The soldiers, some of them anyway, crouched behind their dead horses, huddled together on a bluff by the Little Bighorn River in Montana. As noted previously, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and General Custer's Last Stand have been reported from many viewpoints. Accounts vary and the memories of the storytellers can rightly be questioned and criticized. I came across one not-so-well-known narrative in a highly recommended book, The Great West, edited by Charles Neider (1958). This publication may be out of print. I found it pinched between other aging volumes on a back shelf of the central market bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. One chapter transcribed an interview conducted by a once well regarded journalist, Hamlin Garland, who tracked down and queried an old Cheyenne chief named Two Moons. "Nothing could exceed the dignity and sincerity of his greeting," wrote Garland.
According to Two Moons: "We traveled far, and one day we met a big camp of Sioux, and had a good time, plenty grass, plenty game, good water. Crazy Horse was head chief of the camp. Sitting Bull was camped a little ways below, on the Little Missouri River."
"Crazy Horse said to me, 'I'm glad you are come. We are going to fight the white man again.'"
Days later, the large contingent of Indian residents moved into the valley of the Little Horn, thinking "Now we are out of the white man's country. He can live there, we will live here."
Two Moons told Garland (through interpreter Wolf Voice), "One day, I looked up the Little Horn towards Sitting Bull's camp. I saw a great dust rising. It looked like a whirlwind. Soon Sioux horseman came rushing into camp shouting: 'Soldiers come! Plenty white soldiers.'"
Hiyupo! Follow Me.
View downhill toward deep coulee of the bunched soldiers huddled behind dying horses and comrades
Crow King, Gall, and Two Moons led up the Ridge: Plains Indians at this time were excellent horsemen, often riding ponies sideways and shooting from under their necks.
Escaping soldiers were cut off at the coulee and along the ground depressions leading to the river
Death in the ravine
"The air was full of smoke and dust. I saw the soldiers fall back and drop into the river-bed like buffalo fleeing. They had no time to look for a crossing. The Sioux chased them up the hill, where they met more soldiers in wagons and then messengers came saying more soldiers were going to kill the women, and the Sioux turned back."
After a lull in the three-hour confrontation, "the Sioux rode up the ridge on all sides, riding very fast. The Cheyennes went up the left way. Then the shooting was quick, quick. Pop-pop-pop, very fast. Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing. Officers all in front. The smoke was like a great cloud, and everywhere the Sioux went the dust rose like smoke.
"We circled all round him -- swirling like water round a stone."
"Soldiers drop, and horses fall on them. Soldiers in line drop, but one man rides up and down the line -- all the time shouting. He rode a sorrel horse with white face and white forelegs. I don't know who he was. He was a brave man."
"The man on the white-faced horse was the bravest man." (It is not certain who this man was, possibly a scout.)
"At last all horses killed but five. Once in awhile some man would break out and run toward the river, but he would fall. At last about a hundred men and five horsemen stood on the hill all bunched together."
"Then a chief was killed. I hear it was Long Hair (Custer)." (Again it is disputed whether Custer's hair at this time was long or had been shaved off before he led his command out of the Dakotas.)
"One man all alone ran far down toward the river, then round up over the hill. I thought he was going to escape, but a Sioux fired and hit him in the head. He was the last man. He wore a braid on his arms (sargeant)."
Afterward, the next day one warrier carried a bundle of sticks. "When we came to dead men," Two Moons stated, "we took a little stick and gave it to another man, so we counted the dead. There were 388. There were 39 Sioux and seven Cheyennes killed, and about a hundred wounded."
"Some white soldiers were cut with knives, to make sure they were dead; and the war women had
mangled some. Most them were left just where they fell."
Then later, "that day as the sun was getting low our young men came up the Little Horn riding hard. Many white soldiers were coming in a big boat, and when we looked we could see the smoke rising. I called my people together and we hurried up the Little Horn, into Rotten Grass Valley. We camped there three days and then rode swiftly back over our old trail to the east. Sitting Bull went back into the Rosebud and down the Yellowstone, and away to the north. I did not see him again," explained Two Moons.
He added, "That was a long time ago. I am now old and my mind has changed."
"Last, I want to see my people going to school to learn the white man's way. That is all."
Related to this is a First Nations tale from Canada: I first reported this legend in one of my first blogs on my journey across the western plains of Canada (see blogs). I am repeating it here because it is indirectly relevant to the real life experiences of the Plains Indians of the U.S.
How the People Hunted the Moose (a First Nations' Tale)
One night, a family of moose was sitting in the lodge around the fire, and a strange thing happened. A long peace pipe floated through the door spreading sweet-smelling smoke as it circled the lodge, passing close to each of the Moose People. The old bull moose saw the pipe but said nothing, and it passed him by. The cow moose said nothing, and the pipe passed her by also. So it passed by each of the Moose People until it reached the youngest bull moose near the door of the lodge.
"You have come to me," the lad said to the pipe. He reached out and took the pipe, and started to smoke it.
"My son," the old moose said, "you have killed us. This is a pipe from the human beings. They are smoking this pipe now and asking for success in their hunt. Now, tomorrow, they will find us. Now, because you smoked their pipe, they will be able to get us." "I am not afraid," said the young bull moose. "I can run faster than any of those people. They cannot catch me." But the old bull moose said nothing more.
When the morning came, the Moose People left their lodge. They went across the land looking for food. As soon as they reached the edge of the forest, they caught the scent of the human hunters. It was the time of the year when there is a thin crust on the snow and the moose found it hard to move quickly.
"These human hunters will catch us," said the old cow moose. "Their feet are feathered like those of the grouse. They can walk on top of the snow." The Moose People began to run and the hunters followed them. The young moose who had taken the pipe ran off from the others, still certain he could outrun the hunters. But the hunters were on snowshoes, and the young moose's feet sank into the snow. He tired, and then the humans killed him.
After they had killed him, though, they thanked him for smoking their pipe and giving himself to them so they could survive. They treated his body with care, and they soothed his spirit.
That night, the young bull moose woke up in his lodge among his people. Next to his bed was a present given him by the human hunters. He showed it to all of the others. "You see," he said. "It was not a bad thing for me to accept the long pipe the human people sent to us. Those hunters treated me with respect. It is right for us to allow the human beings to catch us."
And so it is to this day. Those hunters who show respect to the moose (and beaver and other creatures of the woods and plains) are always the ones who are successful when they hunt.