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On the day of the battle, 6,000 to 7,000 Indians were camped on the flats beside the Little Bighorn River. (Aaron Huey)

How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won

Accounts of the 1876 battle have focused on Custer's ill-fated cavalry. But a new book offers a take from the Indian's point of view

But now the Indians were rushing out and shooting back, making show enough to check the attack. The whites dismounted. Every fourth man took the reins of three other horses and led them along with his own into the trees near the river. The other soldiers deployed in a skirmish line of perhaps 100 men. It was all happening very quickly.

As the Indians came out to meet the skirmish line, straight ahead, the river was to their left, obscured by thick timber and undergrowth. To the right was open prairie rising away to the west, and beyond the end of the line, a force of mounted Indians rapidly accumulated. These warriors were swinging wide, swooping around the end of the line. Some of the Indians, He Dog and Brave Heart among them, rode out still farther, circling a small hill behind the soldiers.

By then the soldiers had begun to bend back around to face the Indians behind them. In effect the line had halted; firing was heavy and rapid, but the Indians racing their ponies were hard to hit. Ever-growing numbers of men were rushing out to meet the soldiers while women and children fled. No more than 15 or 20 minutes into the fight the Indians were gaining control of the field; the soldiers were pulling back into the trees that lined the river.

The pattern of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was already established—moments of intense fighting, rapid movement, close engagement with men falling dead or wounded, followed by sudden relative quiet as the two sides organized, took stock and prepared for the next clash. As the soldiers disappeared into the trees, Indians by ones and twos cautiously went in after them while others gathered nearby. Shooting fell away but never halted.

Two large movements were unfolding simultaneously—most of the women and children were moving north down the river, leaving the Hunkpapa camp behind, while a growing stream of men passed them on the way to the fighting—“where the excitement was going on,” said Eagle Elk, a friend of Red Feather, Crazy Horse’s brother-in-law. Crazy Horse himself, already renowned among the Oglala for his battle prowess, was approaching the scene of the fighting at about the same time.

Crazy Horse had been swimming in the river with his friend Yellow Nose when they heard shots. Moments later, horseless, he met Red Feather bridling his pony. “Take any horse,” said Red Feather as he prepared to dash off, but Crazy Horse waited for his own mount. Red Feather didn’t see him again until 10 or 15 minutes later, when the Indians had gathered in force near the woods where the soldiers had taken refuge.

It was probably during those minutes that Crazy Horse had prepared himself for war. In the emergency of the moment many men grabbed their weapons and ran toward the shooting, but not all. War was too dangerous to treat casually; a man wanted to be properly dressed and painted before charging the enemy. Without his medicine and time for a prayer or song, he would be weak. A 17-year-old Oglala named Standing Bear reported that after the first warnings Crazy Horse had called on a wicasa wakan (medicine man) to invoke the spirits and then took so much time over his preparations “that many of his warriors became impatient.”

Ten young men who had sworn to follow Crazy Horse “anywhere in battle” were standing nearby. He dusted himself and his companions with a fistful of dry earth gathered up from a hill left by a mole or gopher, a young Oglala named Spider would recall. Into his hair Crazy Horse wove some long stems of grass, according to Spider. Then he opened the medicine bag he carried about his neck, took from it a pinch of stuff “and burned it as a sacrifice upon a fire of buffalo chips which another warrior had prepared.” The wisp of smoke, he believed, carried his prayer to the heavens. (Others reported that Crazy Horse painted his face with hail spots and dusted his horse with the dry earth.) Now, according to Spider and Standing Bear, he was ready to fight.

By the time Crazy Horse caught up with his cousin Kicking Bear and Red Feather, it was hard to see the soldiers in the woods, but there was a lot of shooting; bullets clattered through tree limbs and sent leaves fluttering to the ground. Several Indians had already been killed, and others were wounded. There was shouting and singing; some women who had stayed behind were calling out the high-pitched, ululating cry called the tremolo. Iron Hawk, a leading man of Crazy Horse’s band of Oglala, said his aunt was urging on the arriving warriors with a song:

Brothers-in-law, now your friends have come.
Take courage.
Would you see me taken captive?

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