by Nick Estes
On June 25, 1876, lieutenant colonel George Armstrong Custer and brigadier general Marcus Reno led a group of 650 men against a camp of thousands of Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Among them were Sitting Bull, Pizi (or Gall), Inkpaduta, Crazy Horse, Pretty Nose, Left Hand, Two Moons, Wooden Leg, and many more from the heroic armed resisters of the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Dakotas, and Lakotas. Custer led the first assault, which was supposed to be a surprise attack meant to quickly overwhelm the large camp. Custer’s men were quickly halted and forced to retreat uphill. Despite popular myths, Custer and his men never mounted a brave last stand but were instead taken down as they ran away from the Indigenous warrior men and warrior women. For his courage, Custer was promoted to the rank of general after his death.
Hunkpapa warrior woman Moving Robe Woman who fought against cavalrymen later recalled the events that day. A young woman at the time, Moving Robe Woman was harvesting tinpsila, or prairie turnips, when the cavalry rode in. After hearing her brother was killed in the initial attack, she said, “I ran to a nearby thicket and got my black horse. I painted my face with crimson and braided my black hair. I was mourning. I was a woman, but I was not afraid.” Indigenous warrior women among the Plains nations were common. In fact, according to Northern Cheyenne histories, Buffalo Calf Trail Woman is credited for knocking Custer from his horse before he was killed. Indigenous women also knew what defeat meant — if they were not killed, their bodies would be forced over to the desires of their captors. They fought back not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
The defeat of Custer’s Seventh Calvary and the killing of 268 of his men was a major victory. According to Moving Robe Woman, however, not everyone saw it that way. None, she recalled, “staged a victory dance that night. They were mourning for their own dead.” About four dozen were killed during the fight. From the start of the battle to the end, Moving Robe Woman was in mourning. Many popular accounts of the Battle of Greasy Grass and histories of the West over-romanticize the battles of what became known as “the Great Sioux Wars.” Extreme violence and wanton slaughter is nothing to callously celebrate, as Moving Robe Woman reminds us. Each victory against the invaders resulted in immeasurable casualties, if not at that moment then later. Armed resistance was a calculated risk that was not carelessly undertaken — it was not fatalistic. Like Moving Robe Woman’s account of Greasy Grass, from the beginning of the first battles to their violent conclusions the Oceti Sakowin was in constant mourning over the theft of their lives, their world, and so many countless relatives. The profound courage of valiant armed resistance protected the dignified life of one’s ancestors not only at that moment but also for the ancestors already forthcoming. Armed Indigenous resistance has always been a future-oriented and life-oriented project that deserves the utmost honor and celebration. It is because of armed struggle that all has never been forever lost or stolen. It is because of this fearless struggle that we remember.