At first, it seemed that an elusive piece of the past had been rescued from oblivion. In June, a pair of beaded gauntlets reported to have been worn by General George Armstrong Custer during the infamous 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn was donated to the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, Montana.
Almost immediately, however, questions were raised and suspicions were aroused. Skeptics not only doubt the authenticity of the items but are also criticizing an accompanying oral history that characterizes Custer as “a friend” of various tribes.
According to the oral history, the gauntlets were beaded by the Sioux and removed from Custer’s hands by a woman after he was killed on the battlefield. But the garments carry only a smudge of a red pigment, said James Whitted of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Historic Preservation Office. He said that the absence of any larger amounts of the pigment, presumed to be blood, renders them suspect.
“If you were in the thick of a fight your gloves would show it.” Whitted said. “I would imagine there would be a lot of blood on them.... Maybe it’s red ink? They sure looked awful pristine, like someone had just made them.”
Whitted also argued that the gauntlets would have been removed from Custer’s hands after the campaign by a man—not a woman.
“If those truly were his gauntlets they would’ve been taken by a warrior as a prize from battle just like his horse was,” Whitted said. “We don’t feel that this is a credible account.”
According to a Custer Battlefield Museum press release, the gauntlets were bequeathed to a man named Tom Greenwood by his father in 1938. Greenwood’s grandfather was described as a former chief of the Sisseton.
But a collection of Smithsonian documents from the Newberry Library in Chicago state that Tom Greenwood, who passed away in 1988, was Scottish and Cherokee, not Sisseton.
“Greenwood is not a name I come across in our records,” said Tamara St. John of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “I can’t see anything with Mr. Greenwood’s name on it. He wouldn’t have any relatives that would’ve been allotted land or been enrolled.”
Also under scrutiny is the purported Sisseton Wahpeton oral history that accompanied the gauntlets. As described by Chris Kortlander, the founding director of the Custer Battlefield Museum, it describes Custer as “a friend to some Native American tribes.”
“The oral history we are referring to was given to us by Richard Jorgensen, who is Inuit and was adopted into the Sisseton Sioux as a child in Illinois,” wrote Kortlander in an e-mail to Indian Country Today Media Network. “He contacted our museum and asked that we take possession of the beaded gauntlets, which he had held in trust for decades.” According to the museum press release, the gauntlets were passed in the late 1940s from Greenwood to his friend Richard Becker, who gave them to Jorgensen in 1982.
Representatives of the Sisseton Wahpeton say that not only is the professed oral history erroneous, they deny knowing Jorgensen. Attempts by ICTMN to contact Jorgensen were unsuccessful.
“This is the first we heard of this Mr. Jorgensen,” Whitted said. “And [Custer] was not a friend to Indians. That would be false oral history. You can’t be a friend to someone that’s hunting you. There’s no oral or written history that Custer ever befriended a Sioux.”
Whitted acknowledged that Custer may have befriended his American Indian scouts. Kortlander concurs. “I believe it is worth noting that Custer did show great admiration for Native American fighting prowess and horsemanship, but believed, as many did during that time, that it was not possible to civilize Native Americans and, quite correctly, that they did not want to be civilized,” Kortlander wrote.
Vine Marks, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Cultural Preservation Board chairman, responded that on the contrary, it was the European settlers who conquered the New World who were not civilized.
“It was the wasicu that was not civilized when they got here,” he said. “They did all these crazy things. As far as being civilized, as far as the Dakotas and the Lakotas are concerned, we were civilized. The wasicu that got here were not. So whether we wanted to be civilized or not wanted to be civilized is a wasicu opinion.”
Kortlander subsequently clarified his statements by retracting the term civilized and substituting it with Americanized.
Whitted, who described Kortlander’s take on history as “way off,” said he believes the gauntlets are fraudulent. “We’re saying that we feel very strongly that these are imitation,” he said.