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Native History: Descendants Remember Battle of Little Bighorn

Representatives from many Native nations of the Plains will come together today for the 138th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

This Date in Native History: Representatives from many Native nations of the Plains came together for the 138th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 2014, where a re-dedication ceremony of the newly completed Indian Memorial will take place. The Big Horn Riders arrived from Pine Ridge in two groups of 20, “as they do each year in memory of the battle,” Doug Bissonette, the Pine Ridge spokesman for the family of Crazy Horse said. Northern Cheyenne youth, whose ancestors fought at Little Big Horn, participated with a run to honor them.

Lakota historian and author Donovin Sprague said, “The purpose of the Indian Memorial is to honor American Indian people whose names were often not included.” Sprague is a descendant of Crazy Horse, High Backbone (Hump), and other battle participants.

The Indian Memorial represents warrior-descendants of the battle from 17 tribes throughout the Northern Plains and Oklahoma. Engravings, artwork and imagery honor Native participants who fought and died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The theme is “Peace Through Unity.”


Peace through unity was echoed by Traditional Chief Phillip Whiteman, Northern Cheyenne, who said, “My great-grandparents were chiefs and warriors at Little Big Horn and we carry this message to the future generations. Days before the battle, my ancestors were summoned to Medicine Deer Rock, which is a portal to a higher dimension. Sitting Bull had a vision there of soldiers falling into the camp like locusts. That vision, that dream, has propelled us forward to where we are today. Medicine Deer Rock reminds us that the old formula of resistance, of being against something, is over now. That whole thought process is over. We have to stand up for what we are for, not against,” Whiteman said.

“Our ancestors were given a clear message. In order for our two-legged to exist together collectively, we have to walk in peace, balance and harmony for all living things. Air, land, water, language, and culture are all one and the same. Today we have the opportunity to return to that oneness. The Battle of Little Big Horn is part of the paradigm shift—it is part of the bigger vision of what our ancestors came together for at Rosebud Creek, near the Medicine Deer Rock: of learning to fight not to fight.”

On June 6, 1876, a Sun Dance was held at Rosebud Creek near Medicine Deer Rock. Somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people had come together from different tribes. Chief John Grass, Hunkpapa Lakota, reported that Crazy Horse was there, and Sitting Bull was singing and “making himself holy.” They knew from the vision that Custer was coming, and they were prepared. “We had scouts for many days watching Custer and Crook,” Grass said in a testimony he gave Colonel Welch in 1915.

Little Big Horn Map, Battle of Greasy Grass

Grass said that close to 600 men left a trail for Custer to find. “Custer never knew about this part of our march, but he should have known,” Grass said.

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The night before Custer attacked, he cut his hair, and many of his men drank whiskey, and some were reported to have been intoxicated the day of the attack. Making loud noises, and shooting into the air “like cowboys” Custer rode right into a trap. “There were five men who rode ahead of the rest. They were killed first,” Grass said. “One of them was General Custer. We rushed out of a draw in the hills and rode against them.”

Grass said Custer “was a fool,” but “he was brave to do it.”

It wasn’t the first time Custer was a victim of his own bad judgment. Early in 1868, he was suspended for deserting and mistreating his men. In September of that same year, according to, General Philip Sheridan reinstated Custer and in November, Custer came upon a group of friendly Cheyenne camped near the Washita River, whose village was on the reservation. He surrounded the village the night before and attacked at dawn, killing many within the first 15 minutes and more than 100, including women and children, in just a few hours.

Chief Whiteman said, “After the Washita, after they killed all those people and horses, Custer came and smoked with my grandfathers on my mother’s side. After he smoked four times, they told him to tap the bowl of the pipe, knock the ash off, with his right heel and to take that right heel and rub the ash in the ground. So that’s what he did. After he smoked with them they told him, ‘That’s you in the ash. The next time you double-cross the Cheyenne, there will be nothing left of you.’ The medicine man said, ‘That’s the way it’s gonna be,’ and that’s the way it ended up at the Battle of Little Big Horn.”

“I don’t think anybody looked at this as a religious gathering. It is always listed as the battle, but Custer came in on the biggest religious gathering of the year, the summer solstice over four days. They were breaking camp at that point, it was the last day, and that was what Custer had seen,” Sprague said.

Little Big Horn, Battle of Greasy Grass

Donovin Sprague, Lakota historian and author, stands before the photos of some of the most accomplished yet uncelebrated warriors of Little Big Horn. In this picture, Crazy Horse, who is believed to have never been photographed, is represented by a ledger drawing. Sprague is a descendant of Crazy Horse, and his great-great-grandfather Hump is left and second from top. “Sitting Bull is our relative, too. Above my hat is Gall Pizi). He and Hump adopted each other as brothers in the hunka ceremony. So everyone in this photo was family or knew each other well,” Sprague said.

Noting that many of his family members were there as well, Sprague reports, “Some women were picking timpsala (turnips) when this happened. Hump joined Crazy Horse in camp and they got in at the end of the Reno attack on the opposite side. Captain Benteen made an attack on the south, where there were actually no Indians at all,” Sprague said. “Crazy Horse could see the activity along the ridge so they made attacks along that side.” Hump was hit with a bullet in his knee that came out his hip—he was rescued by his brother, Little Crow.

The Battle of Little Big Horn was formerly known as Custer’s Last Stand and was renamed in the early 1990s. Ephraim Dickson, curator of the Fort Douglas Museum and author of The Sitting Bull Surrender Census, said, “The Battle of Little Big Horn was one of the most iconic and best remembered of the Plains battles. There was a flurry of campaigns in the winter of 1876 and 1877, which resulted in the surrender of Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull’s exodus into Canada, which effectively ended the Plains Wars.”

This story was originally published June 25, 2014.