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The Battle of Greasy Grass

The Battle of Greasy Grass, June 25-26, 1876, also known as The Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, marks a great victory for the Oceti Sakowin people. The battle’s roots started with the Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes (1867); after the report was issued, “the  United States government set out to establish a series of Indian treaties that would force the Indians to give up their lands and move further west onto reservations.” One of these treaties was the (second) Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which the Oceti Sakowin people signed with the United States government. The treaty “allowed the United States to build its railroad along the Platte … but it set apart a distance territory for Lakota’s ‘absolute and undisturbed use and occupation.’ This was the Great Sioux Reservation that encompassed all the lands west of the Missouri across the Black Hills and extended about two hundred miles from south to north to include the vitally import White, Bad, Cheyenne, Moreau, and Grand Rivers” (Hämäläinen, 290). More importantly, “Article 16 designated the lands east of the Bighorn Mountains and north of the North Platte as “unceded Indian territory” where “no white person or persons” could settle (Id).”

Six years later, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who had great career ambitions and was “reinventing himself as an Indian fighter”, found gold in the sacred Black Hills. In 1875, “a five-month scientific expedition was sent to confirm Custer’s report. This expedition, too, found gold, and in 1876, the gold rush to the Black Hills began.”

The promise of gold was one of the factors that led the U.S. government to attempt “the utter destruction of the Indian village, and overthrow of Sioux power will be the certain result” (Hämäläinen, 364). Custer was supposed to drive the 7th Cavalry, with 750 soldiers and 31 Arikara and Crow scouts, along the Rosebud and go west along a trail created by the Lakota and Cheyenne and others and push them towards General Alfred Terry, who was coming from the north, expecting to drive them into a two-arm pincer from which the Indigenous soldiers could not escape (Hämäläinen, 363).

However, the Lakota had been working to lead the U.S. soldiers to the Greasy Grass, a tributary of the Little Bighorn River, and were preparing for battle, as they knew the U.S. soldiers were doing. Sitting Bull, a holy man, statesman and warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota, had been praying in the days prior to the battle, and had a vision in which he saw soldiers falling like grasshoppers; a voice said to him, “I give these to you because they have no ears.”

Sitting Bull and nephew, One Bull (1884) [Palmquist & Jurgens, photographer, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division], Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c22853]

The U.S. soldiers gave themselves away with a dust cloud rising up as they approached the Greasy Grass encampment. The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were quickly ready. Crazy Horse led as many as 1,000 warriors to flank Custer’s forces. Sitting Bull was older, so he sent his nephews White Bull and One Bull to fight; One Bull, Black Moon, and Big Road led charges; Inkpaduta and Gall took key actions as well (Hämäläinen, 365). The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors routed U.S. troops; 268 U.S. soldiers were killed, including Custer and all of the personnel in the five-company battalion under his immediate command. It’s difficult to say how many Indigenous people died; the most commonly cited figure is 100 men and women. The battle is remembered as a day of victory by their descendants.

Spotted Tail said, “This war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land from us without price.” Greasy Grass was the firm response to that attempt. It was a watershed moment in the history of Indigenous-U.S. relations, and the first time, but not the last, that the still-in-force Treaty of Fort Laramie was tested; both the treaty and the battle have a long reach that is still shaping policy conversations, decisions, and battles today.

Sources

Hämäläinen, Pekka. Lakota America: a New History of Indigenous Power.

Treaty between the United States of America and different tribes of Sioux Indians : concluded April 29, et. seq., 1868 ; ratification advised February 16, 1869 ; proclaimed February 24, 1869.

Map of a reconnaissance of the Black Hills, July and August, 1874, with troops under command of Lt. Col. G.A. Custer, 7th Cavalry.

 

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