In all the testimonies of participants of the battle at Greasy Grass that occurred on June 25 and 26 of 1876, where 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer died, many of the Lakota people who were asked to speak on their involvement were not believed by the historians. Most of the historians were interested in identifying military strategy and not interested in what the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe were saying.
That is because, American history discounts oral tradition and American Indian or Native American oral accounts of history. If it isn’t written down then it isn’t true. Even, when we Lakota have kept winter counts from the 1700’s. As a descendent of Brown Hat, one of the winter count keepers from the Brule, as my paternal grandmother is Brule, I still don’t believe how historians discount even what is written down.
The next best thing then, to know what really happened at the battle of the Greasy Grass is to first consider the name, the historians give it: “Battle of the Little Big Horn,” which isn’t what we Lakota, who were victorious in the battle called it. We called it “Greasy Grass.” In our accounts, we have to remain true to what those who fought bravely in that battle called it. It is because of them that we are still here.
If we look at their stories, from what the historians have recorded, and a lot of their stories have been recorded in the effort to try to figure out military strategy on why the soldiers were defeated soundly. We need to go through those stories, from a Lakota perspective, and to try to pull out the cultural elements in those stories. We need to do that for ourselves, for our own sense of our own strong identity.
If we wait for the academic community to tell our side of the story, we will never hear it because they still believe that Lakota testimony about the battle in their words, “lacked sufficient credibility and consistency to win serious acceptance within the history community”. These words come from a historian who collected some of those recollections and published a book in 1997. It doesn’t matter, we, Lakota know who won that battle and we need to tell our side of the story for the generations to come.
A clear understanding may come, if one understood Crazy Horse’s view, who on the day of the battle, along with the many Miniconjou warriors, thought that, if they were able to fight the soldiers until either side died, that would end all future battles. The Lakota were tired of fighting, they wanted to live as they had lived for centuries as buffalo hunters on the great plains, as free as a people who were able to protect their own could live, and they were tired of being pursued by the soldiers.
Custer and his entire command were wiped out, including two of his brothers, one brother-in-law, and a nephew who died with him. Historians say that the seeds for the Custer defeat were sown as far back as 1868. In that year, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted to the Sioux and the Cheyenne Indians the Black Hills area, “as long as the grass was green and the sky was blue”.
Growing up, what I learned from the adults around me was the view that “toka” or “tokca” peoples were around us; that is, non- Lakotas and their ways were different. But, for us, the best way, was our way. This corresponds with the Lakota belief that there are many truths. But, for us, to be left alone to live our way as we wanted, and as granted by treaties that the new colonial government signed with us, were important to what happened at Greasy Grass.
In today’s political climate, you see the movements in countries like England where the push to keep out non-English people is behind their movement to exit the European Union. Or in our own country, the fear of immigrants. When you look at what is happening around the world, you begin to understand our Lakota theory of Tokeca oyate. How sometimes, nations do what they have to do to keep their culture alive; within their own national boundaries, they are entitled to do what they must do to keep their sense of their own identity. That is exactly what happened at Greasy Grass in 1876.