The Hunkpapa Lakota warrior Left Hand is one of the quiet enigmas of Custer’s Last Stand —a man who served as both a scout for Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and a warrior for Sitting Bull but died without explaining why he did what he did.
Left Hand signed on as a U.S. Army Indian scout on December 9, 1875, and mustered out in early June 1876 while serving with Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry’s column (including the 12 companies under Custer’s immediate command), then headed west into Sioux country. What happened between then and the battle is open to conjecture, but Left Hand’s fate is certain: In 1912 Arikara scout Young Hawk told interviewer Walter Mason Camp, “When Left Hand’s time expired, he joined the Sioux, his own people, and after the Battle of the Little Bighorn River his horse was found in the village, and his dead body among those left in the village by the Sioux.”
Left Hand—also known as Chat-ka (Lakota for “left”)—was one of five Lakota scouts who had signed on with Custer in December 1875. These Lakotas were especially important to Custer, as neither the Arikara scouts he and brother Tom signed up near Fort Abraham Lincoln nor the Crow scouts he later secured from Colonel John Gibbon spoke Lakota. Arikara is a Caddoan language. The Crow language, while Siouan, is not mutually intelligible between a Crow and a Sioux.
Left Hand was identified as a Hunkpapa, a people that came to be known as the “Sitting Bull Sioux.” The Hunkpapas (whose name means “Head of the Circle”) were the northernmost band of the Lakota tribe. They traditionally avoided any type of contact with whites—unlike the Oglalas, Brulés and friendlier Sans Arcs—although they had fought Custer during the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition. “The Indians were made up of different bands of Sioux, principally Uncpapas [sic], the whole under command of ‘Sitting Bull,’ who participated in the second day’s fight,” Custer wrote to his wife. “A large number of Indians who fought us were fresh from the reservations on the Missouri River. Many of the warriors engaged in the fight on both days were dressed in complete suits of the clothes issued at the agencies to the Indians. The arms with which they fought us (several of which were captured in the fight) were of the latest improved patterns of breechloading repeating rifles, and their supply of metallic cartridges seemed unlimited.”
The year after that inconclusive campaign Custer led an expedition through the Black Hills that the Hunkpapas and other Lakotas considered a violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. A year later the government told the Lakotas the United States wanted to buy the Black Hills, said to be full of “gold from the grass roots down.” Some of the Lakota chiefs offered to sell for $70 million; the government offered $6 million. Delegates from the Oglala Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Sitting Bull refused to sell at any price, some even threatening to kill any Lakota who touched the pen. Negotiations faltered, and it was around that time Left Hand signed on as a scout. Three possibilities suggest themselves: (1) He may have been an outcast from the Hunkpapas for some personal argument or moral failure, (2) he may have realized the old free-roaming days were doomed and sought to secure his own future, or (3) he may have been a spy sent by Sitting Bull to learn what the whites were up to. In any case Left Hand signed up with the Army just as it was about to order the Sioux to report to their assigned agencies or face condemnation as hostiles.
Left Hand does not figure by name in the accounts of Custer’s other Lakota scouts on the approach march to the Little Bighorn. If, as Young Hawk remembered, Left Hand mustered out in June, he probably would have done so on June 9, 1876, after a six-month term of service. To confuse matters, Young Hawk, who knew Left Hand by sight, named only four Lakota scouts—Bear Come Out, Red Bear, White Cloud and Buffalo Ancestor—at the column’s departure from Fort Lincoln on March 17. As Indians often went by multiple names, Left Hand actually may have been with the 7th Cavalry and scouts when they left Fort Lincoln. Young Hawk was certain, however, he left some weeks before the fight on the Little Bighorn. According to Young Hawk and other Arikaras, en route to the battle the Lakota scouts pointed to signs in abandoned Lakota camps indicating the enemy knew the troops were coming. But again there was no mention of Left Hand.
A clue to what may have happened to Left Hand popped up in 1922, when Army officer and World War I veteran Colonel Alfred Burton Welch was interviewing Lakotas at Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. On August 17 he spoke to an educated elder named Emeron White.
“The Sioux people sing a song about a Ree [Arikara] scout who died with Custer,” White told Welch. “They call him Makpia Tatonka (Buffalo Cloud). He rode a swift horse, but it was wounded, and they got around him. The scout begged for his life and named the firstborn of the families of those Hunkpapas who were around him. This is sacred to the people, to name the firstborn, and they always let an enemy get away when they do that. But this time everyone was excited, and so they killed him there. I think maybe that it was Bloody Knife, his other name. They are all sorry for that thing now and sing this song in his honor:
The horse came alone
Where is his rider?
Where is Buffalo Cloud?
Here he lays.”
The man killed was clearly not the half-Arikara scout Bloody Knife, who was shot not surrounded by Hunkpapa enemies but so close to Major Marcus Reno that the bullet splattered the scout’s brains and blood on Reno’s face. According to witnesses, the other two slain Arikara scouts, Bob-tailed Bull and Little Brave, were fighting when killed. No other Arikaras were reported killed. White’s anecdote raises two questions: What language did the surrounded “Ree” speak for the Lakotas to have understood him? And how did that man know the names of the Hunkpapas’ firstborn? Is it possible Left Hand was the one surrounded and killed by his own people as a suspected traitor? Or was he a self-appointed spy who tried to forewarn his people of Custer’s attack?
The Hunkpapa Nation at Standing Rock lists Left Hand, under his Lakota name Chat-ka, as a combatant and casualty on the Indian side: “Chat-ka. Hunkpapa Sioux. His body was found in abandoned tepee in the valley after the Little Bighorn battle. He was a scout at Fort Lincoln.”
Young Hawk, the Arikara scout, offers one more provocative description of Left Hand’s body at the Little Bighorn: “He had on a white shirt. The shoulders were painted green, and on his forehead, painted in red, was the sign of a secret society. In the middle of the camp they found a drum, and on one side, lying on a blanket, was a row of dead Dakotas [sic] with their feet toward the drum.”
Left Hand was definitely an Army scout, definitely left the Army in June and definitely turned up among the honored Lakota dead after the battle. He may or may not have been the Ree who mysteriously spoke Lakota and knew the names of the Hunkpapa firstborn. He may simply have been accepted back into his warrior society and fought to the death alongside his brothers at the Little Bighorn. Barring new information, the story of Left Hand is another mystery of Custer’s Last Stand.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.