Little Big Horn
“We want no white men here. The Black Hills belong to me. If the whites try to take them, I will fight.” – Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull)
In 1868 the Sioux Indians signed a treaty in which they agreed to settle within a reservation that included the Black Hills, an area sacred to them in Dakota Territory. In 1874, however, George A. Custer led an expedition that discovered gold there. Miners swarmed in, demanding protection from the Sioux, who attacked them and left the reservation in outrage. Lieutenant Colonel Custer (known to the Indians as Long Hair) was sent as part of an expedition to force them back. This set the scene for the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 – the most famous and infamous of all the Native American victories. Custer and over two hundred of his men were wiped out when he attacked the large Indian encampment that Sitting Bull had called together to defend the Black Hills.
The following is a first-hand account of the fighting from Iron Hawk, a young Hunkpapa Sioux who was in the encampment when the battle began.
Iron Hawk speaks:
I am a Hunkpapa … I was fourteen years old. The sun was overhead and more, but I was eating my first meal that day, because I had been sleeping. While I was eating I heard the crier saying: "The chargers* are coming." I jumped up and rushed out to our horses. They were grazing close to camp. I roped one... When I got on my horse with the rope hitched around his nose, the soldiers were shooting up there and people were running and men and boys were catching their horses that were scared because of the shooting and yelling. I saw little children running up from the river where they had been swimming; and all the women and children were running down the valley. *(Chargers – Horses ridden in battle or a parade)
By now warriors were running toward the soldiers, and getting on the ponies, and many of the Hunkpapas were gathering in the brush and timber near the place where the soldiers had stopped and got off their horses. I rode past a very old man who was shouting: "Boys, take courage! Would you see these little children taken away from me like dogs?"
I went into our tepee and got dressed for war as fast as I could; but I could hear bullets whizzing outside, and I was so shaky that it took me a long time to braid an eagle feather into my hair. Also, I had to hold my pony's rope all the time, and he kept jerking me and trying to get away. While I was doing this, crowds of warriors on horses were roaring by up stream, yelling: "Hoka hey!" Then I rubbed red paint all over my face and took my bow and arrows and got on my horse. I did not have a gun, only a bow and arrows.
When I was on my horse…everybody was starting back downstream and yelling: "It's a good day to die!" Soldiers were coming at the other end of the village, and nobody knew how many there were down there. A man by the name of Little Bear rode up to me on a pinto horse, and he had a very pretty saddle blanket. He said: "Take courage, boy! The earth is all that lasts!" So I rode fast with him and the others downstream, and many of us Hunkpapas gathered on the east side of the river at the foot of a gulch that led back up the hill where the …soldier band was.
We stayed there awhile waiting for something and there was shooting everywhere. Then I heard a voice crying: "Now they are going, they are going!" We looked up and saw the cavalry horses stampeding. These were all gray horses. I saw Little Bear's horse rear and race up hill toward the soldiers. When he got close, his horse was shot out from under him, and he got up limping because the bullet went through his leg; and he started hobbling back to us with the soldiers shooting at him. His brother-friend, Elk Nation, went up there on his horse and took Little Bear behind him and rode back safe with bullets striking all around him. It was his duty to go to his brother-friend even if he knew he would be killed.
By now a big cry was going up all around the soldiers up there and the warriors were coming from everywhere and it was getting dark with dust and smoke. We saw soldiers start running down hill right towards us. Nearly all of them were afoot, and I think they were so scared that they didn't know what they were doing. They were making their arms go as though they were running very fast, but they were only walking. Some of them shot their guns in the air. We all yelled " Hoka hey!" and charged toward them, riding all around them in the twilight that had fallen on us.
I met a soldier on horseback, and I let him have it. The arrow went through from side to side under his ribs and it stuck out on both sides. He screamed and took hold of his saddle horn and hung on, wobbling, with his head hanging down. I kept along beside him, and I took my heavy bow and struck him across the back of the neck. He fell from his saddle, and I got off and beat him to death with my bow. I kept on beating him awhile after he was dead, and every time I hit him I said "Hownh!" I was mad, because I was thinking of the women and little children running down there, all scared and out of breath. These Wasichus* wanted it, and they came to get it, and we gave it to them. *(Wasichus – white men)
Then we began to go towards the river, and the dust was lifting so that we could see the women and children coming over to us from across the river. The soldiers were all rubbed out there and scattered around. Afterwhile it was nearly sundown, and I went home with many others to eat…. I hadn't eaten all day, because the trouble started just when I was beginning to eat my first meal.
It was a short-lived victory. Americans were infuriated by the death of Lieutenant Colonel Custer, a popular Civil War hero. They demanded revenge. Boundary lines were quickly redrawn, placing the Black Hills outside the reservation and open to white settlement. Within a year, the Sioux nation was defeated and broken. "Custer's Last Stand" was their last victory in battle, but to this day the Sioux nation claims ownership of the Black Hills in the courts of the United States. The conflict is not ended yet.
Understanding the text
- What does Iron Hawk say about the time of the day the fighting began?
- Why didn’t Iron Hawk go directly into battle?
- What did Little Bear say to Iron Hawk?
- What did Elk Nation do for his brother-friend, Little Bear? Why?
- What did Iron Hawk do to the soldier on horseback he met?
- Why was he especially angry at the “Wasichus”?
- Find out more about the Battle of the Little Big Horn and make a short report on it, putting together an overview of what happened.
- Crazy Horse was an Oglala Sioux who was a very important leader at the Little Big Horn and other battles. Find out who he was, what he did and how he died.