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'Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy' Excerpt

The Battle of the Greasy Grass

(What the Lakota call The Battle of Little Big Horn)

By Ernie LaPointe

Custer assigned Captain Frederick Benteen 350 men and sent them to circle to the west of the Lakota camp. He assigned Major Marcus Reno 175 men and ordered them to approach from the south. Custer took the remaining 225 men to attack from the east.

Reno was the first to engage the Lakota when he charged the Hunkpapa camp. The first volley from his troops killed Chief Gall’s two wives and his two daughters. The Hunkpapa warriors were quick to react, though, and repelled the attack. Reno ordered his troops to dismount at the edge of the tree line and form a skirmish line. Standing next to his Ree scout Bloody Knife, Reno prepared for the upcoming battle. Then a bullet from a Lakota rifle struck Bloody Knife in the head; blood and brains splattered all over Reno’s head and clothes. Dazed and horrified, Reno called for an all-out retreat back across the river to the top of a hill. There he waited for Benteen to reinforce him.

Meanwhile, Custer led his 225 men under the cover of a deep ravine to the eastern edge of the Little Big Horn River. On the western side of the river, some young warriors were engaged in retrieving their horses. They spotted the column of soldiers on the east side of the river, getting ready to cross. The warriors were armed with rifles and started firing at this new troop of Long Knives. They picked off the first two riders in the file. The next two Long Knives reached down and picked up one of the fallen troopers, and the whole column turned and fled. The rout was on as they attempted to reach the top of the highest point to the northeast, a bluff now known as Last Stand Hill.

Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) began preparing himself to join the battle. He was readying his favorite horse when his aged mother stopped him. She pointed out that he did not have to fight because he did not have anything more to prove to the people. She reminded him that he had two wives and small children to take care of. Since he was now a mature man of forty-five years, he could let the younger warriors prove their worth by protecting the camp and defending the people.

In the Lakota culture, the wisdom of women was much respected and admired. Tatanka Iyotake was a chief of the Lakota Nation and leader of the Midnight Strong Heart Society with many coups as a sash bearer, yet he had the ultimate respect for his mother’s advice. He accepted her wisdom and bowed to her wishes by not participating in the battle. Instead, he guided the vulnerable noncombatants to a safe place.

The Long Knives were attempting to reach the highest point of the ridge. Gall was leading a group of warriors in pursuit when Crazy Horse and a band of Lakota came up over the top of the ridge and cut off the retreat. Two Moons and the Cheyenne warriors were coming in on the flanks. The shrill of the eagle bone whistles was just as loud as the constant sound of gunfire. The warriors were praying for help and guidance from the Spirits by blowing through their eagle bone whistles.

When the battle began, a young warrior was eager to join the fight and count coup. He had three good ponies, so he chose his favorite to ride into battle. He handed his weapons to a friend to hold while he caught the pony. Throwing a rope around its neck, he tried to mount; but the pony was excited, too. It shied and ran around in a circle at the end of the halter rope, with the young warrior chasing behind. By the time he had managed to catch the horse and mount, the battle was over. His brave plans to count coup on the enemy had disappeared while he tried to catch his horse. As one warrior said after the battle, “The fight with the Long Knives lasted as long as a hungry man eats his meal.”

It was over that quickly.

The fact that Long Hair Custer was present was unknown to Tatanka Iyotake or to any of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Custer had cut his hair short and was dressed in the usual cavalry uniform rather than his flamboyant trademark buckskins. Unbeknownst to the Lakota warriors who had fired on the Long Knives at the river’s edge, one of the two soldiers shot was Custer. He been wounded and his men tried to protect and care for him. Custer was one of the first to fall at the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

When the fighting was over, Tatanka Iyotake rode through the battlefield and observed the aftermath. The fighting had ended at the very place where he had left his tobacco offerings the night before. He was proud to see his vision fulfilled, with the soldiers falling into camp upside down; but he was also very saddened because the people had not followed the vision. The voice in his vision had said for the people not to take the belongings of the Long Knives and not to scalp or mutilate the bodies. The people did not listen; and he knew the descendents of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Nations would suffer at the hands of the relatives of these Long Knives.

Tatanka Iyotake stood close to where he had prayed the night before and again filled his Cannupa. He began to pray for those who had fallen, including his own young son, the child of Red Woman, who had been kicked in the head and killed by a horse during the battle. He prayed for all the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors who had died, but he also prayed for Custer and his men. He asked Wakan Tanka to receive the spirits of these warriors and Long Knives, for they had all fought bravely and honorably.

The victory celebrations were held in all areas of the large camp. There was much feasting and dancing, but it did not bring joy to Tatanka Iyotake. He was again in mourning for his son and saddened for the actions of the people. They had taken the spoils of battle, and in doing so, the people cursed their descendants. They would suffer under the Wasicu’s laws, rules, and policies. The most devastating was when the Wasicu government created a law making it illegal for the Lakota people to live the ancient spiritual way of life. Everyone had freedom of religion in this country except the indigenous people.

Excerpt from “Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy” by Ernie LaPointe. Reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith.

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