Taken from "Custer's Last Stand" by Mort Kunstler

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The Indian village

 

The Indians whom the United States Army wanted to conquer in the spring of 1876 were mainly Sioux and Cheyenne (of that nation's northern branch). The Sioux nation was divided among three subgroups represented by the Teton Yankton and Yanktonnais divisions. Most of those who were out pursuing their usual hunts and engagements in the 'unceded territory' in 1875 and 1876 were of the Teton division, although a few Yanktons and Yanktonnais were included. Those in the Teton division included the Oglala, Brule, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle and Blackfeet bands.

In his book Centennial Campaign, The Sioux War of 1876 Dr. John S. Gray described these Indians as 'Winter Roamers'. This distinction was applied to those Indians who scorned agency life and spent the entire year roaming their old haunts in search of buffalo, and in engagements with their old enemies. Their counterpart, 'Agency Indians', had forsaken this nomadic life for that of the reservation and were mostly dependent on the Agency for their welfare. There was a third group noted by Dr. Gray. These were what he called 'Summer Roamers'. The 'Summer Roamers' were Indians who spent the winters dependent on the Agency for support, but spent the more livable summer months off the reservation in their usual nomadic pursuits.

Dr. Gray estimated that the Sioux nation at this time numbered somewhere between 18,000 and 19,300 people; the Cheyenne approximately 3,700. Of these, approximately 3,000 Sioux and 400 Cheyenne were considered 'Winter Roamers', and of these, approximately 850 to 900 could be considered warriors. All of these figures come from the book mentioned above.

It is not uncommon for people to think of an Indian village as a static thing, but this is not so. The Indians were nomads both from the standpoint of the need for food and hygienic purposes. To stay at a campsite too long would mean fouling the land and water, and game would disperse. Thus, campsites were uprooted after only a short period of time and the Indians would move on in search of game or adventure.

Nor did all the 'Winter Roamers' remain together. Individual bands of Hunkpapas, Oglalas, Miniconjou, etc. would roam independently in search of game. Often, these bands would contain members of other bands who had either married in to the band, or were visiting friends or relatives. Thus, the 'Winter Roamers' made up a diverse and dynamic lot. Much the same could be said for life on the reservation.

Wooden Leg's Cheyenne, along with a few Oglala, spent the winter on the middle reaches of the Tongue River before heading east in March toward the Powder River. The Miniconjou spent the winter on the lower reaches of the Tongue while the Hunkpapa wintered near the mouth of the Powder River. Crazy Horse's Oglalas wintered near Bear Butte until January when they, too, began to migrate west toward the Powder River. Thus, by March, most of the 'Winter Roamers' had established themselves along the banks of the Powder River, leaving the areas of the Tongue, Rosebud and Big Horn deserted. The March 17th attack by Crook and General Reynolds gave these villages clear warning. The United States Government was serious when it said that any Indians found off the reservation after January 31st would be considered hostile and open to attack.

Refugees from this camp began arriving at other villages along the Powder River. This in turn began a migration of villages in an attempt to consolidate forces against those arrayed against them. Thus, Reynolds attack on March 17th was the event which precipitated the buildup of the great village eventually attacked on June 25th by Custer and the 7th Cavalry.

By April 1st or 2nd the Indians had merged with Sitting Bull's Hunkpapas near Chalk Butte. Sans Arcs began to arrive around April 17th to the 20th. First signs of new grass were around April 22nd or 24th.

Meanwhile, Agency Indians and 'Summer Roamers' had heard of the military campaigns but, except for a few small groups, the 'Summer Roamers' couldn't leave the agencies until new grass began to appear in abundance. Since new grass began to appear around Mid April, the 'Summer Roamers' began moving to the edges of the reservation to feed their stock and prepare for migration to the 'unceded territory'. This migration probably peaked around mid-May.

The 'Winter Roamers' continued to move. By April 29th-30th they had moved to the Tongue River. On May 3rd they made their first raid on Gibbon's camp, with a final raid again on May 13th. On the 16th their camp was spotted by Lt. Bradley, Col. Gibbon's Chief of Scouts. Later, on the 21st, they made the move west to the Rosebud. Their camp was again sighted by Bradley on the 27th after having moved further up* the Rosebud. June 4th, after two additional moves, they moved further up the Rosebud to the site of the sun dance camp.

Between June  5th and June 7th, the Indian camp stayed at this location celebrating their annual sun dance. It was at this sun dance ritual that Sitting Bull, partaking in the ritual, had his vision of soldiers falling into camp.  However with this vision came a caution. In the vision Sitting Bull understood that these soldiers were to die, but he was cautioned that their spoils were not to be taken.

In all, what with departures and arrivals, it is quite possible that the size of the village remained static throughout this time. It was with the arrival of the 'Summer Roamers' that its size really began to grow. The 'Summer Roamer', having waited until mid to late May to leave the agencies, began arriving in force a short while after the sun dance festival. This influx of people continued virtually to the day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. By June 12th the camp, which was now growing daily, had moved further up the Rosebud to near the location of the present town of Busby, MT. On June 15th it followed Davis Creek up to the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn River. That day, Little Hawk, a Cheyenne had left to scout for troops. They spotted Crook's column on the 16th and raced back to the village, which had since moved 7 miles west to the forks of Reno Creek, to sound the alarm. It was the following morning, June 17th, that Crook was attacked on the Rosebud from this camp on Reno Creek.

After the battle with Crook the village celebrated what it considered a victory against the whites. The next day, June 18th, the village again moved, leaving the body of a dead warrior in a lone tepee. This time they moved to the Little Big Horn and another 7 miles upstream. There they stayed for six nights, again celebrating their victory. On June 24th they moved back downstream 8 miles to what is now called Garryowen Station. Indian stories tell of five Arapaho warriors joining the village at this time.

So, with all this movement, consolidation and change, what was the size of the village, and how many Indians were there to confront Custer and the 7th Cavalry on June 25th? In answer we again turn to the above named book by Dr. John S. Gray. It is his estimate, after much analysis, that the village was comprised of approximately 1,000 lodges, of which around 120 were Cheyenne. This made for a village of about 7, 120 people, 1,780 of which were adult males. The ranks of those fighting that day may have been swelled to 2,000 by the inclusion of older youths, some seniors and women. But this would be a maximum. Not everyone fought, let alone all at once. And certainly, not everyone fought on all fields of battle. This is irrelevant, however. There were sufficient numbers willing to fight to get the job done.

Early on, eyewitness accounts, both from white and Indian participants, led writers and researchers to believe in a village that was approximately 3 - 3 1/2 miles long (north to south) and 1 - 1/2 miles wide. It was generally accepted that the location where Medicine Tail and Deep Coulees empty into the Little Big Horn was at the approximate center of the village. Later analysis, including the archaeological excavations by Douglas D. Scott and Richard Allan Fox, Jr. in 1984-1985, and a revaluation of Indian source material, have raised further insight into this issue. Such a village seems quite large for the Indian forces available that day as outlined above. Indian source material as well as eyewitness accounts indicate that many villagers struck their lodges and rebuilt north of the original site due to the many dead bodies being prepared for burial, and to move the village further away from those soldiers still remaining on Reno Hill. Thus, the actual size of the village is likely half (or a little more than half) as long as the above estimate.

The village consisted of a number of tribal "circles", each one representing a different Sioux tribe in attendance as well as a separate circle for the Cheyenne. Tribes generally encamped based upon their position in the file while enroute from a previous camp. Sioux tradition allowed for friendly tribes, such as the Cheyenne, to have the lead while moving camp. Since camp movement was from south to north on the 24th, the Cheyenne (who were in the lead) camped at the northern most location, at or just south of Medicine Tail Coulee. Following were circles of the Brule, Sans Arc, Oglala, Miniconjou, Blackfeet, Two Kettle and Hunkpapa bands, scattered along the west bank of the river. The Hunkpapas traditionally made up the rear when traveling. It was considered a position of honor. This placed them at the very south end of the village on June 24-25th, and right in the line of attack by Reno's contingent.

* The use of upstream and downstream can be confusing to anyone not familiar with reading maps. Upstream always refers to the headwaters of a stream while downstream always refers to its mouth. The only way a reader can know whether this implies north, south, east or west is by becoming familiar with the stream's direction of flow.

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