Tim Giago

The true patriots who defeated Custer

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.

The Indian holiday on June 25 marks the 134th anniversary of the thrashing of George Armstrong Custer's 7th 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 joined the celebration.

They celebrate the day their ancestors handed the U.S. 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 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 U.S. government.

As part of the archaeological 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 Archaeological Center reported that the archaeologists 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.

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 archaeological 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 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 American Indians 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."

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is founder and president of the Native American Journalists Association.

© 2010, Tim Giago

The true patriots who defeated Custer 06/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 9:00pm]

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