Who killed Custer?

by Mitakuye Oyasin

Of all the mysteries that surround the events of June 25, 1876, the one that has been played with the most is the death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Movie makers like to show him standing alone, flailing away with his saber, or they like to show Crazy Horse eyeing him knowingly as he finishes him off, two great warriors going at it to the death. Forget the fact that the 7th Cavalry left their sabers at the fort, and overlook the fact that Crazy Horse had no idea what Custer looked like. Romantic history is always more entertaining than the real thing.

But the question persists. Its difficulty is quite apparent if we look at some of the facts surrounding Custer and the attitudes that prevailed among the Cheyenne and Sioux towards the White Man, his government and his army of Bluecoats.

Of all the Indians present at the Little Big Horn (and estimates run as high as 10,000), only the Cheyenne had had any significant dealings with Custer. About eight years before, Custer had made his reputation as an Indian fighter by attacking a peaceful Cheyenne encampment on the Washita River. They were so peaceful that their chief even flew an American flag outside his tepee. Some warriors and others escaped, but Custer, after killing their herd of horses, dragged the remaining prisoners back to his fort. There is some evidence that he developed a conjugal relationship with one of his prisoners and that she mothered a blond-haired boy. While he was married, he was still considered a relative of sorts by the Cheyenne women who knew of his relationship with one of their own.

Custer never really had any other big ''victories'' over any other tribes, mostly because he could never catch them. They would hit, run and scatter, and he would be left with men ready to desert. Finally, he bravely set a meeting with some Cheyenne chiefs and went to their tepee by himself. In that encounter, they smoked the pipe together and he vowed never again to attack the Cheyenne. One of the chiefs emptied the pipe on Custer's boot and left no doubt that Custer would be like those ashes if he ever broke his promise.

These were some of the people gathered in celebration at the Little Big Horn. Picture, if you will, an encampment of tepees, each circled in its tribal gathering, and extending for over three miles up the river's snaky path. On the south is the Hunkpapa Sioux circle, Sitting Bull's tribe. On the far end of the encampment, unseen because of the twists and turns of the river, reside the Cheyenne.

Custer would like to have attacked at dawn on June 26, surprising the camp. He changed his mind when he realized they had been spotted, and he attacked right away. He was afraid that they would run and scatter, and he wanted a big, name-making victory. This also explains why, against orders, he attacked instead of waiting for Terry and Gibbons.

The Indians, for their part, were feeling quite secure in their fighting ability and the number of their warriors. They had, after all, sent General Crook and his army scampering for home at the Battle of the Rosebud, only a week before. They never dreamed they would be attacked by such a small force.

Custer split his forces, sending Captain Benteen south and west to sweep up any Indians trying to escape. He sent Major Reno and his men to attack the southern end of the camp, which happened to be Sitting bull's domain. He then proceeded north to try to keep anyone on that end from fleeing. Reno and his men ran into a hornet's nest, fled to some nearby woods, crossed the river and climbed to the tip of a hill, where they dug in. At one point, according to one of Custer's Crow scouts, he looked down on the field of battle and saw that Reno was in trouble. He could have swept down to help and then, later, when Benteen and the supply train joined them (as they did Reno, on the hilltop), they could have held out until reinforcements came. Instead, Custer charged on to the north.

When he finally got to the end of the encampment, over three miles away, he attacked the Cheyenne, breaking a solemn vow he had made years before. To the Cheyenne way of thinking, that is what killed Custer. In less than an hour, he and 210 of the men under his immediate command were dead. Reno, on the other end, lost about 55.

Who could sift out what happened in that brief, noisy, dust-raising battle? Custer had cut his long blond hair two years prior, so he wasn't easily recognized, even by the Cheyenne women who knew him. He had been shot once to the chest and once in the temple. Two Cheyenne women came across his body and pierced his ears with needles so that he could hear better in the next life.

For many years, no warrior present on that day wanted to talk about who might have killed Custer. They feared retribution from the government for killing their ''hero.'' A lifetime of research by Herman J. Viola in his book, ''Little Bighorn Remembered,'' managed to find two candidates for the role of Custer's killer. The first possibility is a Lakota by the name of Spotted Antelope who hit a soldier chief on the back of the head with his tomahawk as he tried to flee from the river with his men. If this account is true, it requires the services of another Lakota to move the body to the hilltop where the last of the soldiers had been killed, a hill designated Last Stand Hill. While this is all possible, it reminds me of the differences in the resurrection stories in the Gospel accounts.

The second, more likely story is from a Cheyenne named Brave Bear. He relates that he had never seen Custer and would not have recognized him, but he and some other warriors were stationed on a ridge, hiding and waiting to surprise a group of soldiers headed for Last Stand Hill. They jumped up in front of the soldiers, other warriors came at them from behind, and furious fighting lasted for several minutes. Brave Bear said that anybody in the group could have killed Yellow Hair (the Cheyenne name for Custer), if he was there. It was there that Custer's body was found.

So who killed Custer? No one knows, and if anybody ever did know, the secret is buried with them. But I have a theory. No one wants to ask the question that comes to my mind when they tell me he had a bullet wound in his temple. It is only my opinion, but I think Custer, wounded and certain of the shame of defeat, put his pistol to his head and killed himself.

He should never have lied to the Cheyenne.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 9, 2000

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