The leader who had inadvertently assembled one of the largest-ever Native gatherings on the plains was Sitting Bull. He had created the white man’s alarm by leading his people off the reservation to avoid starvation.
Just a hot Saturday with the Fourth of July not far off. Except there is a remarkable tale to this date in history, and we live with its legacy.
One hundred forty years ago, on June 25th, 1876, everything was in place for America to celebrate its 100th birthday. In just days, the Great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia — a proto World’s Fair — would mark a century since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But then something happened. And America couldn’t be jubilant.
After riding all night as one prong of a US Army unit — sent to find and return Native American Indians to the Reservation on which the government had ordered them to live — that army unit found them.
It happened two thousand mile away from the pending celebration. It happened out West. It was the September 11th of its time.
After riding all night as one prong of a US Army unit — sent to find and return Native American Indians to the Reservation on which the government had ordered them to live — that army unit found them. The hunted were native people who had, for generations, roamed freely over thousands of square miles of that very land, until only recently.
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Their lives had been richly tied to pursuing buffalo, the Great American Bison that was the most important source of their culture. Now they were trying, one last time, to regain a final chance, even a small moment, of that lost life. They were camped in a wide elongation in the valley of a small river, shaded by many trees, rimmed by steep and pointed hills. It was a place the old people had camped in their youth. But never so many people together.
The commander of that army unit, upon finding his quarry, decided to act immediately rather than wait for the rest of the military force, still a couple of days away. He knew that “Indians,” when confronted with a dangerous armed force, would most often melt-away into the landscape. By going in every direction, there was no one to catch. He intended to prevent that.
He divided his force. One half of his cavalry would rush to attack the widened valley from upriver, charging in noisily, as frighteningly as possible, to amplify their small numbers and disorganize the inhabitants of the encampment.
The other half, under his command, would make a looping ride screened by the hills, arriving to seal the downstream exit where the river narrowed. His remaining force, a third contingent with a pack train of tents, supplies, and ammunition, would get orders to hurry to his position as quickly as they could move.
His scouts warned him he was underestimating the situation.
The attack began. The commander and his force were on their ride behind the hills. Thus, they didn’t learn what the attackers did: that the congregation of “Indians” was far larger than anyone imagined. That initial attack force, under command of a drunk who quickly became unnerved, retreated in a rout with half his force dead or wounded. His survivors would take refuge in a barely defensible hollow in the scorching dry hills above the river, where they were immediately besieged and isolated from water as the heat rose.
The commander and his cavalry, unaware of all that, raced northward behind the sharply-ridged hills. When the distance covered seemed sufficient and scouts reported a ravine on the opposite side that appeared to lead safely down to the river, he led his force up and over, down a feature we now know as Medicine Tail Coulee.
Exactly what happened next has been the subject of theory and speculation for 140 years. An archaeological investigation after a denuding grass fire a few years ago answered many questions.
Some of his cavalry, galloping down the ravine, reached the river. At least a few crossed it. Some died there. Most were sent riding back up into the hills in headlong retreat as their comrades and horses fell around them.
Most attempted to rally, as military-trained people do, on the high ground. They were just below the sharp bird-beak tops of the hills. There, they began to be overwhelmed by barrages of arrows plunging vertically down on them from beyond the tops of those sharp peaks behind them, and by charging “Indians” with repeating rifles better than theirs. Moving up on them. Moving in on them. Only muzzle flashes visible from below the tops of the golden grass. And then visible, coming up all parts of the hills beneath them. There, the cavalrymen shot their horses to provide cover. As high up as they had been able to reach. Near the peaked tops of the steep hills. One of which would be named Last Stand Hill.
And there, Brevet General George Armstrong Custer and everyone in his command perished in combat. After seeking to attack a village of men, women, children, babies and old people, they were high above that village fighting Sioux and Lakota warriors who rushed out to protect their families, their loved ones, from mortal danger.
The remaining force at the far end of the valley of the Little Bighorn River included a Captain Weir, who attempted to lead a relief force along the hilltops to ride to Custer’s aid. He failed, was driven back as Custer’s fight commenced. Weir and his men lived.
The unnerved leader of that routed attack, Major Marcus Reno, would live the rest of his life in controversy. As would Captain Frederic Benteen, commander of the pack train who ignored Custer’s orders, lollygaged for a precious two hours, and eventually joined Reno’s besieged force where many of his men died in the siege.
Leaders of the “Indian” encampment that day included numerous Lakota and Cheyenne war chiefs. Each band had added to or reduced the number in camp as it arrived or left to hunt. The numbers there were too many to stay together for long.
The leader who had inadvertently assembled one of the largest-ever Native gatherings on the plains was Sitting Bull. He had created the white man’s alarm by leading his people off the reservation to avoid starvation. And to rebuke the endless stream of broken promises from the white man’s government, and the white man’s army, that food and supplies would be provided in return for staying on the reservation. The reservation. What was left of it. Where there was nothing to hunt. He had been joined by many other bands, large and small, including the respected leader Crazy Horse and his people.
Crazy Horse would emerge from the battle with even more renown. He would be murdered by other Lakota a few years later while attempting to surrender to enable his people to eat. Today in the Black Hills of South Dakota — once sacred to several Native American nations, going back to the Crow — a massive stone carving of Crazy Horse continues to slowly take shape. In the same Black Hills promised forevermore to the Lakota. Until the army broke the treaty and sent an expediton in. It discovered gold. It had been led by Custer. Hoards of white gold seekers descended on that “Indian” land and destroyed it for two generations.
Immediately after the victory of June 25th, Sitting Bull would lead an escape into Canada to save his people, knowing the army’s wrath after the Little Bighorn would be fierce. It was, finally, in the 1890s, at the Wounded Knee Massacre. But long before that, and just a few years after the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull was pursuaded to bring his people back into the US.
He eventually joined his friend, Buffalo Bill Cody, on tours of the “Wild West Show” to Eastern cities — including the site of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which had, on America’s 100th birthday, been not the center of celebratration, but a place of horrified sadness. Because word had arrived there just in time. Word that Custer had been “killed by Sitting Bull in a massacre with no survivors.”
The Centennial celebration shattered by utter catastrophe. It hit 19th century Americans like the crashing twin towers hit people 15 years ago.
Sitting Bull lived a most remarkable life. He even met all the crown heads of Europe traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody — before he declared he wanted to go home where it was quiet.
There, he, too, was murdered by his own people. Who, as with Crazy Horse before him, were young warriors denied their traditional life and made “Indian Police” by the white man.
Today, you can go to Little Bighorn Battlefied National Monument. It used to be called “Custer Battlefield…” as if it were all about him. He isn’t even there. He was re-buried at West Point over a hundred years ago.
The once-sharp birdbeak peaks of the ridgetop were chopped-off decades ago to make way for a road, so people could visit and “see what happened.” But making way for them erased the barrier of terrain faced by combatants, making everything else impossible to comprehend.
I learned much of this firsthand, riding horseback, tracing the routes of both sides to and upon the battlefield. My guide and companion was the late Joe Medicine Crow. Along with his dog. He showed me the remarkable beauty of a natural place we see in a very specific and almost wholly inaccurate way.
Joe was the very last War Chief of the Crow Nation, and the last Native American war chief of any tribe. His home, all his life, was alongside the Little Bighorn River.
Not far from where Major Reno charged off cliff banks his men could not reascend in retreat. Joe and I crossed there on his horses. I wondered if he saw with more than his eyes. Thanks to him, I believe I did. There, and everyplace he took me. He died last year. And I’m sure he’s still there.
The battlefield is surrounded by the Crow Reservation. The scouts of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry were Crow. There’s a reason. The Crow had, for millenia, called the western plains and Black Hills and Little Bighorn country home.
Until the Lakota were driven westward from the Great Lakes forests and their agricultural settlements by the ever-conquering, land-devouring white man. West, where they would adapt into the finest light cavalry in the world and become synonymous in the popular imagination as “the” Plains “Indians.”
Before they lost almost everything. Everything except the pride and heritage and dignity and respect for those who survived to enable our lives, and the love for the Earth that they, and the Cheyenne, and their former Crow enemies, and so many other First Nations peoples have tenaciously held and publicly reclaimed and begun to teach to all of us.
It’s been a long road from the Little Bighorn, 140 years ago today. Its legacy still challenges us.