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'Little Bighorn Remembered' -- reconsidering Custer's last stand


November 3, 1999
Web posted at: 5:33 p.m. EST (2233 GMT)

(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.

Little Bighorn & broken vows

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.

  • Forty never-before-published full-color drawings of the battle by Red Horse, a Miniconjou veteran of the fight.

  • A newly revealed account of the battle collected by photographer Edward S. Curtis the Crow scouts. President Theodore Roosevelt advised Curtis not to publish the report. It remained a secret until Curtis' 90-year-old son recently gave it to the Smithsonian.

  • Recently discovered letters written during the campaign by Lt. William Van Wyck Reily to his mother. Reily would die with Custer in the battle.

    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."

    Previous visits to the cafe:
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    American history retold through letters, documents, articles & speeches
    September 17, 1999
    Book traces the evolution of how we measure the universe
    September 13, 1999
    Learning from aging and life's lessons
    August 20, 1999
    Finding heaven on earth in a quarter-hour
    August 4, 1999
    Francis Bacon: A Retrospective
    July 28, 1999
    'The Learn2 Guide: Burp a Baby, Carve a Turkey and 108 Other Things You Should Know How to Do'
    June 11, 1999

    The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Web site
    The New York Times dispatch from the battlefield
    An Annotated Roster of Indian Participants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn
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