Native Sun News: Photographer documented Bighorn's survivors

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Bill Groethe is the photographer who took the famous picture of the last eight survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That photo now hangs in the Smithsonian as well as other public places around the country.

Lakota history in photos
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY— Sixty-six years has passed since a photograph was taken of the last eight survivors of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. That famous photograph was taken in the Black Hills during a reunion of the greatest victory for the Plains tribes that went head to head with the U.S. military in Montana.

Bill Groethe who is now 91 years old and a lifelong Rapid City resident is the photographer who took the famous picture on Sept. 2, 1948.

Now, in 2014, there is a project under way that will see those photographs set in stone at the memorial site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Greasy Grass, in south eastern Montana.

The picture that hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington includes Little Warrior, Pemmican, Little Soldier, Dewey Beard, John Sitting Bull, High Eagle, Iron Hawk and Comes Again.

In an interview with Native Sun News Groethe explains that Black Elk was also in attendance for the reunion. The fact that the great chief had lost his eye sight led Black Elk to decline venturing from his tent further up the hill because he did not want anyone to have to assist him. Black Elk was photographed by Groethe outside of his tent individually.

“They were all such gentlemen,” remembers Groethe.” Ben (Black Elk) was there and we could speak back and forth in English, but the rest, they understood me, but only spoke English if they wanted to.”

Groethe, who still resides in Rapid City, learned his craft as an apprentice under Bert Bell who owned Bell’s Photographic Studio. “I developed my first photograph when I was only 10 years old,” said Groethe. Carl Rise, an early pioneer of photography was a neighbor of Groethe.

Rise sold Groethe his first camera. It was after that purchase that Groethe began his apprenticeship at Bell Studios where he remained for 30 years.

After serving in WWII as a photo reconnaissance technician for the Army Air Force, Groethe returned home. “There was one other guy who worked at Bell with me, but after the war, he didn’t come back, so it was just me,” remembered Groethe.

In the 1930s, he took photographs of the construction of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, the South Dakota Badlands, Black Elk, as well as other Native Americans who came to dance for the first waves of tourists to come to the Black Hills.

On August 17, 2009, Bill was honored by both the City of Rapid City and the State of South Dakota when they declared Sept. 2, 2009 “Bill Groethe Day” in honor of the 61st anniversary of the Little Bighorn photo.

In the 1970s Bill and his wife Alice had 75 employees working in five shops. Now it’s just them at their Rapid City shop, where high-tech digital equipment shares space with wonderful prints of historic scenes. The smell of processing chemicals, largely absent from modern photo studios, is evident.

Groethe is still the man behind the camera taking photographs of Mount Rushmore and has worked diligently to try to compile accurate photos of the seasonal moons of the Lakota, which takes a great deal of time, effort and experience.

“Out of the twelve moons, I have only been able to capture eight of them” explains Groethe,” The names of the moons are taken from the book ‘Black Elk Speaks’.”

Every Saturday Groethe is at Mt. Rushmore selling copies of his work. And though people are interested in many of his pictures, the one that draws the most attention is the black and white photo of the last survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

"There were three of them there when I photographed at the Crazy Horse dedication. They decided to find out how many were alive. And there were nine alive, so they had this last reunion three months later at the Game Lodge at Custer Park," says Groethe.

Groethe is fully aware of the historical significance of the Little Bighorn survivors and acknowledges it as his more important accomplishment.

Groethe is a very vocal supporter of the Lakota people and advocates within the city and state on their behalf. On the 100 year anniversary of the Little Bighorn battle his Survivors photograph was installed in panels at the Rapid City Regional Airport along with his photographs of visiting U.S. Presidents.

At some point there were complaints about the photographs being featured on the same panel as the presidents photos. Groethe confronted the criticism with the offer to take back the photographs if they were not to be displayed as he wished, together. His conditions were met.

During a 2013 re-dedication of those same photographs, Groethe faced similar opposition, this time regarding the placement within the redesigned airport. Groethe was informed that the photos of the presidents were to be displayed in the public access area of the airport while the photos of the Native Americans would be in the secure area that is limited to ticketed passengers only.

Once again, Groethe’s stand for the Native Americans that he grew up with prevailed. Groethe told Native Sun News, “When growing up with so many Native Americans, we all got along because we had something in common; we were all poor.”

Many may consider Bill Groethe a world-renowned photographer and speak of and to him with a certain amount of reverence and respect that he has mostly certainly earned. Groethe just sees himself as a guy who loves to take pictures, preferably on film, and share the history of his beloved Black Hills.

(Contact Karin Eagle at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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