Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Custer's Last Stand

Custer’s Last Stand

On the 4th of July weekend, we spent a couple of days in Hardin, Montana so we could visit the national monument depicting Custer’s Last Stand. The site actually covers an area of 5 miles. You drive your car along a path which is sprinkled with markers describing what took place at each location during the battle which occurred on June 25, 1876. How it came about is that the government made a deal with the Indians to place them all on reservations where their life would be easier, promising to provide them with plenty of food and tools. They issued a warning that all Indians had to report to reservations by January, 1876 or they would be considered hostile. But some of the tribes had feedback from others on the reservations which indicated the government had fallen short of it’s promise and they decided they didn’t want to give up their traditional way of life. They refused to go onto the reservations willingly. Even though many of the tribes fought among themselves over land and other issues, they decided to put old disputes to bed and join forces to ensure they would not be overtaken by the military and placed on reservations with other less fortunate tribes.

Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota organized the greatest gathering of Indians in the northern plains. Among these Indian tribes were the Lakota (also known as the Sioux but they didn’t like the name which was given to them by their enemies which meant “ sneaky snake”), the Cheyenne, the Arikara the Arapaho and the Crow. There were also 5 warriors who showed up from an little known tribe but they were suspected as being troublemakers so they were arrested by Sitting Bull and held as prisoners. Once the fighting started, Sitting Bull gave them back their guns and said, “ Prove who’s side you are on.”

The estimated number of Indians in this collective tribal gathering along the Little Bighorn River were 10,000 to 15,000 men, women and children. Their encampment was 3 miles long. Each tribe circled their tents to represent the individual communities. Of those, it was estimated there were about 2,000 warriors, young men of the age to protect their tribes from the enemy. These warriors practiced from the age of 6 shooting their rifles (sold to them by white men) and hitting their targets with bows & arrows. They could hit a target with an arrow accurately at 100 yards and never miss. Horses were a symbol of wealth so they prided themselves on their ability to ride and protected their animals. Among these warriors were 20 or 30 underaged boys who called themselves the suicide boys. They were trained to give their lives to protect the entire tribe. The Indians were committed to preserving their way of life.

Women held a lot of power in their tribes. The women built the tipi’s (teepees) and owned them. They tanned the buffalo hides to construct their homes. It took a week to tan one hide and it took 16 hides to make one small sized tipi. The tipi would last about one year. When the women married, they remained owners of their tipis and the man would move in with them. If the woman no longer wanted to be married to a man, she didn’t have to worry about a divorce. She could just put his clothing and belongings outside the tent and that meant it was over. He was homeless. Young braves who had not yet married, lived out in the open under makeshift shelters they constructed with brush and tree limbs until they could move into a real tent with their chosen bride.

The Buffalo was the most important animal in the life of an Indian besides the horse. Every part of the buffalo was used, including the stomach which served as a water pouch for carrying water up from the river or made into a pouch to store meat and jerky. Sinew was woven to make rope and bow string. The Buffalo bladder made an excellent canteen. Horns carried gun powder. Hides were used for shoes, clothing and tents. Buffalo meat was a staple in their diet. The Indians claimed to have at least 60 different uses for every part of the Buffalo. When white men began shooting buffalo for sport, it distressed the Indians greatly. At one time, the nearly 10,000 buffalo roaming the plains was down to only 100 left before something was done about the terrible waste and destruction of the breed. They are protected now and plentiful.

On June 25, 1876 George Custer and 600 soldiers along with a scout from the Crow Indian tribe, sought out ‘hostile’ Indians who refused to go to the reservations. They came upon the huge gathering of Sitting Bull and decided to make examples of them. The soldiers were split up into 2 groups. Major Reno was to take his men and attack from the south. Custer planned to take 210 men and attack from the north. Bad idea. Custer ignored his own scout’s warnings that the tribe was too large for this small band of soldiers to overcome. Custer, in his arrogance, would not back down. Reno went in first but quickly retreated when 1500 warriors rode against his men, chasing them back into the hills. Then the warriors retreated and went after Custer and his men. Custer was trapped on a hill with his men and slaughtered within 40 minutes. The warriors dismounted and crawled toward Custer and the soldiers, raising up only long enough to rain arrows shot straight up into the air and curving down in a storm over the soldiers. A thousand arrows hit their targets over and over but crawling warriors were impossible to hit with rifle fire. The strategy was brilliant and deadly. The warriors overtook the soldiers who were scattering like scared rabbits. Custer and his 210 men were soon dead. The indians did unspeakable things to their bodies and took their horses and guns. I have included a photo of the gravesite as it appears today.

Major Reno and the rest of the Brigade held their own against the warriors until reinforcements showed up, saving their lives and running the tribes off.

The Sioux and Cheyenne victory at Little Bighorn in 1876 was a great achievement for Indians, but, with the exception of Sitting Bull’s band, all of the participants surrendered within a year of the battle and were forced onto reservations.

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