Battle of Little Bighorn: 48 – The Indian War Begins

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Wooden Leg

The relationship between the Lakotas and Cheyennes was close, but this affiliation existed mainly among the Cheyennes and the Miniconjous and Oglalas. As Cheyenne Wooden Leg later recalled, “We never had associated closely with the Uncpapas [Hunkpapas]. They were almost strangers to us.”

In the summer of 1875 Sitting Bull determined it was time to correct this fact. The increasing demands from the whites dictated that it was time for the Indians to unify against them. The fact that the miners were invading the Black Hills, in an ever-increasing tide that was not being stopped by the Army, was a strong pull in this decision—as well as an open festering wound.

Sitting Bull

The chiefs decided to join their bands in a sun dance such that would create a lasting bond between the Hunkpapas and the Northern Cheyennes. Along the middle Rosebud, they laid out four tribal circles.

After the sun dance lodge was raised, Sitting Bull performed a special dance and requested that his friends fill one pipe and that his people fill one pipe. The meaning of his request was that the Cheyennes, his friends, and the Hunkpapas, his people, should smoke together in a token of a pledge to act together. And it was done.

While Sitting Bull danced he lifted the two pipes to the sky, offering them to Wakantanka then declared:

The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us. We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers.

But another sun dance and another vision would make the picture clearer.

Ready for the Sun Dance

When winter came the tribes settled into their winter camps. One camp was made on the west bank of the Powder River just a few miles from the Wyoming border. This camp consisted of about sixty lodges of Northern Cheyennes, the bands of Old Bear, Box Elder, and Black Eagle. The remainder were He Dog’s Oglalas with a few Miniconjous.

He Dog

In all, the camp consisted of some 735 persons, including 210 warriors. Though the outside temperature had plunged to forty to fifty degrees below zero, all were snug and peaceful until March 17, 1876. Then terror struck.

This terror was led by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, and scouted by Frank Grouard. The expedition commander was General George Crook. This was the battle that Reynolds retreated from when he could have clearly triumphed. In spite of Reynolds’ lack of courage, nearly half of the Indian village was burned. This was a situation that sent men, women, and children out into the freezing winter, short of food, clothing, and shelter.

Sitting Bull

Struggling, these Indians traveled until they took refuge with, first, Crazy Horse, then Sitting Bull. Now the Indians in the unceded territory were fully aware that the white soldiers intended to have a war with them even though Crook had felt compelled to retreat back to Fort Fetterman. The Indians knew Crook, and many others, would come again—seeking the Indians’ destruction in any way they could.