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Suicide Boys

Warriors' Act Kept Secret For Decades

Of The Gazette Staff

John Doerner

Photo by James Woodcock/Gazette Staff

Nobody talked openly about the "Suicide Boys'' until almost 90 years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

American Indian accounts written down immediately after the fight on June 25, 1876, or years later when the warriors were old men, do not mention four Cheyenne and about 20 Sioux warriors who vowed to fight to the death in the next battle with U.S. troops.

Maybe the suicide vow was too sacred to be shared with outsiders while the battle was still so fresh, speculated John Doerner, chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield.

John Stands In Timber, whose Cheyenne grandfathers fought at Little Bighorn, spent 50 years gathering accounts from eyewitnesses. In the 1960s, with the help of editor Margot Liberty, Stands In Timber published a traditional Cheyenne version of events.

"It really explains a lot of the history of the battle,'' Doerner said.

Stands In Timber's account provided new perspective on the ebb and flow of events. It put troopers in unexpected places near the Little Bighorn River, on the site now occupied by Custer National Cemetery, and in the area where the National Park Service Visitor Center now sits. And it credited the Suicide Boys with a daring charge that many Cheyenne veterans believe doomed the last remnants of five companies of the 7th Cavalry.

His story begins as thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along the Little Bighorn River. According to Stands In Timber, the tribes knew that soldiers were looking for them, and they expected a fight.

On June 24, 1876, some of the Sioux announced that they would take the suicide vow. A dance was arranged that night to honor them. The ritual, which the Northern Cheyenne believed originated with them, was called the "Dying Dancing."

"This meant that they were throwing their lives away,'' Stands In Timber recounted. "In the next battle, they would fight until they were killed.''

Four Northern Cheyenne decided that they would take the vow at the same time. He identified them as Little Whirlwind, Cut Belly, Closed Hand and Noisy Walking.

Although Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior, whose account of the battle was published in 1931 by his biographer Thomas Marquis, did not mention a suicide pact, he did list the four among the Cheyenne dead. Cut Belly, whom he identified as Open Belly, was about 30, but had no wife and children, Wooden Leg said. Closed Hand, whom he identified as Black Bear, was about 20. Little Whirlwind and Noisy Walking were about 16.

Doerner said that Suicide Boys were often poor, carrying into battle only what they could scrounge. They may have had only bows and arrows and war clubs, he said. If they had firearms, he said, they were probably borrowed or cast-offs. Most likely they had not previously distinguished themselves in combat, he said.

For young men dreaming of honor and sacrifice, the night must have been the most glorious of their lives.

People gathered for the dance early in the evening and roared approval when the Suicide Boys entered, Stands In Timber said. Although they knew soldiers were in the area, they did not expect an attack the next day. They danced through the night, and it may have been the smoke from those fires that Custer's scouts in the Wolf Mountains about 15 miles away saw at daybreak June 25.

On their last morning, the Suicide Boys were paraded through camp. Stands In Timber said his grandmother, Twin Woman, related that the boys walked in front of the procession. An old man followed telling everyone to "look at these boys well. They would never come back after the next battle.''

While the parade was still in progress, Maj. Marcus Reno, under orders from Lt. Col. George Custer, attacked the village. Custer and five companies moved upstream, presumably intending to attack at the other end of the huge camp.

Confronted by fierce resistance, Reno's troops retreated pell-mell across the river and established a position in the bluffs above. Wooden Leg said Little Whirlwind charged after one of the Arikara scouts with Reno's command. The two warriors fired at each other in the same moment and both fell dead.

With Reno's force contained on the bluff, attention turned to Custer's column. Firing started as the soldiers neared the river, Stands In Timber said. Warriors kept their distance at first and as the soldiers moved toward the Northern Cheyenne camp on the other side of the Little Bighorn.

The column turned north when met with resistance from warriors firing from the river bottom. The troopers retraced their route to where the National Cemetery sits, according to Stands In Timber. The troopers stayed there for about 20 minutes before moving into a low spot between the visitor center and Last Stand Hill.

"Before long, some Sioux criers came along behind the line, and began calling in the Sioux language to get ready and watch for the Suicide Boys,'' Stands In Timber recounted.

They were at the river readying for an attack. After the Suicide Boys rushed the soldiers, other warriors were expected to join them in hand-to-hand combat. When the soldiers turned to respond, warriors behind them would have a chance to move closer, crowding them from both sides.

"The criers called out those instructions twice,'' Stands In Timber said. "Most of the Cheyennes could not understand them, but the Sioux there told them what had been said.''

The Suicide Boys entered the fight near its conclusion, he said. They galloped to where the visitor center now stands and stampeded the soldiers' horses. Some charged directly into the place where the soldiers had decided to make their stand, according to Stands In Timber's account.

Other warriors rushed in after the Suicide Boys. In the close fighting, none of the soldiers had time to take aim or effectively fire their weapons.

"After they emptied their pistols this way, there was no time to reload,'' Stands In Timber said. "But most of the Indians had clubs or hatchets, while the soldiers just had guns."

He said that after the Suicide Boys initiated the charge, the battle lasted only about another half-hour.

All the Suicide Boys were dead or dying by the time the last of the soldiers perished.

Stands In Timber said many of the warriors agreed that if the Suicide Boys had not made a charge directly into the soldiers, the result could have been the same as at the Reno Hill. Although soldiers on the hill took heavily casualties, most survived a two-day siege about five miles away from Custer's battlefield.

"The Indians all stayed back and fought there,'' he said of the Reno Hill fight. "No Suicide Boys jumped in to begin the hand-to-hand fight. The Custer fight was different because these boys went in that way, and it was their rule to be killed."

Closed Hand apparently died just below Last Stand Hill. Wooden Leg said Limberhand, whom he called Limber Bones, was killed in the same vicinity. Noisy Walking died that night in his father's lodge at the Little Bighorn camp. Cut Belly, shot down in the vicinity of where the Stone House now stands, died a few days later at the Powder River.

Red granite headstones honoring them include both their Cheyenne names and translations supplied by Linwood Tall Bull. Each bears the inscription:

"A Cheyenne warrior fell here on June 25, 1876, while defending the Cheyenne way of life.''

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