LAKOTA AND CHEYENNE: INDIAN VIEWS OF THE GREAT SIOUX WAR, 1876-1877
THE BATTLE OF the Little Bighorn and the annihilation of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his command inJune 1876 has been recounted in numerous books, articles and motion pictures. Bracketing the famous battle, however, werenumerous skirmishes and encounters between the Plains Indians and United States Army troops. Most of those minor battlesresulted in few casualties and were brief in duration, but they underscored the unprecedented violence on the northern Plainsand the persistence of the Army that would lead to defeat for the Lakota (Sioux) and Northern Cheyenne.
While there has been a general scouring of the records of the Custer debacle by historians and authors, little attention has beengiven to other episodes of the Great Sioux War. Of particular interest are the recollections and views of the American Indianparticipants in such military actions as the Battle of Powder River in March 1876 or the Spring Creek Encounters of mid-October 1876. Rarely seen in print, these valuable primary source reports have been ably compiled, edited and annotated by Jerome A. Greene in Lakota and Cheyenne: Indian Views of the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877 (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1994, $24.95).
The bluecoats came looking for “hostiles” early in 1876. Elements of General George Crook’s command raided the NorthernCheyenne camp of Chief Old Bear on March 17. Sprawling along the bank of the Powder River in southeastern MontanaTerritory, the camp contained as many as 450 Cheyenne. Crook’s troops mistook the village as one belonging to the OglalaSioux, a party of which, ironically, was camped a short distance away.
Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne, was 19 at the time of the battle. “Women screamed,” he later recalled. “Children cried for their mothers. Old people tottered and hobbled away to get out of reach of the bullets singing among the lodges. Braves seized whatever weapons they had and tried to meet the attack.” The soldiers succeeded in capturing the Indian horses, only to lose them in a counterattack later that day. Crook’s attack helped solidify the Northern Cheyenne?Lakota alliance.
As Crook’s army wound its way through southeastern Montana in mid-June 1876, a combined Northern Cheyenne?Lakota force attacked the column along the upper reaches of Rosebud Creek.The Battle of Rosebud Creek prevented Crook from joining Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry’s command along the Yellowstone River. The table had been set for the great Indian victory over Custer on June 25. Red Horse, a Minneconjou chief, took part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and shrewdly observed Custer’s mistakes: “Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux. The different soldiers [i.e., Custer’s battalion] that the Sioux killed made five brave stands. Once the Sioux charged right in the midst of the different soldiers and scattered them all, fighting among the soldiers hand to hand.” While many of the Indian narratives concerning the Custer battle reflect the immediate action the narrator was involved in, valuable information can be gleaned from their perceptions. Northern Cheyenne leader White Bull, for instance, believed the Indians had been able to defeat Custer more easily due to guns and ammunition stores captured during Major Marcus Reno’s ill-fated attack on the Lakota-Cheyenne camp.
In subsequent engagements after the Little Bighorn, the commands of Crook and Nelson Miles searched the valleys and river basins of Montana and Wyoming for Northern Cheyenne and Lakota strongholds. On November 25, 1876, cavalry under Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie attacked the Northern Cheyenne village of Dull Knife. Iron Teeth, a Northern Cheyenne woman, described the aftermath of the battle, when she and other women escaped into the mountains: “We wallowed through the mountain snows for several days. Most of us were afoot. We had no lodges, only a few blankets, and there was only a little dry meat food among us. Men died of wounds, women and children froze to death. After eleven days of this kind of traveling we found a camp of Oglala Sioux. They fed us, but the rest of that winter was a hard one for all of us.”
By 1877, many of the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota had turned themselves in at government agencies. Among those who refused reservation life was Lame Deer, a Minneconjou Lakota chief who established a camp on Muddy Creek, near Rosebud Creek. The camp was targeted by Miles and attacked on May 7, 1877. During a meeting between Lame Deer and Miles, the Minneconjou fired at the officer, the ball tearing his shirt but not wounding him. In the ensuing fight, Lame Deer was killed. The death of Lame Deer signaled the last major engagement of the campaign.
Lakota and Cheyenne is a valuable addition to the primary source literature on the Great Sioux War. Jerome Greene, a historian with the National Park Service, has carefully gathered the Indian narratives. The conflict marked the end of a way of life for the Northern Plains tribes, and the eloquent and often simple passages succinctly capture that loss.