'Little Bighorn Remembered' -- reconsidering Custer's last stand
November 3, 1999
(CNN) -- While the Battle of Little Bighorn made George Custer a legend, many forget its significance for Native Americans.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's infamous "Last Stand" on June 25, 1876, wasn't simply a conflict between whites and American Indians. It was also a fight between Indian tribes.
"What remains largely untold is the story of the Indians," writes Herman J. Viola, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and author of the new and comprehensive book "Little Bighorn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer's Last Stand" (Times Books/Random House, $45).
"Lost in all the fascination about Custer and his doomed command, Viola writes, "are the Arikara and Crow warriors who rode at his side that day." Similarly, "the Indians who defeated Custer have fared poorly in the romantic literature."
The new book offers the oral histories of Native Americans previously shared only among tribe members -- passed directly from grandparent to grandchild. "Here is their story," writes Viola.
Among questions the book attempts to answer is why the Crow and Arikara ("ah-REE-ka-ra") joined Custer's cavalry. According to Viola, the choice seemed clear-cut at the time: Struggling from disease and dwindling numbers, they wanted to preserve their tribes from their longtime enemies, the stronger and heavily armed Lakota and Cheyenne. But questions persist, about their alliance with the government troops.
Old story, new views of it
The book is published in coordination with a History Channel special about Little Bighorn, scheduled to air December 3 at 8 p.m. ET. The book includes several unique elements.
Before it, Custer had made a promise not to fight the Cheyenne. He broke that promise. And "the cosmic meaning of the Indian victory at Little Bighorn," Viola writes, "is the clearest in the often repeated story of Custer's broken vows." To the Cheyenne, "the inevitable outcome -- Custer's personal annihilation and all the consequences -- was proof of the working of great spiritual power."
Viola, a former director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives, has documented the history of Native Americans for more than 25 years. He's the author of "After Columbus," "North American Indians," and "It is a Good Day to Die."
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