The patriots who killed Custer
The patriots who killed Custer
Indians fought against the U.S., but they also show great loyalty to the
By Michael A. Elliott
June 25, 2008
Today marks the anniversary of an iconic moment of American history:
Custer's Last Stand, the culmination of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's
disastrous attack on a coalition of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho
Indians camped on the Little Bighorn River. Nearly every American knows the
image: On a dusty, bloody hill, Custer and the final survivors of his
battalion fight to the last against merciless hordes of Indians who press
closer at every moment.
What few Americans know is that the command of about 600 men Custer led
into battle in 1876 included about 35 American Indians, mostly Arikaras but
also six Crow and a few Santee Sioux. Some of the Indian scouts would die
alongside the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. Others would ride away as the
fighting began and spend the rest of their lives recounting what little
they saw of the battle. What almost no one knows is that men from the same
tribes that fought against Custer would, one year later, be riding
alongside the U.S. Army as scouts in the campaign against the Nez Perce --
or that the Indian scouts who served the Army in the 19th century became
one of the precursors to the Army Special Forces, also known as Green
This history means that patriotism is rarely simple in the Indian country
of the American Plains. American Indian communities have some of the
highest rates of enlistment in the U.S. military, yet their leaders also
defend the principle of tribal sovereignty -- which holds that the tribes
should enjoy political and economic autonomy. So at the same time that they
are sending men and women to fight on behalf of the United States, many
American Indian communities continue to claim their independence from it.
At the site of the Little Bighorn battle in Montana, this contradiction
becomes manifest on the anniversary of the battle. Indians from across the
northern Plains come to celebrate the history of resistance to the United
States, but they include color guards of Native American veterans, often in
their service uniforms, carrying American flags.
In this, America's season of intense patriotic display, those of us who are
not Indians may be able to learn a few things about patriotism from the
Little Bighorn celebration. The first is that American patriotism is not
something that you simply have or do not. What that flag means to you will
depend heavily on how you regard the history behind it.
Consider this: The Lakota Sioux offered some of the most fierce resistance
to the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, but in the decades that
followed, Lakota artists regularly incorporated the design of the U.S. flag
into their beadwork, painting and weaving. What those stars and stripes
meant to the Lakota artists could vary widely: In their hands, the U.S.
flag could be a gesture of their new allegiance, a plea for justice from
the U.S., a symbol of the nation for which their young men were now
fighting or simply a decorative motif they knew to be popular with
collectors. It might have been all of these things at the same time.
The other insight is that genuine patriotism can still take place amid
divided loyalties. Americans are capable of more nuanced thinking about
what it means to be an American than we usually give ourselves credit for.
Non-Indians who attend celebrations like the Little Bighorn anniversary are
often surprised by the exhibitions of U.S. patriotism. But for more than a
century, American Indians on the Plains have understood that their love of
country can contain both their struggles to achieve tribal autonomy and
their deeply felt attachments to the United States.
That is the kind of patriotism that was born at the Little Bighorn
battlefield, and the kind that American Indian soldiers now take with them
to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the kind of patriotism that is too big to
fit on a lapel pin.
Michael A. Elliott is the author of "Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of
the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer."