bighorn. Their villages, set up in five large circles of tepees and several smaller ones, stretched about three miles along the river’s west bank. The northernmost circle was the village of the Northern Cheyennes, while at the south was that of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Sioux. Between them were Oglalas and other Sioux, together with a small number of Arapahoes. There were probably some ten thousand Indians present, of whom at least three thousand were fighting men.
Custer came up the Rosebud, but on learning from scouts that the hostiles were west of him on the Little Bighorn, turned in that direction, and on the morning of June 25 was ready to do battle alone, without waiting for Gibbon. After surveying the valley of the Little Bighorn, but failing to see the Indian camp and thus understand its exact size and population, he divided his men into four tznits. One was left in the rear to protect the slow-moving pack train. A second, under Captain Frederick Benteen, was sent to scout the hills to the southwest and to prevent the escape of the Indians in that direction. The third, under Major Marcus Reno, was ordered to attack the camp at its southern end, while Custer took the remaining unit of about 225 men to strike the northern end and catch the Indians between his troops and Reno’s.
The Indian forces, of course, were much bigger than Custer had suspected. Reno’s men, accompanied by Arikara scouts, had a sharp battle in the valley, mainly with Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas; after heavy losses, they retreated to a high bluff across the Little Bighorn from the Indian camp, where they were soon joined by the pack train and Benteen. Heavy firing could be heard from Custer’s direction and an attempt was made to reach him, but it failed. Reno and Benteen then stood off the Indians all night and the next day. The rest of the troops from the Yellowstone arrived the morning of the twenty-seventh. The Indian camp had disbanded the evening of the twenty-sixth. No further fighting had seemed necessary to the Indians, and they had all moved away, out of range of the troops.
Custer’s command was discovered entirely destroyed.
With that background, one can now read John Stands in Timber’s account.
THE attack of Colonel Custer on the Northern Cheyennes and Sioux did not surprise the Indians as much as many people think. They knew the soldiers were in the country looking for them, and they expected trouble, though they did not know just when it would come. My grandfather, Lame White Man, told my grandmother, Twin Woman, the morning before the fight that scouts had reported soldiers on the Rosebud, and when they went farther down [the Rosebud] they also saw the steamship that had brought them supplies, there in the Yellowstone River. White Man Bear’s people were on their way to the Black Hills when they saw them. They did not turn back, but kept on their way, but they met other scouts coming this way and gave them the news. It was after that that the word spread.
The Sioux leaders in the villages sent word that they wanted all the chiefs to gather to discuss what to do if the soldiers approached. They had decided not to start anything, but to find out what the soldiers were going to do, and talk to them if they came in peacefully. “It may be something else they want us to do now, other than go back to the reservation,” they said. “We will talk to them. But if they want to fight we will let them have it, so everybody be prepared.”
They also decided that the camp should be guarded by the military bands, to keep individual warriors from riding out to meet the soldiers. It was a great thing for anyone to do that—to go out and meet the enemy ahead of the rest—and the chiefs did not want this to happen. So it was agreed that both the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne military bands would stand guard. Each band called its men, and toward evening they went on duty. Bunches of them rode to ten or fifteen stations on both sides of the Little Bighorn where they could keep good watch. About sundown, they could be seen all along the hills there.
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.
Of course, Wolftooth and Bigfoot had come out of the brush long before then. At daylight they could see the Indian military patrols still on the hills, so they waited for some time. They moved along, keeping under cover, until they ran into more warriors and then some more. Close to fifty men had succeeded in slipping through the military bands and crossing the river that way. They got together and were about halfway up a wooded hill [about four miles east of where the battle was to occur] when they heard someone hollering. Wolftooth looked back and saw a rider on a ridge a mile below them, calling and signalling them to come back.
They turned and galloped back, and when they drew near, the rider began talking in Sioux. Bigfoot could understand it. The soldiers had already ridden down toward the village. Then this party raced back up the creek again to where they could follow one of the ridges to the top, and when they got up there, they saw the last few soldiers going down out of sight toward the river—Glister’s men. Reno’s men had attacked the other end already, but they did not know it.
As the soldiers disappeared, Wolftooth’s band split up. Some followed the soldiers, and the rest went on around a point to cut them off. They caught up there with some that were still going down, and came around them on both sides. The soldiers started shooting; it was the first skirmish of the Custer part of the battle, and it did not last very long. The Indians said they did not try to go in close. After some shooting, both bunches of Indians retreated back to the hills, and the soldiers crossed the south end of the ridge.
The soldiers followed the ridge down to the present cemetery site. Then this bunch of forty or fifty Indians came after them again and started shooting down at them a second time. But the soldiers were moving on down toward the river, across from the Northern Cheyenne camp. Some of the warriors there had come across, and they began firing at the soldiers from the brush in the river bottom. This made the soldiers turn north, but then they went back in the direction they had come from, and stopped when they got to where the cemetery is now. And they waited there—twenty minutes or more. [It may be noted that this Cheyenne version places Glister’s farthest advance a mile or so beyond and west of the ridge where he died and has him retreat to that final position. The most generally accepted story up to now is that he was cut down along the ridge as he moved from the southeast toward the site of his final stand.] The Indians have a joke about his long wait. Beaver Heart said that when the scouts warned Custer about the village, he laughed and said, “When we get to that village, I’m going to find the Sioux girl with the most elk teeth on her dress and take her along with me.” So that is what he was doing those twenty minutes. Looking.
Wolftooth and his band of warriors moved in meanwhile along the ridge above the soldiers. Custer went into the center of a big basin below where the monument is now, and the soldiers of the Gray Horse Company [Company E, under Lieutenant Algernon Smith] got off their horses and moved up on foot. If there had not been so many Indians on the ridge above, they might have retreated over that way, either then or later when the fighting got bad, and gone to join Reno. But there were too many up above, and the firing was getting heavy from the other side now.
Most of the Northern Cheyennes were down at the Custer end of the fight, but one or two were up at the Reno fight with the Sioux. Beaver Heart saw Reno’s men come in close to the Sioux village and make a stand there in some trees after they had crossed the river. But they were almost wiped out. They got on their horses and galloped along the edge of the cottonwood trees on the bank and turned across the river, but it was a bad crossing. The bank on the other side was higher, and the horses had to jump to get on top. So’me fell back when it got wet and slick from the first ones coming out, and many soldiers were killed trying to get away. Some finally made it up onto the hill where they took their stand.
It was about that time that Custer was going in at the lower end, toward the Cheyenne camp. It was hard to keep track of everything at the two battles. A number of Indians went back and forth between the two, but none of them saw everything. Most of them went toward the fight with Custer, once Reno was up on the hill. Wolftooth said they were all shooting at the Custer men from the ridge, but they were careful all the time, taking cover.
Before long, some Sioux criers came along behind the line, and began calling in the Sioux language to get ready and watch for the suicide boys. They said they were getting ready down below to charge together from the river, and when they came in, all the Indians up above should jump up for hand-to-hand fighting. That way the soldiers would not have a chance to shoot, but would be crowded from both sides. The idea was that they had been firing both ways. When the suicide boys came up, they would turn to them and give those behind a chance to come in close. The criers called out those instructions twice. Most of the Cheyennes could not understand them, but the Sioux there told them what had been said.
So the suicide boys were the last Indians to enter the fight. Wolftooth said they were really watching for them, and at last they rode out down below. They galloped up to the level ground near where the museum is now; some turned and stampeded the gray horses of the soldiers. By then they were mostly loose, the ones that had not been shot. The rest of the boys charged right in at the place where the soldiers were making their stand, and the others followed them as soon as they got the horses away.
The suicide boys started the hand-to-hand fighting, and all of them were killed there or were wounded and died later. When the soldiers started shooting at them, the Indians above with Wolftooth came in from the other side. Then there was no time for the soldiers to take aim or anything. The Indians were right behind and among them. Some soldiers started to run along the edge under the top of the ridge, and for a distance they scattered, some going on one side and some the other. But they were all killed before they got far.
At the end it was quite a mess. They could not tell which was this man or that man, they were so mixed up. Horses were running over the soldiers and over each other. The fighting was really close, and they were shooting almost any way without taking aim. Some said it made it less dangerous than fighting at a distance; then the soldiers would aim carefully and be more likely to hit you. After they emptied their pistols this way, there was no time to reload. Neither side did. But most of the Indians had clubs or hatchets, while the soldiers just had guns; they were using those to hit with and knock the enemy down. A Sioux, Stinking Bear, saw one Indian charge a soldier who had his gun by the barrel, and he swung it so hard he knocked the Indian over and fell over himself.
Yellow Nose was in there close. He saw two Indian horses run right into each other—the horses both fell down and rolled, and he nearly ran into them himself, but managed to turn aside. The dust was so thick he could hardly see. He swung his horse out and turned to charge back in again, close to the end of the fight, and suddenly the dust lifted away. He saw a troop flag [guidon] not far in front of him. Over on the other side some soldiers were still fighting, so he galloped past and picked the flag up and rode into the fight, and he used it to count coup on a soldier.
After the suicide boys came in, it did not take long: half an hour perhaps. Many have agreed with what Wolftooth said, that if it had not been for the suicide boys, it might have ended the way it did at the Reno fight. The Indians all stayed back and fought there; no suicide boys jumped in to begin the hand-to-hand fight. The Custer fight was different because these boys went in that way, and it was their rule to be killed.
Another thing many of the Northern Cheyennes said was that if Custer had kept going—if he had not waited there on the ridge so long—he could have made it back to Reno. But he probably thought he could stand off the Indians and win.
Everyone always wanted to know who killed Custer. I have interpreted twice for people asking about this, and whether anyone ever saw a certain Indian take a shot and kill him. But all the Indians say too many people were shooting; nobody could tell whose bullet killed a certain man. There were rumors some knew but would not say anything for fear of trouble. But it was more like Spotted Blackbird said: “If we could have seen where each bullet landed, we might have known. But hundreds of bullets were flying that day.”
After the Indians had killed every soldier, my grandmother’s brother, Tall Bull, came across the river and said, “Get a travois fixed. One of the dead is my brother-in-law, and we will have to go over and get his body.” It was my grandfather, Lame White Man. So they went across to where he was lying. He did not have his war clothes on; as I said, he had not had time. And some Sioux had made a mistake on him. They thought he was an Indian scout with Custer—they often fought undressed that way. And his scalp was gone from the top of his head. Nearby was the body of another Cheyenne, one of the suicide boys.
I heard the Sioux lost sixty-six men and the Northern Cheyennes just seven, but there might have been more. The Indian dead were all moved from the battlefield right away.
Many Indians were up on the battlefield after it was over, getting the dead or taking things from the soldiers. I asked Grandmother if she went. Women were up there as well as men. But she said the fight was still going on up above with Reno, and many women were afraid to go near the field. They thought the soldiers might break away and come in their direction.
White Wolf (also called Shot in the Head), who was in this fight, said that afterwards a lot of young men searched the soldiers’ pockets. That square green paper money was in them, so they took some. Later when they were making mud horses, they used the money for saddle blankets. Silver money was found too. The Northern Cheyennes made buckles out of it.
The camp broke up the next day after the battle. Some people even left that evening to move up near Lodge Grass. Some of the warriors stayed behind to go on fighting with Reno, but they did not stay more than a day. They knew other soldiers were in the country, and they were out of meat and firewood. They split into many groups, some following the river, and others going up Reno Creek and to other places.
By the time the other soldiers [Terry’s men] got to the battlefield, the Indians were gone. A Cheyenne named Lost Leg rode back a few days later looking for horses. A lot had strayed away and he thought he might be able to get some of them. He said he could smell the battlefield a long way off. He had planned to go in and look at it, but he could not even come close, it was so strong. So he gave up and returned.
There was no more real fighting that summer.