Among the fighting Sioux and Cheyennes were a quintet of young Arapahos who really wanted to do battle with the Shoshones.
High school history books record that the victors at the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, the ones who wiped out Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, were the Sioux (Lakotas), Cheyennes and Arapahos. Hollywood sometimes throws in the Shoshones for good measure—even though the Shoshones were U.S. allies who helped the Crows, also U.S. allies, stave off disaster at the Rosebud a week before, just as the Crows and the Arikaras helped Custer find and fight the Lakotas and Cheyennes. Custer’s Last Stand, a 1936 movie-house serial directed by Elmer Clifton, supposedly hired a number of Arapahos who actually fought at the Little Bighorn as extras, along with Iron Eyes Cody, who, after he was safely dead, was exposed as a Sicilian who happened to love Indians.
The truth may not be palatable to Custerphiles who believe their hero went up against every tribe from the Great Plains and that 5,000 to 6,000 warriors outnumbered the 7th Cavalry 20-to-1 at the Last Stand. Truth hurts, but it also heals. The Arapahos were not key players in Custer’s defeat and can’t be reeled in to explain the Little Bighorn catastrophe—or the general failure of U.S. Indian policy in 1876.
Exactly five Arapahos fought at the Little Bighorn—as they themselves told it, with considerable reluctance. One killed a soldier on purpose; another killed a Lakota warrior by mistake. Inconsequential as it was, the Arapaho presence at the Little Bighorn provides a cautionary tale for historians who try to reconstruct what the Little Bighorn must have been like without considering the various Indian accounts and the motivations behind them. For instance, how well these accounts fit in with Army officers’ descriptions of the battle’s aftermath or the groundbreaking archaeology done at the battle site in the 1980s.
The five young Arapahos who fought at the Little Bighorn were there not by mistake but by coercion. They had been drawing agency rations at Fort Robinson in the northwest corner of Nebraska—as stipulated by the treaty the Arapahos had signed at the end of Red Cloud’s War in 1868—when they decided to go on the warpath, not against the United States but against the Shoshones, their longtime enemies.
“I, with four other young bucks, slipped out of the agency to go on a scouting party for Shoshones,” recalled Waterman, an Arapaho, who in June 1876 was 22. “With me were Yellow Eagle, Yellow Fly, Well-Knowing One and Left Hand. We rode north into the buffalo country, and one day near the Little Bighorn River we met a small party of Sioux. They told us that the Sioux were going to have a sun dance and said that we should come along with them to the Sioux village and have a good time.”
The Lakotas, however, thought the five young men were Army scouts. When the “Arapaho Five” arrived at Oglala leader Sitting Bull’s huge camp on the Little Bighorn, the Lakotas stripped them of their weapons and took them captive. “They took all our guns away and made us prisoners, saying that we were scouts of the white man and that they were going to kill us,” Waterman remembered. “That night we were guarded so we could not escape, and in the morning Two Moon, chief of the Cheyennes, learned we were Arapahos, so he went to the Sioux chiefs and made them give us back our guns and set us free. The Cheyennes and the Arapahos have always been brothers.”
Left Hand, a foster Arapaho who was half Cheyenne and half Blackfoot, recalled the same events when he and Waterman spoke with interviewer Colonel Tim McCoy 44 years after the battle. “We trailed north toward the country of the Crows and one day met a small band of Sioux, who told us that their village was on the Little Bighorn, and that the Sioux were going to have a big sun dance, and that we must go with them,” Left Hand said. “They took our guns away from us and told us they were going to kill us because we were scouts for the white soldiers. The next morning Two Moon, chief of the Cheyennes, went to the Sioux chiefs and told them that we were Arapahos and that they must give us back our guns and set us free, which they did, but they watched us closely so we could not get away.”
The five nervous young Arapahos were sitting tight in Lakota custody when Custer arrived on June 25, two days after they themselves had been sequestered. Waterman, a fairly objective witness, given his disenchantment with Lakota militants, remembered the initial attack by Major Marcus Reno, though his estimate of the hour, as interpreted by McCoy, was much too early—about 9 a.m., which doesn’t jibe with the general account that the fighting started after 3 p.m. “The soldiers had crossed the river and were coming toward the camp,” Waterman recalled. “There were not many soldiers, and I knew they would be beaten, because there were many Sioux and Cheyennes. There was one Indian killed there. The soldiers went back across the river to a ridge where they dug some pits [Reno Hill]. After a while we heard shooting at the lower end of the village and, knowing it must be another body of soldiers, we started down there as fast as we could. These troops [the five companies in Custer’s immediate command] were trying to cross the river and attack the camp, but the Indians drove them back. The soldiers could have forded the river at that point, because we crossed over and drove them up the hill [Calhoun Ridge]. When they got to the top of the hill, they left their horses, and the Indians took them. Some of the horses got away and came down to the river, where they were caught by some of the Indians. There were gray horses [of Company E] and some sorrels [Company C].”
Waterman, the only Arapaho full-blood to leave a transcribed account, said he only killed one white soldier: “The soldiers were entirely surrounded, and the whole country was alive with Indians. There were thousands of them. A few soldiers tried to get away and reach the river, but they were all killed. A few did get down to the river but were killed by some Indians there. The Indians were running all around, shooting and yelling, and we were all very excited. I only know of one soldier that I killed. It was just at the last of the fight, when we rushed to the top of the hill and finished all that were still alive. I killed him with my gun but did not scalp him, because the Arapahos do not scalp a man with short hair, only long hair.”
Left Hand, the Arapaho by adoption, admitted to have inadvertently killed a Lakota ally. “I saw an Indian on foot, who was wounded in the leg, and thinking he was one of the Crow or Arikara scouts with the soldiers, I rode at him, striking at him with a long lance which I carried. The head of the lance was sharpened like an arrow. It struck him in the chest and went clear through him. He fell over a pile of dead soldiers. Afterward I found out he was a Sioux, and the Sioux were going to kill me, because I had killed their friend.”
Left Hand said the soldiers were demoralized and that one soldier handed him his gun, in token of surrender. “I took the gun and did not kill him, but some Sioux who were behind me killed him,” he recalled. “I went back and took his belt, which had many cartridges in it. Once I saw Custer. He was dressed in buckskin. It was almost at the end of the fight. He was standing up and had his pistols in his hands, shooting into the Indians. I did not see him again until it was all over. I walked around and saw him lying there. He was dead. Most of the soldiers were all dead, but some still moved a little. When the sun was there [he pointed to a position suggesting about 3 p.m.], all was over, not a white man was alive. The Sioux scalped a great many, then the squaws crossed the river and took all the soldiers’ clothes. What they did to the dead soldiers I do not know, because I went back across the river to camp and joined the other Arapahos. Some of the Indians went back and fought the soldiers who were barricaded on the ridge at the south end of the camp, but I did not go with them.”
“The Sioux kept a close watch on us,” Waterman recalled, “because during the fight Left Hand had killed a Sioux… whom he thought was one of Custer’s Crow or Arikara scouts, and the Sioux were very angry….That night we stayed in the Sioux camp, but the next night, after it was dark, Yellow Eagle, Yellow Fly, Well-Knowing One, Left Hand and I crawled out under the side of our wickiup, mounted ponies, slipped out of camp and rode on around the foot of the mountains back to Fort Robinson.”
Left Hand said the Arapahos’ escape followed the distant arrival of Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry’s column, with infantry and Gatling guns, which prompted the Lakotas and Cheyennes to break camp. “We heard that some soldiers were coming up the river, and the Indians were scared,” he recalled. “That night after they had made camp and it was dark, we…Arapahos crawled out to the pony herd and, each mounting a pony, slipped away. We traveled as fast as we could back to Fort Robinson, where the Arapahos were.”
Allied with the Cheyennes, who also spoke an Algonquian language, the Arapahos had been one of the earliest of the Great Lakes farming tribes to move out onto the Great Plains and take up buffalo hunting with the arrival of the horse. “The road of the Arapaho was an old and good one, and we believed it had been traveled since the beginning of the world,” Arapaho artist Black (agency book name Carl Sweezy) told author Althea Bass in the mid–20th century. “It is a good thing to show how that road once ran before we lost it.”
Arapaho warriors may have originated the Dog Soldier society, named for the manner in which a brave drove his lance or a stake into the ground and stood tethered to it, like a guard dog outside a tepee, fighting all comers unto death or until a brother warrior released him by tugging the lance from the ground. This kind of romantic valor didn’t stand up well to firearms, and the Arapahos, confronted with bullets instead of arrows, took a logical step: They came to prefer trading to looting. Some warrior societies persisted—often affiliations between the Arapahos and the Cheyennes —but the core Arapaho tribe became, in modest terms, a plutocracy. The tribe grouped boys and men by age ranges into seven lodges, and as each group acquired knowledge and skills, it would serve and contribute its wealth to the groups above them.
The system functioned well—energy at the bottom, wealth in horses and furs flowing to the top. Yet the Arapahos were capable of fighting and sometimes eager for honors. Waterman said he counted 13 coups at the Little Bighorn. His “war medicine” was a buffalo-hide cross adorned with two feathers. The Arapaho religion resembled Christianity in that the Arapahos saw the world caught between a good God who lived in the sky and a powerful evil spirit who lived inside the earth. “My theory is that the Arapaho were descendants of the Phoenicians,” said mule packer, interpreter and former Confederate soldier Frank Huston, having known the tribe before the reservation years and seen that the Arapahos preferred trading but could fight when pressed—like Tyre and Carthage in Greek and Roman times.
The five Arapahos detained by the Lakotas admittedly turned in lackluster performances at the Little Bighorn and had little affect on the outcome of the fight, but they were historically important in another way: They were the closest thing to detached observers available. They had no wives, children or mothers to defend at the camp, and they were already “agency Indians” rather than “self supporters,” as Captain Frederick Benteen respectfully if sarcastically called Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who turned themselves in between 1877 and 1881 had families to feed, and many of them told the whites what they wanted to hear (or at least journalists related to readers what they wanted to hear)—that Custer and his men had died heroically, and that Indian losses were considerable. Waterman and Left Hand recounted their Arapaho versions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn without fear or favor. Old men by the time of their interviews with McCoy in 1920, they were likely candid, even if their memories may have played a few tricks.
Their accounts largely substantiated the recollections of Benteen in 1876, those of Lakota Rain-in-the-Face in 1894 and the archaeology of Doug Scott and Richard Allen Fox Jr. in the 1980s: The endgame of the battle was a rout. Waterman said some of the soldiers ran for it. Left Hand claimed one soldier even tried to surrender.
Custer, however, and the officers and noncommissioned officers clustered around him fought gamely to the bitter end and were among the last to fall. “When I reached the top of the hill, I saw Custer,” Waterman said. “He was dressed in buckskin, coat and pants and was on his hands and knees. He had been shot through the side, and there was blood coming from his mouth. He seemed to be watching the Indians moving around him. Four soldiers were sitting up around him, but they were all badly wounded. All the other soldiers were down….The next time I saw Custer, he was dead, and some Indians were taking his buckskin clothes.” Waterman and Left Hand each indicated the fighting had ended by midafternoon. “The fight was all over when the sun was there,” Waterman said, pointing to a position that suggested about 3 p.m.
No Arapahos died at the Little Bighorn, and the two interviewed in 1920 corroborated another detail that Rain-in-the-Face had recounted and the archaeological evidence suggests: Indian casualties were not high—though they may not have been as low as Waterman and Left Hand believed. Lakotas and Cheyennes told researcher Walter Camp, who spoke Lakota and knew sign language, that the battle had claimed 36 Indians—14 Lakota warriors, 12 Cheyenne warriors and 10 women and children. Rain-in-the-Face in 1894 listed “10 and four or 10 and six” dead, but he may have meant only Lakotas.
“The white people believe that there were a great many Indians killed in this fight,” Waterman said. “I only know of six Cheyennes and six Sioux who were killed. There were many wounded.” Left Hand concurred: “There were only a few Sioux and Cheyennes killed, and these were buried on the ground on the west bank of the river where the camp was. Not a man of Custer’s command escaped; all were killed.”
The Arapahos who swarmed up Custer Hill with their Lakota and Cheyenne hosts, or captors, had earlier seen horses coming down from Calhoun Ridge, with fugitives astride some of them. Young Indians armed with bows caught some of the soldiers, but others troopers could indeed have gone the distance. Corporal John Foley of Company C shot himself because he thought his three pursuers were gaining on him; in fact, they had run out of arrows. The Crows recalled finding soldiers’ bodies miles from the battlefield.
The Arapaho accounts are flawed in places. Waterman and Left Hand each spoke of the number of arrows, though they themselves used guns. “Most of the dead soldiers had been killed by arrows, as they had arrows sticking in them,” Waterman recalled. Wrong. Rain-in-the-Face said, and archaeologists confirm, that most soldiers succumbed to gunfire. “We were better armed than the long swords,” Rain boasted. Victorious warriors may have shot arrows into the soldiers postmortem, as a sort of morbid autograph of their handiwork. The Cheyennes, who observed a powerful taboo against intertribal homicide, may have used the soldiers’ bodies as targets to teach their boys it was acceptable to shoot white people. Waterman and Left hand didn’t cite specific Indian numbers beyond “thousands” but may have been so impressed with their concentration in one place—a rare sight—that they contributed to the myth of 5,000 to 6,000 warriors. Modern calculations place the number closer to 1,000 to 2,000 warriors. Some Lakota sources claim 800 akichita (full-fledged warriors) and another 400 boys eager to establish a reputation. However many Indians fought, they were enough. “Custer was a very foolish man to fight the Sioux at that time,” Left Hand said.
Despite some controversial statements, the Arapaho narrative is a fairly objective account of what two young men saw in 1876—a battle in which some white men broke and ran while others fought courageously, and the Indians, initially thrown into a panic by Custer’s sudden attack, rallied to defend their families and wiped out his immediate command in short order. The five wandering Arapahos did little to change the history of the West—one soldier dead and one Lakota killed by mistake scarcely influenced the outcome at the Little Bighorn—but they did an objective job of describing perhaps its single most striking incident.
John Koster,author of Custer Survivor,had research help on this article from Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim. The accounts of Waterman and Left Hand appear in The Custer Myth, by W.A. Graham.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.