Fighting with Spirit: How Greasy Grass was Won, By Ruth HopkinsTweet
On June 25th, 1876, while camped at a place called Greasy Grass along the Little Bighorn River, Lakota Chief Sitting Bull’s village was attacked by the 7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Now counts vary, but it’s estimated that Sitting Bull’s camp was some 8,000 strong that day. U.S. forces were greatly outnumbered. Besides Lakota, Sitting Bull was joined by Dakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho- and not just men. There were Lakota and Cheyenne women who fought too, and they were every bit as brave and fierce as their male counterparts. Make no mistake though- it was the 7th Cavalry that attacked the Lakota, despite the fact that there were elders and families with children camped there too. My namesake, a Dakota girl called Cankudutawin, (Red Road Woman) was one of them.
Still, Custer and all his men would meet their end on ‘Last Stand Hill,’ where they found themselves surrounded by hundreds of warriors. They were all killed within minutes, save one, a Crow scout who managed to escape by wrapping himself in a Lakota blanket and wandering off. Only 10% of Lakota and Cheyenne used guns. They fought with traditional weaponry like clubs, axes, and bows and arrows. Among the dead: Custer, the infamous ‘Indian fighter,’ his two brothers, his nephew, his brother-in-law, and his Native scout, Bloody Knife. At the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, Bloody Knife had tried to kill Lakota Chief Gall, by bayonet. Gall survived and went onto help defeat Custer’s forces at Greasy Grass, alongside great warriors like Rain-In-the-Face, Crazy Horse, and Inkpaduta. All told, five of Custer’s companies were completely rubbed out at Greasy Grass. There were a total of 268 U.S. casualties and another 55 were injured. Needless to say, Lakota forces won and lived to fight another day. 138 years later, we Oceti Sakowin still celebrate our ancestors’ victory at Greasy Grass.
The U.S. government punished the Lakota for Greasy Grass. The 7th Cavalry carried out the Wounded Knee Massacre, for which they received medals for. The Black Hills were seized from the Oceti Sakowin, breaking Treaty law. Some say the federal government’s bitterness against the Lakota continues to this day. We defeated the U.S. government militarily on ‘American’ soil, and they haven’t forgotten. Nor should they.
People tend to focus on the history or politics of Greasy Grass, or the military strategy. While all of these aspects are fascinating, we’re missing an important factor: spirituality. It was ceremony and the spiritual beliefs of the Lakota that gave us the advantage and it continues to be the primary source of our strength today.
The Battle of Greasy Grass occurred right after wiwang wacipi (sundance) in mid-June.
In ceremony, Sitting Bull gave 100 pieces of flesh. He went without water for two days and two nights. At Deer Medicine rocks, Sitting Bull was given a vision. During his life, Sitting Bull had several visions that came true. Yes, Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was a Chief, a statesman, and an exemplary warrior who was a sash wearer and member of the Kit Fox Society and the Midnight Strongheart Society, but he was also a respected holyman. He was a prophet.
In his vision, Sitting Bull saw soldiers riding on horseback, falling asunder into his camp. Their hats fell off. They fell like grasshoppers, he said. It was then that a voice told him: “I give these to you because they have no ears.” To Sitting Bull and other Lakota this vision meant they would have a great victory over the bluecoats. Sitting Bull’s vision occurred just two weeks before the Battle at Greasy Grass.
During the Battle of Greasy Grass, Sitting Bull did not fight because he was older. Instead, he gave his strong medicine to his nephews White Bull and One Bull, who did.
When Custer attacked, some warriors were just getting out of Inipi. They grabbed their weapons and started fighting right out of the sweat lodge. Was this because Custer caught the Lakota sleeping? No. The Lakota knew the 7th Cavalry was coming. Those men were in Inipi because ceremony and prayer are central to living Wolakota. We don’t compartmentalize our spiritual beliefs and keep them separate from the rest of who we are. This isn’t Sunday church service. Ceremony is life. We are to live our sacred ways every day the best we can.
We are a prayerful people, a soulful people. Spirituality is key to our identity as Oceti Sakowin, and the same can be said for many Natives who practice their traditional ways. We are spirits inhabiting bodies and there’s no defeating the spirit of a Native who is the living embodiment of his or her ancestors. This is something the Western Empire never fully understood, although they realized it was powerful. That’s why the government outlawed our sacred ceremonies for decades. We should all be thankful to those who kept them safe so we could pass them onto future generations.
Each of us is fighting a difficult battle- be it personal one, or for your family or community. Some fight addiction or trauma, others fight poverty, oppression, environmental destruction, or societal ignorance. Some of us are simply born to rage. Yet no matter your battle remember this: do as your ancestors did and consult the spirits. Let them help. Sitting Bull did. Purify yourself with sage and cedar. Pray. Sometimes that’s all you have, but it may be all you need. Arm yourself with the pipe, the canupa. This is the missing piece of our current puzzle, folks. Returning to the ways will bring healing and mend the sacred hoop.
Please remember all those in ceremony, sundancing and sacrificing throughout the summer. Happy Victory Day.