Little Bighorn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer’s Last Stand, by Herman J. Viola, Times Books (a division of Random House), New York, 1999, $45.
Indian accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are fascinating and add much to the wealth of knowledge about George Armstrong Custer’s shocking defeat on June 25, 1876, but they certainly do not end the controversy or debate. Not that any Custer buffs would really want that, would they? Herman J. Viola, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, has collected accounts by Indians who participated in the battle, but not all Indians agree on what they saw, or else they saw different things.
The best job of making sense of those accounts has been Gregory F. Michno’s 1997 book Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat. But Viola’s book is certainly another welcome addition to the field. To get the oral history, Viola relied on such Indian scholars as Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, the official historian of the Crow tribe and the grandson of Crow warriors Medicine Crow and White Man Runs Him. But this book, despite the subtitle, is more than recollections. Contributions to Little Bighorn Remembered have also been made by non-Indians.
Of particular interest is James Hutchins’ “Edward S. Curtis and Custer’s Crow Scouts,” which deals with the photographer/
ethnographer’s investigation in 190508 into what happened at the Little Bighorn. Curtis talked to White Man Runs Him and other Crow Indians who had served Custer as scouts, and they portrayed Major Marcus A. Reno as victim and Custer as something much less than a hero. At the advice of his friend President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis omitted all that the Crow scouts had told him about Custer’s lack of support for Reno when he wrote volume 3 of his The North American Indian. John P. Langellier’s chapter “Custer: The Making of a Myth” has little to do with the Indians’ viewpoint, of course, but will interest Custer buffs. A chapter on “Archaeologists: Detectives on the Battlefield” is provided by military archaeologist Douglas D. Scott. Readers interested in more information along those lines should also try the 1998 book They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones From the Battle of the Little Bighorn (University of Oklahoma Press), by Scott, P. Willey and Melissa A. Connor.
Illustrations, many in color, abound in the 245 pages of Little Bighorn Remembered, a book that makes the battle come alive. For those who want even more color, check out a History Channel special of the same name with Viola as the primary on-air narrator. The special first aired in December 1999, and it is available on video.