Custer's Indian Allies

by Mitakuye Oyason

The question has been asked many times. In fact, there are a lot of Native Americans asking the question today. Why didn't the Indians unite in their fights against the White invaders? Lack of unity was evident in the Pequot War (1637), King Philip's War (1675-1678), the French and Indian Wars (1689-1763), and Tecumseh's efforts at unifying tribes crumbled after his death in 1813. Blackhawk failed to get the support he needed in retaking his homeland in 1832. The examples go on and on, and no matter what the tribe, no matter the year, no matter the leader, it always boiled down to Indians fighting against Indians.

Of all the battles fought, of all the wars waged, there is one that has had more written about it than any other, and that is the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. Even today, with all that has been written about it, and with all the research that has gone into the battle, including the latest in archeological studies, there is still a mystery surrounding June 25, 1876, and that mystery reaches out to every generation of scholars, war buffs and people inflicted with Custermania, to keep looking for answers to all the unanswered questions.

One of the facts surrounding the battle that has been largely overlooked is that it wasn't just Bluecoats against Indians. It was Indians against Indians. Without the Crow and Arikara scouts aiding the military, the Bluecoats would not even have been able to find the Sioux and Cheyenne. On June 17, when Crazy Horse and his warriors attacked General Crook's detachment at the Battle of the Rosebud, the battle favored the Sioux, although Crook called it a draw. He withdrew from the field to lick his wounds, taking himself out of the hunt for the ''hostiles,'' and neither Gibbon and his men, Terry and his men, nor Custer and his men knew that he had returned to base. But this is the real kicker about that battle: the Crow and Arikera scouts saved General Crook and his men from an even more absolute whipping.

This, and other poignant details, are explored in a new book, ''Little Bighorn Remembered,'' by Herman J. Viola. He is the Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and noted author of fifteen books on American Indians over the past quarter century. He is now the adopted brother of Joseph Medicine Crow, whose grandfather White Man Runs Him was a scout for Custer, helping him to find the large gathering of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Big Horn.

The question of why the Crow and Arikara would help the White Man against the Sioux and Cheyenne is one of the many areas explored by Viola in his book. In the foreword, Gerard Baker, the former superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, who is himself a mixture of Arikara, Mandan and Hidasta, lays the foundation for Viola's attempt to explore the Indian side of the story: ''The Crow and Arikara were allies of the government, and some of their young men were at Custer's side in the conflict. To them, it was a matter of survival against their age-old enemies, the Lakota and the Cheyenne. So even though they had been decimated by smallpox, cholera and other introduced illnesses, even though their population was a shadow of its former strength, even though their warriors were few and unarmed, the Arikaras and Crows felt compelled to help the Army fight the strong, aggressive, and heavily armed Lakota.''

Today, with perfect hindsight, even some non-Indians question the sanity of Indians who would help the Army to fight other Indians. It seemed so clear at the time. These tribes needed help to keep from being overrun by their traditional enemies. They thought that by aiding the Army, no more would be taken from them. They would be safe. By treaty, the Crows and Arikara were promised that part of their ancestral lands would be theirs forever. Their reservations would be on these lands.

Then they found out what the Sioux and Cheyenne already knew -- the White Man and his government cannot be trusted. Their lands were ripped away from them so that the government could build the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Untold anguish was suffered by these allies of the government as over 90% were displaced. Baker writes, ''Sometimes, when I went to Sacagawea Lake to fish and picnic, old people would come to the bluffs around the lake to cry and wail. They would look out over the water and cry for the loss of the graves of their ancestors and for their lost homeland, lost way of life, and community.''

So today, we can look back and say they made a mistake. They should have put tribal differences aside and joined forces against a common enemy. But they did what they thought they had to do to survive. And for what it's worth, the end result would have been the same. The railroad, the telegraph, the sheer numbers of White settlers ready to plow the prairies, and the extermination of the bison were all forces combining to defeat the way of life of the Plains Indians.

A way of life was coming to an end. Somewhere deep in the hearts of all of us, whatever our color, there is a feeling that the end of that way of life has cost all of us something in today's world. To paraphrase Ohiyesa, we have replaced the natural life with the artificial.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 3, 2000

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