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Trimble: Custer Day: One to remember

The Sioux national holiday is almost upon us – June 25. It will be the 133rd anniversary of the hot day in 1876 when Col. George Armstrong Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry detachment were laid low by the Sioux at The Battle of the Little Big Horn. We Sioux had able help from good friends and loyal allies of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations.

I will unfurl my Oglala Nation flag, as I do on that day every year and it will fly in splendor on my front porch. And as I anticipate that glorious day I was inspired to compose a limerick. With great humility I present this ode as a treasure for Lakota and all Indian country posterity.

A Colonel by the name of George Custer,

With all the troops he could muster,

Rode down on the Sioux

And got himself slew;

Said Crazy Horse, “Serves you right, Buster!”

That battle – which was not a “massacre,” as some historians call it – is still discussed and studied as to how and why the great Civil War hero Custer took such a shellacking at the hands of a bunch of “savages.” One noted historian summed it up well: “It’s simple. Custer was at the wrong place at the right time and got his butt kicked.” When the Lakotas rode into the bluecoat ranks shouting their battle cry, “It’s a great day to die,” they meant that for the cavalry: “It’s a great day for you to die.”

I recall a book that came out in paperback in the 1960s called “The Indians Won,” by Martin Cruz Smith, who went on to write several best sellers. He tells of Indian country nationwide being greatly inspired by the Custer battle, and starts on the premise that the Lakota and Cheyenne had not broken up into traditional hunting bands that winter. Financed by a group of European investors, who were resentful of rising U.S. influence, the united tribal front was supplied with weapons, canned foods and blankets. Secure in their unity, they stayed together to defeat avenging waves of U.S. troops.

With the world’s attention on them, the Sioux/Cheyenne/Arapaho forces appealed to tribes throughout the country, which brought together a massive united front, forcing the U.S. to sue for peace – on the Indians’ terms. This leads to the founding of an Indian nation on the Great Plains, the entire center of the U.S. from Mexico to Canada. The United Indian Nation had urban industrial and economic centers, but maintained the rest of their country free of development for traditional lifeways. Ultimately they developed “the Bomb,” and used it effectively as a deterrent.

That’s the gist of the story as far as I can recall after more than 30 years. It was a fun read, but didn’t cause a great stir in Indian country, and, fortunately or unfortunately, wasn’t used as a template by the American Indian Movement. It’s an interesting concept that brings up the question of why Indian tribes or nations have not united more, outside of intertribal political organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians.

In 1993, as president of the Nebraska State Historical Society, I participated in the dedication of a monument marking the site of the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851 in far western Nebraska. That treaty is better known to us as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, but it happened some 30 miles from the fort because it was anticipated that the event would attract Native peoples by the thousands from many tribes. And it was feared that in the weeks it would take to negotiate a treaty, the grasses around the fort would be denuded by thousands of Indian horses. Thus it was moved to Horse Creek inside the Nebraska border.

As we awaited the dedication ceremony to begin, I scanned the valley where the tribes were camped, and in my mind I visualized the multitude of tipis that reportedly stretched for more than a mile down the valley, and the thousands of horses that grazed the hillsides.

At the beginning of the dedication ceremony I said if there was one person among the camps who could have taken the chiefs of the various tribes to the top of a high hill to look down on that magnificent view of 1,000 lodges, and if they would visualize the power they possessed united, we would not have been standing there dedicating a monument, for the tribes would still own all that land. I got a few chuckles from the audience, but I knew that some of the historians in the bunch understood how true that would have been, and there were no laughs from them.

A good account of the 1851 gathering was given in the book, “Centennial,” by James A. Michener. Included is an excellent description of the various tribes as they arrived and showed off their skills at horsemanship and dress before settling into assigned areas. It tells of Cavalry forces having to restrain the Sioux from attacking the Shoshoni as they arrived, and other potential inter-tribal disputes as they awaited the arrival of treaty goods. This, perhaps, describes the proud autonomy and fierce independence of the sovereign nations that helped the separate tribes survive and flourish from time immemorial. And it shows how we Native peoples still see ourselves. But it also shows why the Sioux/Cheyenne/Arapaho alliance was not continued to greater victories following their victory at Little Big Horn.

But we do have unity in the matter of national issues. Organizations like NCAI represent the consensus of the tribes who are members. It does not speak for the tribes, but relays in the most appropriate forums and with the most effective media the consensus of the tribal nations, arrived at in convention. On the regional levels we have organizations such as the United Sioux Tribes, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, and others working to provide a unified voice for member tribes.

All these organizations are valid, and are the creation of the tribes they represent. It shouldn’t matter what we think of those organizations personally. If we dislike what they are doing, we must take part to correct it, not work to destroy them. They represent our only united front that we should have had in 1851.

Back to Custer and the so-called Indian Wars; in discussions about the history of Indian-white relations, some people I know resort to the rationale “It’s simple; we fought a war and you Indians lost. Nobody stole your lands. We won it fair and square.” The answer, of course, is that the war isn’t over, and they haven’t won anything fair and square. There is still much to do in protecting our homelands and the sovereign tribal nations that own those lands and manage them.

Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 – 78. He may be reached at