From the award winning book Rubbing Out Long Hair – Pehin Hanska Kasota: The American Indian Story of the Little Big Horn in Art and Word published by Elk Plain Press – a sample.
The river winds its way northward from the Bighorn Mountains in present day Wyoming where it begins. Fed by melting snows and valley springs it joins the Bighorn River about ten miles north of the traditional campgrounds where people had gathered for as long as memories recalled. The best location for smaller groups of people to come together in larger gatherings was in a series of terrain mandated loops and curves sheltered by bluffs and ridges on the east side of the channel. Along this seven to eight mile stretch of water roiled by riffles in some places and darkened by deep, slower currents in others, wildlife gathered for shelter, water, and sustenance. So did the people. It was a great honored place. It was also contested.
The flat, grassy lands bordering the often tree lined banks of this lifeline provided food and shelter for those who knew of its riches. There were several such places in this land claimed first by the Crow people and this was one of the best. Later, the Lakota people and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne people, moved into direct confrontation for control of the area. By the mid-1860s, the inter-tribal warfare of horse raids, war parties, or revenge raids against now traditional enemies was engrained and hard fought.
By June 1876, the several bands of the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne people had reached the traditional summer hunting areas in the Yellowstone, Powder, Tongue, and Big Horn River country. Three columns of the United States Army were moving into the same region on a different kind of hunt.
By July 1876, over 300 soldiers from all sides lay dead in the Montana and Wyoming countryside. The Lakota and Cheyenne bands had dispersed, as was their custom when pressed by the Army soldiers. Some of the Crow and Arikara scouts had returned to their homes having guided the Army columns to their destinies. The dust that settled over these battlefields covered and clouded the history as much as it covered the drying sage and bleaching bones.
Striping away the dust leaves some very basic facts and understandings of how the battle progressed. Several large groups of tipis covered the valley floor although to the untrained eye these distinct family, band, and tribal groups would appear as one large mass of tents. The people were coming to the end of their annual great gathering for religion and ceremony as hunting and preparation for the coming winter now dictated action. Some had already struck lodges and packed travois and parfleche readying for the day’s move.
Antelope herds were to the north and groups were leaving for that hunt. Others were still resting from a night of dance, courting, feasting, and coup telling. Favorite war or hunt horses were close to their owners lodges while in the fields next to the lodges, huge numbers of horses grazed and were watched over by young, soon to be warriors. Others were swimming, gathering food and wood, and doing the hundreds of other tasks required in a mobile society. This was a gathering shaking off the ties that had bound them for about a month. This was what the people were doing when the Seventh US Cavalry came upon them in the afternoon of 25 June 1876.
Confined to reservations, no longer allowed to dance and sing, unable to provide for their families as before, forced to learn a language not their own, and with no way to regain a way of life with military skill, the people had few ways to hang onto the customs from the past. We noted before that they fought since there was nowhere left to go. Now, there was little they could do to remain “the People” so they resisted in a manner few outsiders understood – they drew.