A Good Day to Die
Some time in the early spring of 1876, Sitting Bull climbed to a hilltop, seeking a vision. In his dream, a great dust storm swirled down upon a small white cloud that resembled a Lakota village. Through the whirlwind, Sitting Bull could see soldiers marching. The little cloud was swallowed up for a time, but the storm eventually dissipated and the village emerged unharmed.
It was an encouraging dream. And in the spring of 1876, the Lakota needed encouragement, for General Philip Sheridan had already drawn up a plan that would send three columns of soldiers to find Sitting Bull and drive him and his followers onto the reservations.
One column, led by Brigadier General George Crook, was to move north from Fort Fetterman; another, under Colonel John Gibbon, was to march east from western Montana; and the third, commanded by General Alfred Terry, would march west from Fort Abraham Lincoln.
With Terry went the 566 enlisted men and 31 officers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer. They moved out to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
On June 6th, some 3,000 Lakota and Cheyenne were camped along Rosebud Creek in Montana. There they held their most sacred ritual -- a sun dance -- in which prayers were offered and vows made to Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit.
Sitting Bull slashed his arms one hundred times as a sign of sacrifice. Then he had another vision: The soldiers came again to attack his people -- "as many as grasshoppers," he said -- but this time they were upside down, their horse's hooves in the air, their hats tumbling to the ground as they rode into the Lakota camp.
has this tremendous vision...that there's going to be this great victory.
And armed with this vision the warriors go out looking for somebody to
On the morning of June 17th, General Crook's column had stopped to brew coffee on the bank of the Rosebud, sure that no Indians would dare attack so large a force as theirs. Then, suddenly, Crazy Horse and more than 500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode down upon them. Crook's command included Crow and Shoshone scouts, eager to fight the tribes that had once taken their lands, and in the desperate fight that followed, the Indian scouts twice rescued the soldiers by riding through the Lakota and Cheyenne ranks. Unnerved by the enemy show of force, Crook withdrew the next morning.
The Lakota and Cheyenne moved north and formed a new camp, where for six days they celebrated their victory along a winding stream they called the Greasy Grass. Whites called it the Little Bighorn.
On June 21st, Custer met on the Yellowstone River with Colonel John Gibbon and their superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. They knew nothing of Crook's retreat.
Terry ordered Gibbon to march to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, while Custer and the Seventh Cavalry would try to locate the Indians and drive them down the valley toward Gibbon and annihilation.
As Custer rode off, Gibbon called out to him, "Now Custer, don't be greedy. . . . wait for us."
"No," he said, "I will not."
know five of those scouts, they were old men when I was a young fellow,
including my grandfather, White Man Runs Him. Why would a tribe of Indians
decide to fight other tribes in behalf of the white man? Sioux won't let
us forget that. They always say, “You Crows are no good. You're white
lovers, you help them fight against us.” But they forget the fact that
they came out here to annihilate us, take our land away from us, so there
was a matter of protection.”
Fearful that Sitting Bull would elude him, Custer pushed his column hard -- 12 miles the first day, 33 the second, 28 the third. The exhausted troopers began to grumble about the man they privately called "Hard Ass."
As they followed the Indians' trail, they did not grasp the full meaning of the fresh pony tracks that seemed to cross and recross it. In the last few days, 3,000 more Indians -- Lakotas, Arapahoes and Cheyennes -- had left the reservations to join Sitting Bull. His encampment now stretched out for three miles along the Greasy Grass, a gathering of more than six thousand Indians, eighteen hundred of them warriors.
On the evening of June 24th, Sitting Bull made his way to a ridge that overlooked the encampment, gave offerings to the Great Spirit and prayed for the protection of his people.
Tanka, pity me. In the name of the [people] I offer you this sacred pipe.
Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there
you are always....save the [people], I beg you...We want to live. Guard
us against all misfortune....Pity me.
The next day was June 25th, a Sunday, cloudless and hot. Custer's Crow scouts spotted the village from a distant hilltop and called Custer up to have a look. Even with a telescope, he was unable to see much more than a white blur on the valley floor. His only concern was that he had already been spotted, that unless he attacked right away, the Indians would split up and flee in so many directions that he could never stop them.
had never yet encountered an Indian band that wouldn’t run when the cavalry
attacked. So he pushed to an attack as quickly as it could be mounted
-- a dreadful mistake on his part because his men were exhausted. He should
have bivouacked, given them a night’s sleep, sent out some scouts to find
out how far that village extended in this direction and that, because
much of it was hidden by woods along the Little Bighorn.”
Custer knew nothing of the terrain and could not tell how many Indians awaited him. But it had been a surprise attack that had destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne on the Washita eight years earlier. With the weapon of surprise, a victory seemed just as likely here.
Custer hurried toward the Little Bighorn. He saw dust rising over a ridge just ahead of him and thought the Indians were already on the move to escape.
It was now or never.
Some 40 warriors appeared, then began racing back toward their camp. Custer sent Major Marcus Reno and three companies -- 140 men -- in pursuit, promising to support them. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was about to begin.
Reno's men crossed the river, formed a thin skirmish line, and began firing into one edge of the village, assuming that Custer would reinforce them. They were soon outnumbered and Reno ordered a retreat.
The soldiers were falling into the village, just as Sitting Bull's vision had predicted.
More warriors swarmed out of the village, but still Custer did not come. Instead of following Reno, he had led his five companies of 210 men toward a ridge, convinced the Indians were fleeing and that by charging down into the village from there, he could cut them off.
sent some of his scouts to go look over the hill. And they came back and
told him, Well, they're still there, so he decided to go look himself.
He went over there and pretty soon he beat it back. He was all shook up,
as they say, you know. My grandfather used to say, Custer looked whiter
Custer was outnumbered more than four-to-one, but he led his troops down toward the village, firing as they came. Cheyenne warriors led by Lame White Man, Hunkpapa Lakotas under Gall, and Oglalas under Crazy Horse rode out to turn Custer back. Stunned at the sight of hundreds of warriors headed right at them, Custer and his men stopped short and began a headlong retreat toward the summit of a long, high ridge.
Some of the Indians remembered later that the legs of the men and the horses trembled as they scrambled up the slope.
called to my men: “This is a good day to die: follow me.”...As we rushed
upon them the [soldiers] dismounted to fire, but they did very poor shooting.
They held their horse's reins on one arm while they were shooting, but
their horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around and
a great many of their shots went up into the air and did us no harm.
I charged in. A tall, well-built soldier...saw me coming....when I rushed him, he threw his rifle at me without shooting...We grabbed each other and wrestled there in the dust and smoke...He hit me with his fists on the jaw and shoulders, then grabbed my long braids with both hands, pulled my face close and tried to bite my nose off....I yelled as loud as I could to scare my enemy, but he would not let go. Finally, I broke free.
He drew his pistol. I wrenched it out of his hand and struck him with it three or four times on the head, knocked him over, shot him in the head and fired at his heart...
Ho hechetu! That was a [good] fight, a hard fight. But it was a glorious battle, I enjoyed it.
The soldiers, one Lakota remembered, "were as good men as ever fought." But the fighting, recalled another, had lasted no longer than a hungry man needed to eat his lunch.
In the end, all of the men in Custer's command -- 210 of them -- lay dead. It was the greatest Indian victory of the Plains wars.
Two Cheyenne woman were said to have found Custer's body.
women...pushed the point of a sewing awl into each of his ears, into his
head. This was done to improve his hearing, as it seemed he had not heard
what our chiefs in the South had said when he smoked the pipe with them.
They told him then that if ever afterward he should break that peace promise
and should fight the Cheyennes, the Everywhere Spirit surely would cause
him to be killed....I often have wondered if, when I was riding among
the dead where he was lying, my pony may have kicked dirt upon his body.
Americans were celebrating their centennial that summer, proud of 100 years of independence. The news that Custer and all his men had been killed by Indians was greeted with disbelief: How could native warriors with absurd names -- Low Dog, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull -- have defeated so gallant a soldier?
General Philip Sheridan, architect of the plan that had ended in disaster, promised Custer would be avenged, and 2,500 additional cavalrymen hurried west. Fresh blue columns commanded by Crook, Terry and Colonel Nelson A. Miles crisscrossed the Powder River country hunting down the bands that had split up after the Custer fight. One by one, all were forced to surrender.
you look at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it was Custer's Last Stand,
but in a lot of ways it was the last stand for Indian people as a free
people, as a people that were living on the Plains and in the lifestyle
that was going to change because of that victory.”
In retribution, Congress took back the Black Hills, despite the Fort Laramie Treaty, and took another forty million acres of Lakota land as well. The reservation chiefs were forced to accept all of it.
But Sitting Bull would not accept defeat. He and his followers had fled beyond the reach of American troops, across the border into Canada, which he called the "Land of the Grandmother," in honor of Queen Victoria.
When General Alfred Terry traveled north to offer him a full pardon on the condition that he settle on a reservation, Sitting Bull angrily sent him away.
This country is my country now, and I intend
to stay here and raise my people to fill it. We did not give our country
to you; you stole it. You come here to tell lies; when you go home, take
them with you.
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA