This new category will feature members’ articles written in the historical fiction genre, sometimes known as ‘historical creative non-fiction’. Here is our first story in this category
Custer’s Last Stand
by Carol West
‘First rays of old man sun, we hear thunder and roar of many buffalo, their hoof beats like heart beats of sacred Mother Earth.’ Indian saying.
It’s five minutes past midday in Hardin, Montana, classic Americana cowboy country y’all with vast plains and a sun that scorches a fissure in a big sky. We’re on Crow Agency land and the Bighorn River unravels in a glossy ribbon through a viridescent meadow. It’s the time of the longest day, auspicious to Native American Indians. This is when the grass is slicker, “greasy grass” they call it. On this day, the 25th June in 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn raged here. The hopes and dreams of new settlers clashing violently with the myths and legends of the Great Plains Indians, 32 tribes who roamed unfettered through America’s heartland. Sitting on roughly hewn bleachers, we’ve come to witness a re-enactment of a turning point for First Nations people.
Told from both sides, the battle story unfolds.
A cavalry contingent adjusts saddles and stirrups, blue coats and hats are straightened. ‘Columns of two at the trot,’ comes the Captain’s call. ‘Left about. Columns of four at the gallop.’ Their plan is to present a compact unit, make it harder to be picked off. On a distant bluff, the silhouette of a lone Indian astride his pony watches impassively. There are wild whoops and muscular Indian braves leap onto painted Spanish mustangs. They gallop past us at full stretch, nostrils flaring, hooves slithering on the soft grass. Man, and horse, spirit and soul unified. Their ancestors had smoked from the sacred pipe. They believed it made them invisible to the enemy.
Image 1: Under the leadership of General George Custer, members of the US Cavalry prepare for battle at the re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn where Custer met his demise. Photo Credit: Robert Muir
On the fateful day a village of 1,500 tipis were spread along three miles of the riverbank. Elk and buffalo skins stretched tautly across conical frames held erect by ramrod-straight poles. Painted with sacred symbols, they offered tribal protection and sanctuary to around 10,000 women, children and warriors. Under the leadership of medicine man and Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull, a great tribal confederacy of Sioux and Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho had unified at Bighorn River to fight a common foe. When the Indians refused to be restricted to reservations, it was Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer who led gold prospectors into their sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, breaking treaties with the ‘Great Father in Washington,’ that had brought them to this point. The stage was set for bloodshed on the moon.
After communing and dancing with the ancients for four days, Sitting Bull had called for the death of ‘Custer Yellow Hair’. He was rewarded with a prophesy of victory but the effort had left him spent. Battle honours to lead the 2,000 warriors went to Oglala’s most fearless warrior, Crazy Horse. His noble patrician features, all sharp angles and flowing hair, have been etched in the collective imagination without a single photograph ever taken: a combination of powerful medicine and popular culture.
Image 2: A descendant of the great Sioux nation of Plains Indians readies to take the fight to the US Army at the re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Harding, Montana. Photo Credit: Robert Muir
On sighting Custer and his meager company of 225 soldiers and scouts, warriors rushed like wine through the village to give chase. At Deep Coulee, two of Custer’s companies retreat up a ravine where skirmishes ensue. ‘The Indians ride in many small parties streaming northeast up the ravine towards the troops,’ recounted White Bull of the Minneconjou Lakota. Meanwhile, Captain Reno is driven into retreat and Indian braves ride into the troops counting at least 30 coups*. ‘It was like chasing buffalo,’ said American Horse of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Amid towering clouds of dust and the glint of gun barrels, lead whistles overhead as soldiers come at the gallop for Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa camp. Fearlessly, the women and children hold their ground until Sioux and Cheyenne reinforcements arrive. A melee turns into a rout. Reno and his men are chased across ridges and through gullies while Custer is repulsed at the far end of the village by Crazy Horse. Custer’s luck has run out and on Last Stand Hill, he and his men shoot their horses for breastwork.**
‘We’d never do that,’ says the woman sitting next to me. Veronica Rainbird has been watching me scribbling in a notebook and she welcomes me warmly to her land. ‘We believe when our horses die, our spirits die with them. That’s why so many braves are named after horses,’ she informs.
The saga continues. From his vantage point on Greasy Grass Ridge, Curly, the army’s Crow scout, watches the Sioux close in. ‘The smoke was like a great cloud and everywhere the Sioux went, the dust rose like smoke. We circled all around them …circling like water around a stone,’ said Two Moons North Cheyenne. Custer never makes it to the Bighorn River and is killed on the crest of Last Stand Hill. Curly escapes bringing authorities news of the defeat and by 5pm, all government forces are dead.
We follow the victorious Indian braves to the river. Chrome yellow, cobalt blue, vermillion and black war paint, washed from horses and bodies, swirls and eddies around them. They stop for photographs and selfies, happy to celebrate a decisive victory in a battle they were destined to lose. Many more turning points lay ahead for the Great Plains Indians but their free life on American soil was drawing to a close.
*A brave warrior strikes the enemy while still alive, counting coups, from the French word to cut. For each coup he receives an eagle feather for his war bonnet.
** Use of their dead horses to provide temporary breast-high fortification.
© Carol West, 2022
published 23 November 2022