Day 25: Glory in Sunset
Battle waged furiously, in the valley of the Rosebud River. Significantly outmanned, and considerably outgunned, Crazy Horse had, nevertheless, decided to attack Gen Crook’s army, in defence of their camp, over the watershed, on the Little Bighorn. At its peak, a Cheyenne Chief’s horse was killed, and he fell. His sister, watching from a nearby ridge, quickly grabbed a horse and rode fearlessly out to him. Collecting him, on the gallop, she rode back to their lines. Forever, thereafter, this battle on the Rosebud would be known as The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.
Largely with bows and arrows, or old rifles, against the army’s massed, modern, repeating weapons, it was almost as quixotically heroic as the Polish army’s horsed cavalry charges against German tanks in WWII. The world of values and spirituality, versus the world of realpolitik. Against all odds, Crazy Horse defeated Gen Crook, who was forced to retreat, all the way back to Fort Laramie. As a result, he would not be there to support Custer. It was later estimated that this battle cost the US government US$1mn for each native warrior killed.
The overall cost of the 'Indian Wars' would be an astronomical US$150,000 per day! Buying peace, instead, would have been a bargain. It is ironic that this defeat was inflicted on Gen Crook, a rare intellectual in the military, who understood, and empathised with, the natives. Asked for the most difficult aspect of fighting the natives, he courageously replied, “Knowing you are wrong.” Despite this, though, he probably never forgave Crazy Horse, as he allegedly supported the plot to imprison the surrendered chief, and exile him to a wretched Florida island, an American St Helena, leading to his assassination.
A week later, the arrogant, over-ambitious Custer, bottom of his class at West Point, blind to all realities except the fantasy of his own invincibility and glory, divided his completely exhausted troops into three detachments, and, with his 250 soldiers attacked a camp of 1,500 skilled warriors. He expected to repeat his Washita tactic, wanting, at any cost, his ‘victory’ to happen in time for him to run for president. However, here, he faced not peaceful, old Black Kettle, but the genius of Crazy Horse, inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull. As Chief Gall chased Custer up Last Stand Hill, Crazy Horse anticipated his every move, completely out-generalled him, despite only one in five of his warriors having guns, cornered him, and systematically wiped both Custer and his entire command, off the face of the earth. The achilles heel of any military, the unbounded hubris of an unsuitable commander, invariably costs the lives of gallant soldiers.
Never before, or after, were the Lakota so united, so ably led. The quiet, modest, unmaterialistic, personally unambitious Crazy Horse, the antithesis of Custer, in every way, was the decisive factor in the battle, just as Sitting Bull’s vision was the decisive factor in uniting and inspiring the Lakota to their greatest victory. However, even in that moment of glory, the chiefs knew it was the last splutter of the flame. America would respond with massive force, and their people were in sunset. Doubting their ability to win militarily, the army would use its might to drive the buffalo to near extinction; the natives to near starvation. Hunger finally won the West. These free spirits would be forced, by the greed of invaders, onto small reservations, places where, Lincoln said, “Indians live, surrounded by thieves.” Natives would not even receive citizenship rights till as late as 1924. In the end, America eradicated 80 per cent of the native population (compared to 63 per cent of European Jews, that Hitler did).
Atop Last Stand Hill, I gaze out over the prairie grass and dandelions, swaying gently in the breeze. It is a scene of extraordinary tranquility. The lonely, mournful whistle of a passing locomotive adds a dirge. The lush hillside is obscenely pockmarked with stark, white headstones, marking the place each soldier fell (Custer’s is black). More recently, red granite markers have been installed at the spots native warriors died, fighting not for some abstract need to conquer foreign lands, or take something that belonged to others, but simply to protect their families, tribes. The monument to the doubtfully glorious 7th Cavalry, the same unit responsible for the Washita and Wounded Knee massacres, stands in solitary vigil, on that summit. A monument to all the native tribes was finally installed in 2003.
The Ranger video, and lecture, understandably, tread lightly on the army’s 'golden soldier', ignoring his shortcomings. A throng of white Americans (where are you, brown people!) pay homage to Custer. I, the sole Injun, pay homage to Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and their warriors. Fortunately, the Crows - traditional enemies of the Lakota, and, therefore, supporters of Custer - today, operate an excellent tour of the expansive battlefield, offering a well balanced narrative. At the end, I am left to wonder at a capricious universe, that turned the natives’ greatest hour of glory, into the blood-red sunset of their world.