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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Closing the Circle on Indian Testimony
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By Jerome Greene
I am pleased to be with you today. In fact, it’s always a pleasure to visit Little Bighorn Battlefield. I don’t know how many times I’ve been here since my first visit in 1960, but it’s been a lot, including the months that I worked here as a seasonal historian in the late sixties and early seventies. I never get tired of coming here and seeing the place again and again. As each of you know, it grows on you in some measure.
I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on that first visit here, a trip that I briefly alluded to in the foreword of Stricken Field. That trip had at least part of its genesis in the kindness of a National Park Service employee who worked here in the winter of 1959-60, and I bring it up here because I believe that it helped direct me in a course that led to my career in history, a career that has bounced tangentially around Little Bighorn and the Indian wars for nigh on forty years. Looking back, my visit here was in September, 1960—I’m guessing that it was around the 15th of the month. I know it was cold here at night, and the cottonwoods were yellow from frost, and I didn’t sleep a wink when I crawled into the worst excuse for a sleeping bag you could ask for—literally, I could stick my head inside while it was yet daylight, and see daylight. As I said in Stricken Field, that night was one of the coldest I remember, probably because I associate it with this special place.
The previous February, while I was yet a senior in high school, I had written to the park for the first time and ordered a number of items, including a set of the original Thomas Marquis booklets bearing their 1930s dates. The National Park Service ranger who filled my order and answered by letter was Robert A. Murray—Bob Murray—does anybody remember Bob? Recently, I found Bob’s response to me on National Park Service stationery, in which he acknowledged my order and answered a question I had posed, telling me that “neither Emmanuel nor Elizabeth Custer ever visited the battle area.” Apparently I told him of all the Custer books I had consumed, for he wrote me in something of an interesting enumeration of the then-current interpretive offerings: “Your readings on the battle have indeed been extensive. Several additional items may be of interest to you. One is Glory Hunter by Frederic Van de Water. This is unquestionably the best of the many Custer biographical studies, and an excellent examination of the Custer personality. The other is The Custer Tragedy by Fred Dustin. This is one of the best accounts of the campaign. It was only issued in a 200-copy edition, and so is very hard to find.” Murray closed with: “We hope that you will be able to make your projected trip to our area, and that your visit will be a pleasant one.”
But then Murray did something that has always touched me, and, as I said, I think in some subtle way his action encouraged my subsequent training and career choice. Enclosed in the envelope with the letter was another, typed at Murray’s Hardin home, in which he offered, and I quote, “A few off-the record, unofficial comments (and don’t quote me—please do not refer to these in correspondence directed to the office) which I offer as a historian and due to your extreme interest in the fight.” Then he continued his exposition and book reviews, mostly, I suspect, in response to comments or book titles I had evoked in my missive to the park:
While these opinions are interesting to consider today, there is one thing that really intrigues me now about Murray’s 1960 commentary, and that is its relative dearth regarding Indian accounts and perspectives available at that time, and I mean here Sioux and Northern Cheyenne and not Crow and Arikara; I’m talking about the army’s opponents. Now we know that the six Marquis booklets were being sold here then, at a cost of $2.10 per set. One of them, She Watched Custer’s Last Battle, offered a reminiscent Cheyenne eyewitness viewpoint, that of Kate Bighead, taken down in 1927. Several other of Marquis’s booklets contained negligible elements pertaining to the Lakota/Cheyenne experience in the fighting at Little Bighorn. The only other history books for sale at the battlefield that contained notably Indian themes were Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes, Vestal’s Sitting Bull, and Graham’s The Custer Myth, which contained those admittedly wonderful compilations of Sioux and Cheyenne recollections. But that was all. The Indians’ side of the story was represented in 1960, but not in a manner commensurate with their major part in the history that played out here. Of course, much Indian material had yet to be published, too, as we all know.
As I pointed out in Stricken Field, the Indian perspective was something that had been subordinated to the military history in the early interpretation here during the period of the War Department administration. By and large, that continued for perhaps twenty-five years or so after 1940, when Custer Battlefield National Cemetery was placed under the administration of the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. Captain Edward S. Luce, the first superintendent in the new order, had served time in the Seventh Cavalry and his interests, as reflected in interpretive exhibits as late as 1952, when the new visitor center opened, were clearly delineated along military lines. Even though I believe that Luce grew in the position of superintendent, I have no doubt that his initial proclivities lay with promoting Custer and the Seventh at the expense of the Indians as he pursued his interpretive agenda in the park. And in 1956, Historian Roy E. Appleman of the Washington Office, here to inspect the interpretive program, wrote: “It must not be forgotten that in this whole business the Indians were a necessary and important part of the action. . . .” Although Appleman urged a total revamping of the museum exhibits to eliminate irrelevant content dealing with the Seventh Cavalry and Custer’s personal history and be more inclusive of Indian viewpoint with properly identified artifacts, it wasn’t until 1964 that a newly drafted master plan promoted as a significant element of the story the history and culture of the Northern plains tribes. The plan called for the addition of biographical information about Indian participants in an effort to humanize that aspect of the story.
My own interest in Indian accounts of the Little Bighorn (as well as of other army-Indian encounters) kind of dovetailed with this new interpretive awakening of the 1960s. I worked here in the summers of 1968, 1970 and 1971. In 1970, Superintendent William A. Harris assigned me the task of compiling as complete a list as possible of artifacts recovered from the battlefield over the years and recorded in the park research files, and of correlating their recovery points on a large aerial survey photomap of the terrain. One purpose was to try and determine clues to Custer’s defeat in 1876, based on materials dropped by the soldiers and their Sioux and Northern Cheyenne pursuers in the form of weapons, horseshoes, and military accoutrements, and primarily the hundreds of expended cartridge casings discarded during the fighting.
I soon found that this approach would not work by itself. The Custer field was too vast, the concentrations of artifacts that had been recorded, though plentiful, were too widely scattered to offer concrete answers by themselves. Something more than this kind of information would be needed to arrive at tentative conclusions regarding the demise of more than 225 cavalrymen at the hands of perhaps 1,500 warriors in 1876. Thus, I turned to investigating Sioux and Cheyenne accounts, hopeful that they would complement the record of artifact locations and give me more insight into what happened on the field. What I discovered was a largely untapped body of historical evidence that when meticulously integrated with other historical and archeological data promised to help round out knowledge of the Little Bighorn as well as of other engagements between the Indians and the army.
Several conclusions resulted from my inquiry into the nature of Indian participant accounts. It is true that many tribal people feared punishment of themselves or their families by the government and consequently told stories that might ensure their protection. Cheyennes who were at the Little Bighorn later stated that Custer’s men, intoxicated, had shot each other in the fighting. They later admitted that this was not true. Of course, language and translation was always a problem because an informant’s statements, interpreted from the Sioux or Cheyenne tongue and processed through several people, often produced mistakes in nuance and/or direct meaning. The accounts were very individualistic, too, in line with the war honors tradition of tribal cultures, and rarely told of group actions under combat conditions. Additionally, because memory composed the vault of Indian recollections, there was always room for error and they often had to be accepted on faith with little hope of corroboration.
These uncertainties with the Indian record had caused many non-Indian historians at that time to reject it outright or to severely restrict its acceptance. Over the past several decades, however, Indian participant testimony has gained many strong adherents among historians, largely because of their growing appreciation of the significance of truth and memory in story-telling ritual historically held by the people. Minute details were important for a warrior to remember in order to avoid ridicule by his fellows, and such individualized recountings of one’s personal deeds, when taken together with accounts from others so involved, help to create something of a mutually corroborative Indian record of what happened at this end of the Little Bighorn fight.
Lakota and Northern Cheyenne accounts of their struggles on this field survive today largely because of the enterprise of several persons that most of you know about—George Bird Grinnell, Eli S. Ricker, Walter M. Camp, Eleanor Hinman, Walter S. Campbell, Thomas B. Marquis, and John G. Neihardt. All of them devoted substantial parts of their lives to garnering information from the people who could help clarify events here and elsewhere.
Another important body of information was that gathered through the years by Northern Cheyenne historian John Stands In Timber. Stands In Timber possessed an extraordinary mind for memory and history, as well as for the importance and need for preserving his people’s heritage. He was born in 1882, grew up orphaned in the transitional period of early reservation existence, learned English and reading and was able to begin the transcription of spoken words into writing, helping to ensure that preservation. Margot Liberty, who worked with him in readying his collected history, Cheyenne Memories, for publication, said that Stands In Timber “recognized the frailty of human memory and that written records, however flawed, were in the end the only way to preserve the past for the future.” “His memory,” she said, “was prodigious, and it included much more than tribal tradition.” While his life was not completely about history, the subject nonetheless fascinated him all his days. Stands In Timber learned to be a steam engineer at Haskell Indian School in Kansas. He later worked at the government school in Busby tending the boiler, then as a cowboy for the Northern Cheyenne herd. He served several terms on the tribal council, and during the 1940s became tribal chairman.
Stands In Timber’s interest in the history of his people was constant. Margot Liberty recalled that he “began visiting old-timers to hear their stories as soon as he came back from Haskell. He probably learned more about Cheyenne history than anyone else, certainly from the inside or native point of view. He consulted many different sources for various events, especially the Custer fight, for which so much pressure existed—and still does—for new information. He cited the opinions of many individuals by name (Old Man Whitebird said this, but Dan Oldbull said something else) and where disagreement existed, he sought out further sources....He was aware of the hazards of translation....He gathered much information at intertribal events like powwows, fairs, and rodeos, consulting anyone and everyone for additional details of various stories. He could write well in English, but he preferred to talk and to listen, a choice still often made by tribal historians....He was also friendly and accommodating to those who sought to learn from him. Many non-Indian scholars have credited his assistance, including Charles Erlanson, J.W. Vaughn, Verne Dusenberry, Mark Brown, and Peter Powell.” (And I would add to that list Don Rickey and Margot Liberty herself.) Stands In Timber was also a tribal anthropologist, as he experienced and described the life ways of his people in such matters as medicine and religion and ceremony. But foremost, for his longevity in recording the times of his people, the Northern Cheyennes, John Stands In Timber, who died in 1967, was a historian whose work has continued to be valued by students of the tribes of the Northern Plains.
I’d like to talk briefly about the two kinds of participant accounts. As I mentioned, I started working summers at Custer Battlefield National Monument in 1968, the year after John Stands In Timber died. At the time, curiosity about what had happened on the battlefield was very high—it still is. Of all the clashes between troops and Indians in the American West between 1865 and 1898, only that of the Little Bighorn has captured public imagination so greatly that it has come to symbolize them all. The potential value of Indian participant descriptions of what happened during the Custer phase of the action here is obvious. Following the battle, it was not until late 1876 and early 1877 that the first vague Indian statements surfaced among Lakota tribesmen who surrendered at the agencies in Nebraska and Dakota Territory. Other accounts turned up after 1881, after the return of Sitting Bull and his followers from their refuge in Canada. This so-called immediate testimony, however, was often muddled, as much from faulty translation as from the people’s fear of punishment for their role in the proceedings. Within decades, more individual recollections appeared that often proved more credible. This reminiscent testimony, brought to us through dispassionate students like Ricker, Camp, Grinnell, Marquis, and Stands In Timber, delivered at some distance from the event, generally proved to be more accurate and orderly, as well as bias-free. Taken together, it has provided much data about Custer’s course to destruction, and its essentials have been validated archeologically in more recent years.
Recognition of Indian participation in the Battle of the Little Bighorn by society at large has been a long time coming. Beyond basic acknowledgment of their historical presence during the event, the government during the years of War Department administration and well into the period of National Park Service administration viewed Indians largely as faceless people without historical investment in the struggle that had occurred here, although the short-term aftermath had proved cataclysmic to their traditional existence. Removed to the reservations, the Lakotas and their Cheyenne compatriots and their descendants thereafter passed uneasy lives as they subsisted on often dwindling government doles, forgotten by most white Americans, symbolically fleeting impediments to white civilization—a momentary hindrance in the course of American imperialism. Occsionally, during the years since 1876, relatives had placed stone cairns on the field to indicate where warriors had been killed or wounded in the fighting. These contrivances constituted the first Indian monumentation on the site. Yet federal recognition of Indian valor was not a consideration, and in 1925 Mrs. Thomas Beaverheart’s letter to the War Department, requesting help in formally marking where her father, Lame White Man, had died in the battle, went unanswered.
War Department oversight of Custer Battlefield National Cemetery between 1879 and 1940 provided marginal interpretation of the site, and what existed promoted the role of Custer and his soldiers above that of the people who had defeated them. Although by this time individuals like Grinnell, Ricker, Camp, and Marquis—and even John Stands In Timber—had interviewed Indian participants for several decades, Indian accounts of the engagement were not widely circulated and were still viewed by white historians as conflicting and confusing. As I mentioned before, while interpretation increased following transfer of the site to the National Park Service in 1940, for many years it remained the military perspective—that of Custer and his soldiers—that drew the most attention and was conveyed to the public.
That state of affairs continued with negligible change to what one historian has termed a theme of “patriotic orthodoxy” wherein the heroic Custer and his troops fell sacrificially—and thus symbolically—to overwhelming numbers of Indians. By the 1960s through the early 1970s, however, white Americans were beginning to reassess their historical treatment of Indian people, with books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee promoting social awareness respecting Indians historically as well as in the modern population, and interpretation at Custer Battlefield National Monument during the 1970s gradually transformed to include more Indian perspectives and thus more balance. (As early as 1958 a wooden marker was placed on the battle ridge to denote where Mrs. Beaverheart’s father, Lame White Man, had fallen). Simultaneous with the rising attention to the Indian side of events was budding opinion for a park name change that would more properly reflect neutrality. In 1971, Superintendent William A. Harris proposed changing the name from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn National Battlefield as much to “demonstrate that the National Park Service, the Federal Government, and the American public recognize both sides of the issue equally.” As it stood, wrote Harris, to the Indians the park was but “another example of [the] white man’s oppression of their culture and heritage.” Harris’s recommendation received endorsement from the Washington office and was later included in the park’s “Statement for Management” in 1975.
As we know, the change did not become reality for another sixteen years. During the interim, Indian activist groups seeking inclusiveness demonstrated at the park during the centennial observance in 1976, and in 1988 placed a steel memorial plaque on the mass grave atop Custer Hill to recognize Indian battle participants. The plaque was eventually relocated for exhibit to the visitor center museum as the National Park Service committed to providing an appropriate alternative, and in May, 1989, an Indian Memorial task force was formed to evaluate possible sites on the battlefield for a permanent memorial. The theme for the memorial, “Peace through Unity,” was adapted after statements from Enos Poor Bear, elder of the Oglala Sioux, and Austin Two Moons, elder of the Northern Cheyennes. Meantime, the successive appointments of Barbara Booher, a Ute-Cherokee, and Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa, as superintendents in 1989 and 1993, opened dialogues long missing with the Indian community, hastening changes that had been evolving too slowly at the park. Booher’s appointment besides gave impetus to the name change as well as to the movement for a lasting memorial. While initial efforts stalled in the 101st Congress in 1990, legislation introduced in the 102nd to effect the name change as well as to authorize an Indian memorial succeeded through hearings in the appropriate House and Senate subcommittees. Subsequently, the measure passed both bodies and on December 10, 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
If anything, the name change, along with the dedication there in 2003 of an Indian Memorial to honor fallen warriors and family members at last validates the old Indian recollections as a significant source for our knowledge of what happened here. Furthermore, the appointment of three Indian superintendents at the park testifies to the growing inclusiveness of the site for all Americans. Barbara Booher, Gerard Baker, and Darrell Cook worked to open and sustain communication with Indian communities. Darrell oversaw final construction of the Indian Memorial from design into reality. Another superintendent, Neil Mangum, appreciated Barbara’s and Gerard’s efforts in opening the necessary doors. Neil recalled that “working with the tribes to build the Indian Memorial was a priceless experience, particularly with the Northern Cheyennes. I well remember the words of Clifford Long Sioux, friend and vice president of the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, who succinctly stated to me that in all his years he and most members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe never visited the battlefield. ‘Why?,’ I asked, to which he replied that there was nothing there to honor their efforts. He declared that all the markers on the battlefield and the monument were for the soldiers. [There was] no acknowledgement to the victors. Now, with the Indian Memorial, there was a reason to visit the site. I understood his words.”
So with dedication of the Indian Memorial, it is clear that the Indian recollections have enhanced knowledge and understanding of this event, at last affording them recognition long overdue. And, you know? I’d like to think that in the long run my old friend Bob Murray would somehow approve of it all.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022