One of the most controversial stories of American history, and American military history, is that event known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or “Custer’s Last Stand” from the perspective of the Americans and the American military at that time. For the Lakota, Cheyenne peoples that were forced to defend themselves that day, the event is known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
As is always true, every battle, every war is seen through two very different lenses. In this case, from one perspective, Custer and the events of that day have been painted as a tragic loss. From the moment the news was heard about the loss, a great deal of myth has been draped over the events of that day and over the person of Col. Armstrong Custer. From the perspective of the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples who were attacked there, along with some of their Arapaho and Arikara allies, who saw their world and their lifestyles slowly and often aggressively being taken away, it was seen as a matter of desperate defense of their families in the immediate sense of the battle, and of their homelands and ways of life.
The great Lakota leader of the Hunkpapa band at the Little Big Horn was Tatanka Iyoke, or as we know him, Sitting Bull. In this video, you will see Ernie LaPointe, a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, telling of the battle from the Lakota perspective.
In a great irony of our history, LaPointe is himself served in the U. S. Army and is a Vietnam veteran. He joined the Army in the late 60s and was stationed in places like Korea, Turkey and Germany over his military career. His tour in Vietnam was from 1970-1971.
And therein lies one of the great paradoxes of our American history with the Native American peoples. Our efforts to open up the West were rooted in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny and were driven by economic interests seen as being for the good and the well-being of our growing and expanding nation. But there were whole peoples and ancient cultures that were in the way of that progress, who would suffer the loss of almost everything they knew and loved during what we call the Indian Wars. And for all of that history, the great irony is that there is no other ethnic group in our great and hugely diverse country that has offered more of its young men and women per capita to serve in our military.
Ernie LaPointe’s historical perspective on the Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn comes from the oral traditions passed on by his own family and other Lakotas whose family members were there, camped in what may have been the largest Indian encampment in the history of the plains Indians, stretching out over two miles along the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn River on July 25, 1876. You will hear some of those stories, but this time they will be from the perspective of those who were being attacked and responding to the attack on that fateful day.
History, it is said, has always been told by the victors. While the Lakota and Cheyenne were the victors that day, it was really the beginning of the end of the traditional life for them. Within a very short period of time Crazy Horse and his Lakota band of Oglalas who had fought at the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn battle, and eventually, even Sitting Bull and his band of Hunkpapas would be confined to reservations. Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would eventually be assassinated after they had gone to the reservations. The so-called Indian Wars would all come to a bloody and tragic end with the massacre at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890, conducted by the same 7th Cavalry that was led by Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
It is also true that history is full of paradox. This is yet another way to look at the common history we share as Americans and Native Americans. That those who suffered the loss of everything but their lives would serve the nation in the very military that took away their former homelands and ways of life to such a degree as they do today, is something we should all contemplate. Knowing the fullness of our history is important to the well-being of all of us who proudly call ourselves Americans. Reconciliation and healing is what makes us stronger as individuals and as a nation.
The great-grandson of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe, has served the nation in uniform and in war. His great-grandfather served and led his nation in peace and in war. Now, we serve together in the same uniforms. The past is real. Its greatest value to us is to look at it with an humble and objective eye, and to learn its lessons. The future does not yet exist. It is shaped by the educated decisions and actions we do now in the present.
This video, told from the reality of another perspective is a powerful tool to understand who we were and to dream about who we can be in the future if we have the courage to be honest about our past and courageous enough to learn and grow into the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a nation.
Learn more in the video below.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.