The sun was just cracking over the horizon that Sunday, June 25, 1876, as men and boys began taking the horses out to graze. First light was also the time for the women to poke up last night’s cooking fire. The Hunkpapa woman known as Good White Buffalo Woman said later she had often been in camps when war was in the air, but this day was not like that. “The Sioux that morning had no thought of fighting,” she said. “We expected no attack.”
Those who saw the assembled encampment said they had never seen one larger. It had come together in March or April, even before the plains started to green up, according to the Oglala warrior He Dog. Indians arriving from distant reservations on the Missouri River had reported that soldiers were coming out to fight, so the various camps made a point of keeping close together. There were at least six, perhaps seven, cheek by jowl, with the Cheyennes at the northern, or downriver, end near the broad ford where Medicine Tail Coulee and Muskrat Creek emptied into the Little Bighorn River. Among the Sioux, the Hunkpapas were at the southern end. Between them along the river’s bends and loops were the Sans Arc, Brulé, Minneconjou, Santee and Oglala. Some said the Oglala were the biggest group, the Hunkpapa next, with perhaps 700 lodges between them. The other circles might have totaled 500 to 600 lodges. That would suggest as many as 6,000 to 7,000 people in all, a third of them men or boys of fighting age. Confusing the question of numbers was the constant arrival and departure of people from the reservations. Those travelers—plus hunters from the camps, women out gathering roots and herbs and seekers of lost horses—were part of an informal early-warning system.
This anniversary is particularly poignant in light of the terrific new interactive research tool from Claudio Saunt in the department of history documenting the seizure of Indian lands, as a mixure of cultural lore and actual tragedy. An amazing story that continues to unfold.
Image: Iron sculpture by Native artist Colleen Cutschall honoring the Native Americans. Placed next to the old memorial for Custer, via Wikimedia Commons.