Tim Giago: The 136th anniversary of the Battle at Little Big Horn

Notes from Indian Country

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2012 Unitysodak1@knology.net

The bumper stickers were born before the holiday.

They could be seen on cars coming and going from the Indian reservations in America. They read “Custer died for your sins,” or “Custer wore Arrow Shirts.” And then came the holiday in the 1970s.

The Indian holiday on June 25 marks the 136th anniversary of the thrashing of George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn, or Greasy Grass, as the Indians called it. On all of the Sioux Indian reservations in South Dakota it is a statewide holiday. The Cheyenne and the Arapahoe, also participants in the great victory, have also joined the celebration.

They celebrate the day their ancestors handed the United States Army one of its worst defeats in all of the so-called “Indian Wars.” The Indians called them the “White Man Wars.”

Ironically, Custer considered himself to be a religious man. And yet the fatal charge he made into the valley of the Greasy Grass happened on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Two hundred and ten American cavalrymen rode to their deaths that day, led by a man who was told by Cheyenne medicine men -- after he slaughtered their kinsmen at the Washita -- that if he ever attempted that feat again, he would surely be killed.

Custer met his demise on June 25, 1876, two years after he discovered gold in the Black Hills, a discovery that precipitated the deadly battles to follow and led to the eventual theft of the He’ Sapa (Black Hills) by the United States government.

As part of the archeological excavations 14 years after the battle, marble markers were set in place to mark where each soldier had fallen. According to the National Park Service, the field was eventually dotted with 252 markers or 42 more than the number of soldiers reportedly killed that day.

The Midwest Archeological Center reported that the archeologists chose to view the battlefield as a crime scene. And by using a combination of forensic techniques, such as studies of firing pin marks on cartridge cases and rifling marks on bullets, they have been able to determine the variety of weapons used in the battle.

Further excavations revealed skull fragments that had been broken while the bone was green indicating what is called “perimortem blunt instrument trauma.” The famous Lakota warrior Black Elk, when describing the final moments of the battle to which he was a witness, said the Indians used hatchets and clubs to finish off the surviving soldiers. The report indicates that the evidence of trauma on the recovered human bone supports Black Elk’s memory of the battle.

In what resembled a segment of the CSI television programs so popular today, forensic science indicated that the troopers of the 7th Cavalry were heavy users of coffee and tobacco. The bones demonstrated that the men led a rugged and hard life indicated by broken bones and significant back problems.

The archeological digs have substantiated much of what we have seen in the movies over the years. Custer did divide his troops into three elements and then subdivided his command into wings, which happened to be an accepted and field tested military tactic that had proven to be quite successful until the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

Often, I have wondered how many places in America celebrate victories over the U.S. Army. Do descendants of the Confederate Army celebrate? But weren’t they also a part of an American army fighting another American army?

The victory by the combined forces of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe over Custer’s 7th Cavalry was short and swift. Some Lakota warriors have said it lasted less than 30 minutes. But that battle raised the hackles of white America. The victorious warriors and their families would pay a heavy price for that victory. As punishment and retribution, the three tribes would lose millions of acres of land for having the audacity to stand up and fight for their people and for freedom. If the word “patriots” has meaning, these warriors define it.

Few good things happened to Native Americans in the late 1800s or early 1900s, so this one good memory is firmly planted in the minds of a warrior society and lives on. While the rest of America goes about its business, the people of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations will reflect upon their day of glory with cookouts, horse races, dancing and prayers to commemorate a time when they ruled the Great Plains and were praised by Gen. Tecumseh Sherman as “the greatest light cavalry he had ever seen.”

Oh yes! One of the more recent Indian bumper stickers: “Fighting terrorism since 1492.”

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.

More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Racism in Indian mascots and that dreaded 'R-word' (6/18)
Tim Giago: 'Divide and rule' was unwritten goal of Indian agents (6/4)
Tim Giago: How the Grouchy Gourmet broke down racial barriers (5/28)
Tim Giago: Touching an eagle feather to Warren Buffett's brow (5/21)
Tim Giago: 'Beer sniffing' reporters descend upon Pine Ridge (5/14)
Tim Giago: 'Drill baby drill' is coming soon to Indian Country (5/7)
Tim Giago: Tatanka Iyotanka was a pure Lakota traditionalist (4/30)
Tim Giago: Rocky history of Natives and the Mormon Church (4/23)
Tim Giago: Dulaney was named 'Waonspekiye' or teacher (4/16)
Tim Giago: A month of tears, tragedy and happiness in April (4/9)
Tim Giago: When Leader Charge spoke, Kevin Costner listened (4/2)
Tim Giago: Turtle Mountain Times marks its 20th anniversary (3/26)
Tim Giago: Newspaper business should take look at its past (3/19)
Tim Giago: Lakota views missing from Keystone XL debate (3/12)
Tim Giago: Religion caused near destruction of Lakota families (3/5)
Tim Giago: Inspiring a new generation of Native Americans (2/27)
Tim Giago: South Dakota law aimed at Indian abuse victims (2/20)
Tim Giago: Indians as mascots for America's fun and games (2/13)
Tim Giago: Cobell settlement just another government rip-off (2/6)
Tim Giago: Rosebud constitution should be 'law of the land' (1/30)
Tim Giago: Reservation among poorest counties in America (1/23)
Tim Giago: Alcohol is a red flag that has been waving too long (1/16)
Tim Giago: The new year brings time for a couple of apologies (1/9)

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