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The Battle of the Little Bighorn and Our War Against the Wild

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Posted on Jun 27, 2012
Photo by Deanne Stillman

Indians on the battlefield honor a past anniversary of Little Bighorn.

By Deanne Stillman

Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.

On June 25 and 26, we marked the 136th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This conflict was a great victory for Native Americans—and a significant loss for the U.S. cavalry. Although Indians won on that day in the greasy grass, the battle was their end of days. It was only a matter of time before the few remaining holdouts were rounded up and sent to reservations.

In 1890, the aging holy man Sitting Bull was killed in a confrontation between his followers and Indian police who were sent to arrest him. A small band of Indians led by the elder Big Foot fled toward the Pine Ridge reservation for safety, camping by night along Wounded Knee Creek. Soon they were surrounded by soldiers who set up Hotchkiss guns on a hill overlooking the encampment. Their weapons were confiscated, a gun went off, and within minutes the band was mowed down in a gulley. At least half of the 300 were women and children. It was Christmastime and Big Foot had been flying a white flag.

Some said that Custer had been avenged, and it would be decades before discussion of the massacre at Wounded Knee erupted beyond Native American communities. But long before that happened, to seek compensation for losses incurred during the war, many members of the Lakota tribes filed a series of pony claims against the government, trying to regain some semblance of what was lost.

In the scheme of things, the vanquishing of the Indians went quickly. Within a couple of centuries, civilizations that had been on this continent for thousands of years were either entirely wiped out or rendered powerless in one way or another. It wasn’t just firepower that brought this about. There were contagious diseases that many Indians were unable to fend off. Alcoholism took hold among natives. Moreover, the Plains Indians’ primary food source—the buffalo—was exterminated. But even all of these things together—guns, smallpox, booze, starvation—were not enough to take the tribes down. There was something else. Army tacticians realized that in order to win, they had to strip the tribes of their ponies. Then, they would have no transportation, and would have to fight on foot. Beyond that, they would be spiritually broken. This latter effect, I don’t think, was consciously intended, but no matter: Once the taking of the four-leggeds was complete, it was over for the horse tribes.

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“Shortly after their return to the New World,” I wrote in my book “Mustang,” “horses swept through the deserts and plains like a fast-moving secret. They partnered up quickly with Native Americans, players taking to the script with astonishing ease. From the Apache and Comanche to the Zuni to the Hopi to the Navajo to the Ute; from the Shoshone to the Flathead, Crow, and Nez Perce … horses allied with tribe after tribe, perhaps not in that exact order, but the deed was done, and by the early 1700s, it was as if their kind had never disappeared from their native turf … Like the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Muslims before them, Indians sang praise to the horse, but their praise was even more eloquent, with more tones and layers; in the horse they saw not only the stars, the rivers, the elements, but also the land—the very wild that was their home. His mane and tail moved like the grasses in the wind, sang the Chickasaw. His foot was like striped agate, sang the Navajo, his legs like lightning, tail like a trailing black cloud; his mane was of short rainbows, his eyes were of stars, and his teeth of white shell …”

This reverence for the animal led to a kind of horsemanship that astounded American soldiers; they came to regard the Comanche as the finest light cavalry in the world. But among the many tribes that had acquired the mustang, it was the Plains Indians who became the centaurs of the American frontier. They called the horse “sunka waken”—sacred or mysterious dog. “Dog” because it became the new pack animal, and “sacred” because it was much more than a carrier of goods. It was a hunter, a warrior, wealth and prestige; it was medicine, it was magic and, above all, it was allied with the Thunder Beings who live in the West, where rain begins. The horse culture of the Plains Indians—including the Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Mandan, Blackfoot, Lakota and other tribes—lasted from about 1630 to the end of the 19th century, a short period of astonishing importance, reverberating across time and forever.

The horse takings and massacres began before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In 1858, Col. George Wright ordered the killing of 800 ponies that belonged to the Palouse tribe of what later became Spokane, Wash. The site is now known as Horse Slaughter Camp, and it has a stone marker. On Thanksgiving night in 1868, Custer led an attack on Chief Black Kettle and his small tribe of Cheyenne, the sole survivors of the brutal Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado four years earlier, at their camp along the Washita River in Oklahoma. When the assault concluded, Custer told his scout to round up the herd of 875 ponies and mules and drive them into the smoldering village. There they were massacred, with guns and knives, and one native woman later remembered “that the wounded ponies passed near her hiding place, moaning loudly, just like human beings.”


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