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Battle of Little Big Horn



The Battle at Little Big Horn

Sitting Bull and President Grant two enemies whose cultures clashed resulting in the downfall of the Lakota's nomadic way of life.
Being a Lakota Indian, I grew up hearing stories about how the Lakota's defeated Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn. It was one of the most victorious times for the Lakota against the United States government. Every year Indian people from the Lakota and Cheyenne reservations still go back to the battlefield and enact the victory. I don't think the Lakota or Cheyenne feel that they did anything in defeating the Calvary. They just feel very misfortunate that they had no other choices but to fight. They had lost almost everything and now they were losing their precious Black Hills. They had to do what ever it took to defend their land.

The Battle at Little Big Horn wasn't an isolated incident. Both sides were fighting for very serious reasons and those reasons affected the way our country is today. The Lakota were hanging onto their last thread of life. Almost all of the buffalo that once roamed the plains were almost gone because of the westward migration of people and the construction of the Union Pacific railway. After years of broken treaties the Lakota and Cheyenne had lost much of their land, but the one thing they did have was the Black Hills.

The Black Hills in western South Dakota were the prime spiritual grounds for the Lakota and Cheyenne. They used the hills for praying, guidance and hunting. They realized that everything is a huge web and is connected in some way, and they believed the Black Hills were a perfect example of the connection between humans and the environment. That's why they used it as a spiritual center. What would you do if someone tried to take your church away? You would want to defend it! That's exactly what the Lakota and Cheyenne did.

Two Lakota chiefs who fought at the Battle Of The Little Bighorn
In 1868 the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed. The treaty declared most of Nebraska and South Dakota, and parts of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota to be the Great Sioux Nation forever. This territory would become their designated hunting and living grounds, and they could be free to continue to have their own political structure. The Black Hills were in the exact middle of this Sioux territory. The Lakotas weren't happy that they had to be confined to a certain territory, but they agreed to the terms of the treaty because they had no other choice and they didn't want to continue fighting forever. After all, they did get a large part of their traditional hunting grounds and-even more importantly-they kept the Black Hills.

Unfortunately, the terms of the treaty didn't stick. If the Lakota Nation still had authority over the land included in the Treaty of 1868, they wouldn't have allowed mining of gold in the Black Hills, or the creation of Mount Rushmore in the middle of Indian country. Remember that to the Indians, this land was sacred. It was their church. So how did these things happen? They happened because the Black Hills, in effect, were stolen by the U.S. government so they could mine it for gold and other resources.

After the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in1868, white settlers going west traveled through the Black Hills, violating the terms of the document. Some white settlers found gold and the word spread fast. Within days, thousands of settlers flooded into the Black Hills seeking gold and wealth. The Indians reacted to the violation of their land. They murdered any white settlers they saw, stole their goods and did whatever they could to let them know they weren't welcome. The Lakota's political system was set up to remain as peaceful as possible, but when someone tries to take your livelihood and religion away, you must do what you can to save them.

With more and more settlers seeking gold, the seven Lakota tribes moved to the edges of the Sioux Nation to stop any intruders, even going outside the treaty boundaries to keep settlers away from their land. Indians who went onto U.S. government land were in direct violation of the treaty, but they figured that if the white man could come on their land, they could go on the white man's land. Although the government didn't enforce the law when the settlers stepped on Indian land, they allowed the shooting of any Indian who stepped on U.S. government land.

The Campaign of 1876 was an all-out military campaign launched by the U.S. government to stop the Indians and get them to respect the treaty. Three expeditions were sent out to stop the Indians: one was lead by Gen. George Crook from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, another was led by Col. John Gibbon from Fort Ellis in Montana Territory, and the third was commanded by Gen. Alfred H. Terry from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. These expeditions planned to converge on the Indians concentrated in southeastern Montana under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The orders to all soldiers: Shoot to kill! Any Indian they saw who was known to be under the leadership of Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull was to be immediately shot without question.

Chief Sitting Bull the main leader of the Lakota
In June of 1876 Sitting Bull was overseeing an encampment near the Big Horn River that included thousands of women and children. They may not have known what was about to happen, but they weren't alone; the Lakotas had their allies, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, to help fight this battle.

At dawn on June 25, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his seventh cavalry of about 600 men came upon Sitting Bull at his encampment. Custer quietly split the cavalry up into three battalions so they could better surround the camp. Then he ordered one of his battalions, led by Major Marcus A. Reno, to attack the encampment from above.

As Reno and his men came over the hill, they were overtaken by a large group of Lakota warriors. Reno tried to make a stand, but there were too many Indians fighting fiercely to defend their territory. Reno quickly retreated to the bluffs for safety. His group then headed for the north end of the camp, where Custer had been battling. As he headed north looking for Custer and his cavalry he was attacked by another large group of Indians. Reno returned to the bluffs once again. There, his seven companies held their defense for the rest of the day and part of the next.

Nick at Little Bighorn National Battlefield
Sitting Bull learned that military reinforcements were on the way, so he and his people decided to flee. When the smoke cleared, the seventh cavalry had lost five companies under Custer-about 210 men. Of other companies led by Reno and Benteen, 52 men were killed and 52 wounded. The Indians lost no more than 100 warriors. They removed most of their dead from the battlefield when the large village broke up. The tribes and families scattered north and south. Most of them returned to the reservations and were forced to surrender in battles during the next few years.

In the short term, this was a victory for the Lakota, but in the years to come the Lakota would lose more land and rights. Their nomadic way of life was coming to an end. The Lakota's last stand against the government would be a massacre at Wounded Knee, where nearly 300 men, women and children would die.

An Oglala War Party
(.jpg) The Lakotas fought long and hard for many years to try to keep their way of life. They continue to fight, even today. As a Lakota, I have to deal with, and struggle with, all of the things the U.S government did to my people in the past. I will continue to fight for Native rights in this country, just as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse did. No matter how much the U.S government oppressed them, the Lakotas are here and we want the return of the Black Hills. For as long as I live, I will continue to struggle as my ancestors did.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


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Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo
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