Little Bighorn and Healing from Our Past 1

painted hills of an Arizona reservation - betrayal and survival by telling the truth

The Beginning of the Great Sioux War

In 1876, the United States started a new war with the Sioux Nation. They had been fighting off and on since the 1850s, but this was the final series of battles. Though the natives defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, slaughtering over half the troops who fought with him, a year later, in 1877, the United States military defeated them. Even though the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed they could remain in the Black Hills in perpetuity, the Indians surrendered their lands and retired to the reservation. [1]

So when did the hostilities start? Did this war begin when European explorers landed in America? Was the seed for the animosity between the white man and the Indians sown when the Puritans brought with them a belief in the biblical mandate to multiply and claim “dominion . . . over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28 NRSV)? Maybe we can trace the beginning of the conflict to the evolution of the human being from earlier simians. David Linden, a professor of neuroscience, writes that our brains are a “cobbled-together mess,” with the mid-brain added to the brain stem, and the forebrain plopped on top. [2] This leaves us vulnerable to greed, addiction, and a lust for gold.

That matters, because one could say that gold lay at the heart of the Great Sioux War.

The Discovery of Gold

In the summer of 1874, Custer was wandering through the Black Hills of South Dakota, when he found gold. Searching for gold was not the stated purpose of his foray. He was supposed to be looking for a place to build a military post. But, having heard that there was gold in the hills, Custer brought some prospectors along. They discovered that these Indians lands were indeed rich with the mineral. Soon, miners flocked to the area. So numerous did they become, that the military personnel stationed there to protect the native lands could not keep them out.

This was a breach of the treaty, for the gold-rich hills were part of the “unceded Indian territory,” land set aside for the natives’ exclusive use. The Black Hills, which they used for hunting, were sacred to them.

Once the property looked valuable to white men, however, there was no turning back. Though President Grant initially pledged to honor the treaties and avoid war with the Indians, he soon agreed to a plot to force the natives out of the hills. [3]

A Conspiracy Is Hatched

According to an article on the Smithsonian website, [4] the plans were kept secret. Today they are known only because a few documents survive. These include a telegram and entries in a diary written by Capt. John G. Bourke, an aide to George Crook, a general involved in the plan.

In the original treaty, the United States pledged to give each individual living on the reservation regular rations of flour and meat. By 1875, they had begun to reduce how much they sent. In protest, a delegation of natives showed up in Washington. Grant explained to them that the subsidy was time-limited. If they wanted to continue receiving rations, they would have to cede the area the prospectors coveted.

The Indians refused.

Since this tactic did not work, the government offered to buy the land. Sitting Bull responded that he would not sell “even as much as” a pinch of dirt, and the chiefs who did take the prospect seriously were told by sympathetic whites that the land was worth millions more than they’d been offered. Thus, this attempt also failed. [5]

Seeking some way to gain that land, Grant ordered Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan to meet with him and the secretary of war, William Belknap, in Washington. Together they formulated a war plan.

Disenfranchising the Indians

First, in the late fall of 1875, they delivered an ultimatum to the Lakota: either vacate the unceded areas by January 31 and move all their people onto the reservations, or the military would consider them to be “hostile” and attack.

When the Indians received this message, they responded that they were open to talking about the proposal, but not until spring, when the snow had melted. In the winter, the hills in South Dakota become impassable. To expect the Lakota to pack up and move in that weather was absurd.

This was part of the plan, of course, for by making it impossible for the Indians to comply, the conspirators gave themselves an excuse to use force against them. To make the natives look even worse, officials in Washington “buried” the response the chiefs sent. Then they called them “defiant and hostile.” [6]

Next, the Indian Bureau was told to invent complaints against the Sioux. That gave Sheridan the confidence that they could wage war on the Indians without censure from the American public.

January 31 came and the Sioux, confident their message had reached Washington, remained where they were. The soldiers received permission to strike. Initially, though, they failed. One commander and his troops got stuck in the snow; the other ended up attacking the wrong tribe. That alerted the Lakota. They prepared to protect themselves, and as spring arrived, from the reservations began to join them.

A Reservation in Arizona – John Fowler

Our Human Desire to Retaliate

At Little Bighorn, things went well for the natives. Custer, who led a delegation into the Lakota territory in June, ignored the warnings of his scouts that his company was out-numbered. His scouts were right. The Indians swarmed through the ranks of the white men, killing Custer and more than half his troops. The others retreated.

Although the failed campaign got the notice of Congress, causing some members to question why the United States waged war against the Sioux in the first place, the American public was appalled. They considered it a cruel massacre, another example of Indian savagery. A few days after the event, Walt Whitman wrote “A Death-Sonnet for Custer” in which he called the general a hero.

This “slaughter” by the Indians, Whitman wrote, “[c]ontinues yet the old, old legend of our race!/ The loftiest of life uphold by death!” [7]

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the battle was more nuanced. [8] Yes, he called the white troops “gallant” and wrote about Custer as “the White Chief with the yellow hair” who had a “brave heart.” Also, he imagined the Sioux lying “in ambush,” and used phrases like “the menace of their wrath,” and “Savage, unmerciful,” to summon up frightening images of these Indian enemies. The most grisly picture he created was of the warrior Rain-in-the-Face who:

Uplifted high in the air

As a ghastly trophy, bore

The brave heart, that beat no more,

Of the White Chief with yellow hair.

Sometimes Thing Are Complicated

Even so, Longfellow was moved to point out that there are no purely good or bad actors in a battle like this. Perhaps the Indians were cruel in their destruction, but they had cause.

Whose was the right and the wrong?

Sing it, O funeral song,

With a voice that is full of tears,

And say that our broken faith

Wrought all this ruin and scathe,

In the Year of a Hundred Years.

It is likely that the man Rain-in-the-Face killed was not George Custer, but his brother, Thomas, and no one knows for sure if the Indian really cut out the man’s heart, but the story was told as if he had, and it helped to inflame the American public. [9] The people wanted revenge.

We humans like to get even. Much science fiction and fantasy, for instance, celebrates the hero who rages against those who hurt her friends or take advantage of the innocent. We glorify the killer who hunts down the villain.

For some, Custer was the righteous general trying to corral the rebellious Indians. For others, the Indians were the good guys, protecting themselves from attack and revenging the earlier slaughter of women and children in their own villages. We like to think we know who’s good and who’s bad. Then we root for the virtuous ones.

Of course, not all stories are so simplistic. Some monsters are kind, and some good men are flawed, but the point of the stories we tell, whether fictional or historical, is to soothe us with the knowledge that, not only does good triumph in the end, but we belong to the good side.

Sustaining Through Trial

In reality, which side wins depends on when you decide to end the tale. Though the Indians won the battle, they did not win the war. After Little Bighorn, an angry public got their revenge. After another year of fighting, the United States were able to force all the Sioux onto the reservation. One more treaty was betrayed.

A hundred years later, the Lakota sued the United States over this and won. They were awarded more than a hundred million dollars, but they refused to take the money. Instead, they said, they wanted their land back. Finally, in 2012, they managed to buy the sacred site of Pe’ Sla. For the Native Americans, those hills are more important than gold. [10]

This is one way the Lakota survived. They clung to the knowledge of who they were, a people who belonged to a blessed land. Making decisions as a community, using collaboration and consensus, they decided as a people what mattered to them. Together, they formulated their demands, and they stuck to their principles. As one people, they stood strong.

To survive hardship, we need to know ourselves, our friends, our values, and we need to stand firm in that knowing. Yet we must stand firm as a community, for to survive, we need one another.

Telling the Truth

To survive, we need also to tell one another the truth. But, truth can be manipulated. It is complicated. We have different viewpoints, and so our truths are different, as well.

In our country today, we see the power of framing the story. Which narrative we believe affects how we vote, what economic policies we approve of, and who we love. Facts rarely enter into such decisions, if we could even agree on the facts. But for many of us, that doesn’t matter, for myth needs no justification. We create monsters in our minds, giving no credence to the enemy, refusing to understand them. Certain of our righteousness, we march and protest and call for blood. Peace seems impossible, and all because of the irreconcilable nature of the stories we tell.

This is nothing new. Around the world, humans demonize those of other races, religions, castes. Genocide was not invented in the United States, and we will not be the last to cry out for vengeance against those who defend themselves against our betrayals. Nonetheless, it is important to remember our sins and the temptations that brought us down. It is important to sift through events, seeking what facts we can find.

For it is possible to uncover facts if we look for them.

Acknowledging the Truth

Uncovering facts is one way to discern truth. In an essay about her grandfather’s life, Sylvia Foti describes how she learned the truth about him, a truth that neither her family nor her country would accept. [11]

Foti’s grandfather was Jonas Noreika, a hero in Lithuania. There, streets are named after him and plaques hung in his honor. Foti grew up hearing stories of his bravery during the 1945-1946 Lithuanian revolt against the Soviet Union. With the idea of writing his biography, she researched his life. While doing so, she discovered that, instead of protecting the Jews of Lithuania as she’d been told, he had them herded into a ghetto, where they were tortured and murdered.

Who, she wondered, was her grandfather? Was he a monster who slaughtered Jews, or did he liberate his country from communism?

By researching his past, and asking herself difficult questions, she came to “understand the power of the politics of memory.” [12] Doing so cost her the respect of her family and of her Lithuanian neighbors. She discovered that, while she was determined to uncover the facts about this man, her compatriots preferred to maintain their country’s identity by clinging to the heroic stories of men like Noreika, even if they were untrue.

Clinging to Lies

Lies can feel comforting. In his article about people who believe that the Sandy Hook school shooting is a hoax, Reeves Wiedeman explained that, although some people who deny the shooting do so because they refuse to accept anything that might justify limits on gun ownership, others believe the conspiracy theory because they can’t stand to think someone would actually kill children.

One woman who clings to the lie is a mother who said, “I’d like to believe these little babies didn’t die.” [13]

If all we do is deny the truth or run from it, we will live our lives angry and fearful. Unless we are honest with ourselves, Foti warns us, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we might survive, but we won’t find peace, whether in our own hearts, in our communities, or as a nation. That’s because peace requires reconciliation. To reconcile, we must tell the truth about events like the Great Sioux War.

If our nation has any hope of healing from recent traumas, such as the storming of the Capital in Washington, we must heal, as well, from the traumas of our past. After all, that past informs who we are and the choices we make.

The Truth that Heals

That’s one reason the Lakota sued the United States government to regain the Black Hills. By doing this, they gave their people an opportunity to return home, but they also exposed the lies white historians been telling for a hundred years.

We survive by telling stories. The traumas of our ancestors, those they endured and those they perpetrated, are part of the story of each one of us. So is their resilience.

For the Native Americans, the trauma included the loss of their land. It also included attempts by the United States government to erase their culture. To continue on as a people, they had to claim their truth. When we look honestly at the past, as Sylvia Foti did, we will discover things that make us uneasy. Even if our people have been oppressed for centuries, we will probably unearth some things that aren’t pretty. If we acknowledge the ways we have harmed others, as well as the ways we have been harmed, we find we are more open to listening to the truths that others tell.

But whether skeletons lurk in our closets or not, the point is to open to what is really there, to honor what we learn in all its complexity, and to allow it to bring healing to us and our community.

Wrapping One Another In Our Arms

One other way we survive, is to support and nurture one another. In an article about the pandemic on the reservations, Mineo Liz explains that the elders, who are often the only ones who still know the old language and rituals, are dying from the virus. The disease is threatening their culture.

But, as Eric Henson, a Chickasaw Nation teacher says, in spite of the many challenges Indian tribes have endured, “they have always managed to overcome.” They are resilient; they persevere. With this new challenge, they will do the same thing.

Henson continues, “Tribes are wrapping their arms about every single aspect of what makes a community a community.” [14.] Remembering who they are as a people, and stepping up to help their neighbors, allows them to survive, for not only are they wrapping their arms around who they are, but they are also wrapping their arms around one another.

They do this because they know we don’t survive for long if we only try to save ourselves. Indeed, often, individuals don’t survive. Yet though you and I might die, the spirit of the community lives on. The truth of who we were, told as part of the story that is passed down for generations, lives on.

For these stories to be passed down, however, there must be a community to listen to the tales. There must be a community that continues. Therefore, to survive, we must tell the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, and while doing so, we must wrap our arms around one another.

In faith and fondness,



  1. See “Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868),” Wikipedia, and “Great Sioux War of 1876,” Wikipedia,
  2. Linden, David, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Harvard University, 2007, 3.
  3. “Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn,” PBS, American Experience,, accessed 1/29/21.
  4. Cozzens, Peter, “Ulysses S. Grant Launched an Illegal War Against the Plains Indians, then Lied About it,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2016,, accessed 1/25/21.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Whitman Walt, “From Far Dakotas Canons,” Leave of Grass, 1881.
  8. Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face,” Maine Historical Society,, accessed 1/30/21.
  9. Koster, John, “Right as Rain-in-the-Face: A Lakota Warrior Speaks about Little Bighorn,” HistoryNet, originally published June 2014 in Wild West,, accessed 1/30/21.
  10. “Black Hills Land Claim,” Wikipedia,,and%20the%20United%20States%20government.&text=That%20bill%20%E2%80%9Cdenied%20the%20Sioux,of%20the%20Sioux%20in%201980., accessed 1/29/21.
  11. Foti, Sylvia, “My Celebrated Grandfather Had an Unforgivable Past,” The New York Times, January 28, 2021, A27.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Wiedeman, Reeves, “The Sandy Hook Hoax,” Intelligencer, originally published in New York Magazine, September 5, 2016,, accessed 1/30/21.
  14. Meneo, Liz, “For Native Americans, COVID-19 Is ‘The Worst of Both Worlds At the Same Time,’” The Harvard Gazette, May 2, 2020,, accessed 1/29/21.

Photo by John Fowler on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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