LITTLE BIGHORN REMEMBERED: THE UNTOLD INDIAN STORY OF CUSTER’S LAST STAND, by Herman J. Viola, Times Books, 239 pages, $45.00.
FEW historical events have been examined as thoroughly as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 1876 encounter between U.S. troops under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and Indian warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Historians usually debate Custer’s decision to divide his regiment against an unknown number of warriors, the wisdom of Major Marcus Reno’s retreat from his separate charge, and Captain Frederick Benteen’s failure to rejoin his commander in time. In the battle’s aftermath, journalists and officers sought information from Native-American participants, but fearing retaliation, the Indians often gave contradictory accounts that were made even less clear by inept interpreters. Moreover, their individualistic descriptions disappointed military analysts who were eager to learn about broad strategic questions.
Herman Viola’s book approaches the discussion from a different direction. His protagonists are the Indians, including the Arikaras and Crows who chose to fight with the U.S. military against their enemies, the Sioux. For Viola, the situation’s real tragedy was not the heavy cavalry losses–although these were lamentable–but the foregone doom for Indian hopes of retaining a homeland or restoring their battered people, given the Grant administration’s determination to seize the Black Hills and other unceded territory.
Aside from giving voice to Indian viewpoints, Viola’s volume brings together for the first time 40 drawings by Red Horse–a Miniconjou veteran of the fight–that are his battle narration. The book also presents other interpretations of the conflict, most notably the Crow account given to famed photographer Edward S. Curtis in 1908, which stated that Custer watched Reno’s bloody defeat from a distance and failed to come to his aid. Here and elsewhere, the book invites readers to rethink the battle. Viola’s work provides insights important to historians, but it has enduring value to anyone fascinated by the events of June 25, 1876, and its reverberations in our own time.
Shirley Leckie is a professor of history at the University of Central Florida.
Talking With Herman Viola