Share This Article

Born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Joseph M. Marshall III is a Lakota craftsman, lecturer, actor, primitive archer, historical consultant and author of nine books, with more on the way. Two of his books, The Dance House: Stories from Rosebud and The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living, are required reading in many native American literature courses. He has also developed a leadership seminar based on his book The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. For the 2005 Turner Network Television and Dreamworks miniseries Into the West, he served as the native technical adviser, did the native voiceover narration and also played Loved by the Buffalo, a Lakota medicine man, in Episodes 5 and 6.

Marshall’s 2007 book The Day the World Ended at the Little Bighorn (Viking Penguin, New York, $24.95) looks at the famous June 1876 conflict between Plains Indians and Lt. Col. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry from the Lakota vantage point, based on records and oral histories. He makes it clear that while the Lakotas and their allies were victorious, they left the battle site very concerned about the consequences of their triumph. They had reason to be concerned. In less than a year, most of the surviving warriors were trying to adjust to reservation life.

But the book actually covers far more ground than just the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Marshall has plenty to say about Lakotas before the battle and his narrative extends beyond the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee. The title is somewhat misleading, too. “We should celebrate their victory at the Little Bighorn,” he writes, “but we should also celebrate the strength of character each generation displayed thereafter….Without a doubt, the best way for us to celebrate our ancestors is never to forget who we are, and where we are from.” Marshall recently talked to Wild West Magazine about his work.

In your introduction, you say you did not see “bloodthirsty savages” when you looked at your grandfather and other elderly Indian relatives.

It was, and is, important to me that my ancestors were not “bloodthirsty savages” the way I heard American Indians referred to in textbooks and novels. It is important to understand that this characterization is nothing more than an opinion or label applied by non-Indian writers and historians, one that remains largely uncontested to this day. On the whole, we native people of North America are no more or no less “savage” than any other group of people anywhere.

You write about a Pawnee raid against the Sicangu Lakotas that ended differently than the normal stories involving tribe on – tribe conflict.

I don’t know what you consider “normal stories involving tribe-on-tribe conflict.” Obviously you buy into the thinking that there was constant warfare between tribes. The ending of the Pawnee story is significant to me because the Sicangu men decided to show compassion, and I don’t think that was abnormal in any way.

When Custer attacked in June 1876, you say the “fighting men grabbed their weapons and caught their horses .”

Fighting men grabbed their weapons because that was what fighting men did when it was necessary to defend home and family, especially when their enemies attacked the encampment.

You mention “old men leaders” and also “battle leaders.”

Old men leaders were those who sat in council where their experience and wisdom was more important than what they could do physically. Battle leaders were those, such as Gall and Crazy Horse, who were in the prime of life and had the experience and ability to lead men in battle.

Where did your version of the Little Bighorn, come from?

My version—and the hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of the Little Bighorn still known among Lakota families—comes from stories and bits and pieces of insight and information that Lakota people learned from those who were there.

Talk a little about traditional Lakota gender roles. Did male medicine men treat both males and females?

In general, males and females had different roles in Lakota society. Males were the providers for and protectors of the home and family, and women were the nurturers and keepers of the home and family. Traditional healers treated both men and women.

On P. 45 you state: “And the Lakota thrived because they understood one basic reality: that it was easier and wiser to adapt to the land rather than to attempt to alter the land significantly to fit their needs.”

The physical environment around us today is a showcase of how we have altered the landscape to fit our modern needs: roads, bridges and hydroelectric dams, for example. Granted, Lakota people probably laid a log across a creek to make a bridge, and set fire to the prairie in the autumn to burn off dead grass to enable new growth in the spring, but overall there was no inclination to significantly alter the landscape. This was probably primarily due to the lack of technology to do that; however, because the Lakota viewed the land as a living entity, they were reluctant to harm it. After countless generations of living close to the land, Lakota society knew that the land, in conjunction with the weather and seasons of the year, had definite tendencies. So, for example, they did not camp in an area known for flash floods during the spring and early summer.

When dealing with warrior societies, you don’t mention the Dog Soldier Society, but you do mention other societies.

There were many warrior societies, large and small, some obviously better known than others. Crazy Horse started a society for men who had lost brothers in combat, because he had. The Dog Soldier, or Crazy Dog, societies were common to several tribes, including the Lakota, and the popular legends about them often overshadowed the fact that there were many others.

You say that most Lakotas felt the only good thing about the soldiers,or Long Knives,“was their weapons, and the worst thing was that they simply would not go away.”

The intense hatred for the Long Knives was a consequence of their actions, such as at Sand Creek and the Washita River.

You mention how the 7th Cavalry’s early years were plagued with desertions, and that Colonel Custer had troubles.

I believe Custer was court-martialed and suspended for a number of charges, including being absent without leave and ordering deserters to be shot (which resulted in at least one death).

You say that U.S.Army budget constraints kept most units,in particular the 7th Cavalry, from target practice and caused inferior ammunition to be used. Do you believe this contributed to Custer’s defeat?

To what extent or how many U.S. soldiers had problems with their weapons jamming during the Custer portion of the battle is not known, but it likely occurred because it was mentioned as a recurring problem before the march from Fort Abraham Lincoln. It is also difficult to say whether or not it was a significant factor, but it certainly would have affected the rate of fire the soldiers were able to put out on the battlefield.

You write of the “righteousness” felt by members of the 7th Cavalry.

The feeling of the “righteousness” of their mission among the members of the 7th Cavalry had little to do with religion and more to do with a sense of racial and cultural superiority.

Many of the cavalrymen had their differences with their commander, Custer.

I would imagine, at some point when dire circumstances were staring them in the face and survival was the primary issue, their differences with Custer were not an overriding concern.

How did the weapons affect the outcome at the Little Bighorn?

Weapons and ammunition are always keys to the outcome in any encounter, dependent on how effectively weapons are brought to bear and how much ammunition is available and replaced when needed. Other factors at the battle were terrain and cavalry tactics.

Would a Gatling gun have made a difference in the battle?

A Gatling gun probably would not have altered the eventual outcome of the battle.

Did misinterpretation lead to conflict between tribes and between the U.S. government and the Lakotas?

Misinterpretation between tribes was not as significant a problem since tribes who had any kind of relationship with one another were at least familiar with one another’s languages. In many instances there was a go-between tribe, such as the Arapaho, for example. Their trading relationships with many different tribes made them invaluable in that respect because many Arapaho could speak several languages. The problem was inadequate translation from English to native languages, and it probably happened more frequently than we have been led to believe. If anything was a threat to peace, it was the continuing encroachment of Euro-Americans into native territory, and the U.S. government peace commissioners’ assumption that their statements were adequately understood.

You mention that Custer could not comprehend the importance of “maggots in the grass.” Was this arrogance on Custer’s part or ignorance?

More than one scout likened the horse herd seen on the floodplain of the Little Bighorn River, from the vantage point of the Crow’s Nest through about a 25-power telescope, as “maggots in the grass.” If Custer did grasp the significance of that description—the large number of horses meant a very large encampment—he may have been confident that his regiment could deal with opposing combatants.

Why did Custer’s Indian scouts stick around after seeing how many horses were gathered in one place?

The scouts stuck around because they had hired on to do a job for the Army, and they were brave men.

What is the most significant point you are trying to convey?

That the Greasy Grass was a human event, over and above a military engagement.

What are your next projects?

My novel Hundred in the Hand will be released in September by Fulcrum Publishing, and I am completing a nonfiction work for Sterling Publishing — The Power of Four:Crazy Horse on Leadership. I will then begin the sequel to Hundred in the Hand, titled The Long Knives are Crying. I am also working on a screenplay based on The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History.

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here