On June 25, 1976, Hobart Keith, a Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, kicked the doors of the Pine Ridge jailhouse wide open and freed the Indian prisoners in honor of the famous downing of the 7th Calvary some 100 years before in a Montana valley of the Little Big Horn river.
As Indian history advises us, Judge Keith declared June 25, 1876 a Holiday because, as American history informs us, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked a huge encampment of Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne with the sole purpose of killing them—and of course to enhance his reputation as the greatest Indian killer commander of all time. His glory notions were literally “smothered to death” for all the reasons greed and blatant racism should be.
Shortly after Judge Hobart Keith, Associate Judge Hildegarde Catches, and Clerk of Court Irene Brewer formally signed and issued the court order dismissing the charges that created the commemorative release, Gerald Clifford and Gerald One Feather answered an urge to heighten the court action by trying to solidify it as an official tribal holiday by drafting up a resolution for official adoption by the tribe.
Since that time, Tribes from around the Great Plains loosely celebrated and honor the great deed of the warriors at the Greasy Grass, where fearless and fierce fighting defended the women and children and their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In every way, the date and feat signifies one of the finest hours in American Indian history.
The annual remembrance by tribes and individuals is not a celebration of killing 210 men under the command of one of the old west’s true antiheros. Custer and his infantry’s one-hour journey into infamy is tragic as any senseless loss of life should be. So it is very important to know that from the Indian perspective it is not about the victory of killing, rather it is about honoring the defense of Nationhood.
Sitting Bull who was probably the most respected leader of all headmen and chiefs in the camp, said; “Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Sioux? Because I was born where my father lived? Because I would die for my people and my country? ”
As far as National Holidays go, every Nation annually designates dates and historical events to be observed in order to constantly keep their national values in the forefront of the people. In November of each year, America honors all Veterans of the Armed Services.
Last month, June 24-26, 2016, the Long Soldier District of Fort Yates, North Dakota on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation held activities of horse racing, hand-games, and dancing, calling it the Battle of Greasy Grass Oskate (Games). In Pine Ridge several communities hosted similar doings. Quinton Roman Nose, annually sends out word about his Southern Cheyenne & Arapahoe Nation’s Holiday in Oklahoma. Sadly, not all the Sioux Tribes make much hay of the Holiday. In fact, the majority of tribal members from Sioux reservations give only casual attention.
The poster image that announces the Fort Yates observance is shown with this article. It depicts the two combatants very appropriately. It shows the Indians side with flying arrows and the Calvary with discharging rifles on the other side as they advance at each other.
This drawing by Gilbert Kills Pretty Enemy, IV, accurately shows what the story and holiday is all about. As far as military history goes, Custer’s Last Stand is right at the top of historical-book work and research, even though it was quite small in comparison with other U.S. conflicts and loss of life. The reason for this is probably because there were no Calvary survivors, and in spite of hundreds of eye-witness accounts of what happened from the warriors, the Indian stories and reports accumulated by journalists are largely discarded as not truthful.
So the day swirls in conjecture and myth. For sure we know Custer planned a successful surprise attack using nearly 500 men. He was attacking a larger force of approximately 1500 warriors, but the fight was most fair and even because his soldiers were equipped with the most modern repeating rifles and the Indians had some firearms but most used the bow and arrow.
The plan was to attack the four-mile long village from the South with Captain Reno and Benteen’s 260 men. Then Custer waiting for about a half hour, out of sight from behind the eastern ridge, would attack the north end of the village with his 210 men.
Both attacks were immediately turned back. Reno was able to retreat up the steep river embankment and secure a defensive position with the help of Benteen’s regiment. Custer and his men began their retreat back up the steep hill, never reaching the river or village. The Indian accounts say the soldiers fought bravely back up the hill. Hollywood would paint Custer firing two pistols to the end in a last stand scene but the truth was that it was complete chaos and according to one Indian combatant, “ It lasted as long as it takes to eat a meal.”
The Indian accounts have Custer wounded but still alive after the fighting was over and smothered to death by a Cheyenne woman who lost her husband and children in a previous documented ambush of a peaceful Cheyenne camp by Custer at Washita River in Oklahoma years before.
140 years have now past since the Battle of the Greasy Grass and 40 years since Hobart Keith would attempt to bring the importance of the battle to the attention of the Sioux Nations. For Indian people, it should be a grand celebratory time to remember who and why we are. A time to reflect, evaluate where we are today, and devise strategies to move positively in the future. For America, it is a perfect time to reflect on America’s developmental path to a world power and with this analysis, a way to make a better nation by reevaluating its own legislative acts of terrorism.
Dave Archambault Sr., is best known as the Indian School Whisper, aka Joe Bucking Horse. He has been a voice for future generations by advocating empowerment schooling models for Indian learners of all ages. He earned a masters degree from Penn State and has headed the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, American Indian College Fund, Sitting Bull College, with experience as Tribal Councilman, School Superintendent, Principal, and currently sits on a BIE grant school and Fort Yates public school board, and is the chairman of the Board for the American Indian Business Leaders organization.