I’m a pretty analytical guy .. and I prefer to find and analyze “truth” above myth or legend. Unfortunately, most people prefer to overlook the truth and embellish the story that suits them best .. yet the simple fact remains .. you cannot completely destroy truth .. just the same as you cannot destroy energy. You can bend it .. bury it .. hide it .. distort it .. or just plain ignore it .. but truth is forever, just as we are.
After I spit directly at Custer’s name .. I said “the son-of-a-bitch got what he deserved!”
If the truth is distorted .. it can be felt within your very heart and soul. And, I suspect, each of you have experienced a situation within your own journey where someone has looked you in the eye and lied to you .. and it just didn’t “feel” right. Your sixth sense .. instinct .. allowed you to draw your own conclusion and deal with it in your own way.
When I was a kid, my favorite “toys” were my Daisy BB gun and my bow and arrows. We had a huge yard and I’d shoot an arrow straight up and out of sight and wait a few seconds hoping I’d see it at the last minute and move out of the way in case it miraculously came back to the exact spot I shot from. My objective was so see how close I could get it to land next to me. Mom would see me out there shooting away .. but I’m sure she didn’t know about the version of “Russian Roulette” I’d become fascinated with.
Of course, back then I was a little heathen with a warped sense of humor. OK, we’ll debate any changes in that fact later .. but for now, this little anecdote should give you a clue. Mom saw me shooting the bow .. so when I didn’t see her in the window checking on me I laid down in the front yard, flat on my back, and placed an arrow into the ground directly under my armpit, then remained motionless. Of course it wasn’t long before she came running out screaming .. thinking I’d shot myself. Only when she reached me did I jump up and yell “surprise!” .. trust me .. not a good moment for my chest of memories.
I wasn’t thinking about it back then, in the 4th grade .. but what one sees and what one perceives as “truth” can readily be distorted .. Mom found that out the hard way. But I really was rather good with a bow.
If I never mentioned it before .. I’ve always had an affinity for the Indians .. Native American or Aborigine tribes .. doesn’t matter. My sixth sense always told me they were victims of injustice .. it just took several years of research and study before I discovered the extent of those atrocities. I’m guessing it’s much the same for any true biker .. riding his Iron Horse into the wind where the boundaries are set only by where the sky touches the earth. Our gift of “free will” within this “adventure” on earth allows us to truly appreciate Mother Nature and all the unbelievable natural wonders we seek.
As I ride the Black Hills around Sturgis-time, I can’t help but imagine what it was like to be an Indian riding this vast expanse of beauty .. yet struggling against nature to survive. Imagine riding bareback alongside a stampede of thundering buffalo .. then taking down your tribe’s food and shelter on the wings of an arrow. I will never cease to be amazed and humbled by their sheer tenacity for life .. all the while maintaining gentle eloquence and grace by honoring that great beast’s Spirit for providing the sustenance so necessary for their very existence.
Then through my head drifts the great myth and legend of “Custer’s Last Stand” .. and the huge framed print of that famous battle that hung in my bedroom at the same time I played “Indian” in the fourth grade. My curiosity and intrigue of the images depicted in that print never faded over the years .. and my knowledge and understanding of that event has grown immensely.
I had to find that “exact” spot I’d envisioned my entire life .. to see for myself .. and feel the pure energy that had to linger amongst the prairie grasses that continue to blanket the earth’s sacred ground. I imagined I’d feel the same as I did as I stood before the tombstone of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood .. or in the Number 10 Saloon where his life was cut short by a coward’s bullet. “Being there” is a dimension of it’s own that pictures and prose just cannot convey.
Devil’s Tower and the Crazy Horse Monument are just two other places I suggest you visit if you ever get to Sturgis .. but there’s just so much “history” in that entire region I couldn’t begin to cover it in one “adventure”. I’ve ridden practically the entire state of Wyoming .. and as many of you know .. that feeling you get never goes away.
From Devil’s Tower, I took the 24 to the 112 into Montana. At Alzada, you catch the 212 northwest toward Billings. It’s a scenic ride through Broadus and the Custer National Forrest into Ashland. At Busby, you cross the Redbud River .. the same river Custer and his 7th Cavalry crossed as they headed toward the Little Bighorn River.
For those who may not be all that familiar with Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, he secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at age 18, and then graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861. Subsequently cast directly into the Civil War despite his lowly status, he eventually fought at Gettysburg and was one of the youngest Generals of the Civil War at age 22. He was ruthless, selfish, egotistical and arrogant .. but he was ambitious and had aspirations for greatness.
Custer was 25 when the war ended and would continued his career in the Army at the reduced rank of Colonel and go on to command the 7th Cavalry on the western plains. The policies of the US government were in the hands of a rough & ready Indian fighting army that had become a fixture on the frontier. It was stationed in forts to protect wagon trains, settlers and the railroad .. and to enforce a long series of ever-broken treaties that forced the tribes ever farther west and onto increasingly shrinking reservations.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave the Black Hills to the Indians. Red Cloud was the only tribal leader who signed to live on the reservation. The free-living principle war leader chiefs Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux, Gall, a Hunkpapa Sioux, Lame White Man of the Southern Cheyenne and Crazy Horse of the Lakota Sioux all refused to sign. They were all happily at-large on unsigned Indian lands.
But when Custer’s party, which included geologists, confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills .. the government wanted it back. The Gold Rush of the Dakota Territory was on, and the influx of whites created a tense situation with the native Sioux. In early 1876 the US Government decided to drive the Indians out. General John Polk led the Army in crushing the Indians .. and after the Sand Creek Massacre the Indians erupted in retaliation in the biggest race war the nation had ever known.
Back on November 27th, 1868 the Washita River ran red with blood of slaughtered Indians as Custer attacked the village of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, who had previously survived the Sand Creek slaughter. 103 Indians killed, mostly women, children and old men .. this was Custer’s only victory against the Plains Indians.
Now, Lt. Colonel Custer led 750 men of the 7th Cavalry into the Wolf Mountains, leaving Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory on May 17th, 1876. He discovered that Sitting Bull was camped near the Little Bighorn River. Instead of waiting for a full force of the US Army to assemble, Custer divided 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry into three battalions and chose to attack the camp.
Indian villages sometimes contained as many as 1000 citizens, mostly women, children and the old, depending on their tough core of warriors for food and protection. In their lifestyle, no one went hungry when others had plenty.
What I’d envisioned as a kid as 2000 Indians swooping down from the mountains encircling Custer and his men was far from accurate .. as the Battle of Little Bighorn was actually comprised of three major engagements; Greasy Grass Ridge, Battle Ridge and Last Stand Hill. Custer ordered Capt. Fredrick Benteen to take three companies to scout the area, and for Major Marcus Reno to take 125 men and charge down the valley of the Little Bighorn to attack the village of women and children. Custer failed to go to Reno’s assistance as he watched him lose the battle and 30 soldiers to surprising resistance. It was reported that the Hunkpapa leader Gall lost two wives and three children in that attack .. infuriating his madness as they collected warriors to seek revenge.
On June 25, 1876, a brutally hot day on the northern plains, Custer encountered a much larger force of Indians than anticipated. Without the assistance of his other battalions, and not knowing that one had been completely repelled at Rosebud Creek days earlier .. Custer and his entire five companies of 268 men were slain by vengeful warriors of nomadic Indian tribes and spiritual forces no white man could understand.
The other units of the 7th Cavalry also came under intense attack for two days before the Indians unexpectedly broke off the conflict, packed up their immense village, and began leaving the area. When US Army reinforcements finally arrived, they discovered the bodies of Custer and his men on a hill above the Little Bighorn, subsequently named Last Stand Hill.
When I arrived at the Battlefield Monument I was amazed to find such open rolling hills away from the river. There is a paved narrow roadway the general public can walk or ride their Iron Horses along the trail where many skirmishes took place. There are several wayside exhibits named for smaller attacks that took place along the way; Medicine Trail Coulee, Calhoun Hill, and Lame White Man Attacks.
Lame White Man was the only Cheyenne chief to die at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as during the battle he wore a captured cavalry jacket found tied to the cantle of a saddle. A Lakota warrior mistook him for an Indian scout and killed and scalped him before he could realize his mistake. His body was returned to his family.
As I read these exhibits and walked upon this hallowed ground .. I felt the energy course through my veins as my imagination ran wild with speculation as to the infinite possibilities of what actually transpired at that spot over a hundred years ago. At each of the wayside markers are scattered tombstones, each with a name and reads “US Soldier 7th Calvary fell here June 25, 1876”.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn was the brightest moment in the Indians military history .. yet on the other hand, it was the beginning of total subjugation of the Indian people. “You can win the battle yet lose the war” was probably coined from this “victory”. The cruelest revenge was relocating 25 northern tribes to the south in Oklahoma, hundreds of miles from their homeland, concentrated on a patch pitifully small for people who had accepted only the end of the sky as their boundaries. They had lost the buffalo grazing grounds that sustained their nomadic life.
Directly in front of the huge stone Battlefield Monument, with each soldier’s name carved in the stone, is the main fenced graveyard with several small white tombstones. The entire Regiment that was lost were buried where they were found, save for Custer, who was buried at West Point Cemetery in New York. As a crowd was gathered at the huge stone monument .. I walked directly up to it and proceeded to loudly hock up and blow the very biggest lugie I could muster in the dry heat. After I spit directly at Custer’s name .. I said “the son-of-a-bitch got what he deserved!” I was amazed at the cheers from the crowd and the affirmative response to my personally expressed opinion. I still feel the same today.
On Dec. 17, 2010, a frayed American flag, found under a dead soldier on the Little Bighorn battlefield, brought $1.9 million at an auction at Southby’s in New York. The swallowtail Culbertson guidon, named after the soldier who found it, had been owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts for more than 100 years.
The sale is just the most recent evidence of our fascination with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a pivotal moment in U.S. history. A legend so enduring is never what it seems, especially when half the story, the Indian half, has never been widely known. President Theodore Roosevelt even said “ignore what the Indian chiefs said about the truth of the battle”.
Not far from the hill is the new Indian Memorial, an open, circular walking path carved into the earth. A “spirit gate” faces the cavalry obelisk on Last Stand Hill, symbolically welcoming the dead. The names of Indians who died in the battle are carved on the walls. The grandeur and vibrancy of the land was their freedom, and the clash with Custer was the beginning of the final, crushing blow.
Little Bighorn has always been a battle with villains, but they have changed places with time. What were once called savage murderous Red Skins are now recognized as brave doomed fighters against the best of the great grasses, the big clean sky and the thunderous buffalo. But for as long as a bugle and a military band can strike up assembly and gideons can flap in dreams .. for as long as Indian chants can haunt the plains, those famous yellow legs on their galloping charges, will share grisly glory with the dauntless braves that killed them.
The strength of the human heart is fueled by tears .. as “truth” is often quite brutal. What you know and what you think you know are two distinct variations .. and the only sacrifice is “truth”.
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …
- There were 24 Congressional Medal of Honor awards presented for the Reno-Benteen Hilltop Fight at Little Bighorn. Nineteen of which went to water carriers.
- The last Little Bighorn Medal of Honor recipient to die was Charles Windolph, who lived in Lead, South Dakota until March 11, 1950.
- Sitting Bull was starved out of his Canadian sanctuary and killed in 1889 for resisting arrest for allegedly “incitement to riot”.
- Crazy Horse was killed in 1877, lured by fellow Lakota into white man’s grasp, fighting an attempt to attain his ferocious Soul by imprisonment. He was bayoneted.
- Elizabeth (Bacon) Custer, George’s widow, lived to age 91. She wrote dime novels, lectured, and spun stories of his “heroism”.