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Though referred to as ‘scouts,’ even by Lt. Col. George A. Custer, these Indians enlisted as soldiers—and some fought well at the Little Bighorn.

On June 25–26, 1876, Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors on the Little Bighorn River annihilated the five 7th U.S. Cavalry companies under the direct command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and decimated seven other companies that barely survived to tell the tale of the Army’s biggest defeat in the Western Indian wars. That much is familiar even to those otherwise unschooled in 19th-century battles. Far less known is the presence—and fate— of a 13th company at that Montana Territory fight. Instead of white soldiers, this company comprised Arikara Indians, mortal enemies of the Lakotas, whom Custer had signed up as U.S. soldiers at the last moment.

The Arikaras themselves had mixed feelings that spring when they learned about the Custer expedition of 1876. The Sioux were a formidable enemy, and previous wars and two smallpox epidemics had not been kind to the Arikaras. Many joined up for the money. Young Hawk, an Arikara who had soldiered for Custer before, chose to sit out this campaign. His father felt otherwise and stated, “I will go, and my son too.” Young Hawk obeyed, as Arikaras had great respect for their elders.

Frederic F. Gerard, a fur trader who served as civilian interpreter for Custer’s Arikaras, took the 40 Arikara volunteers, including the dubious Young Hawk, to the Army encampment near their village by the Missouri River for the enlistment ceremony. Captain Tom Custer was on duty, and Gerard told the Indians to raise their hands for the oath of allegiance (for more on Gerard see Pioneers and Settlers, P. 18; also see the related story and photo of Younk Hawk in Indian Life, P. 24). George Custer then strode in and, through Gerard, told the Arikaras the expedition was imminent, and they were to remain at Fort Abraham Lincoln and not return to their village.

The Arikaras were officially American soldiers, unlike the Crow scouts Custer hired later in the campaign. A July 28, 1866, congressional act, amended in 1873, had authorized the president to enlist and employ up to 1,000 Indians as U.S. soldiers, though department commanders were granted the discretion to release them from service. As soldiers the Arikaras received government uniforms and weapons and were subject to military orders. They earned $13 a month, the same as other enlisted men, though white and half-blood scouts often received higher wages. Even Custer himself referred to the Arikaras as “scouts,” perhaps to boost camaraderie among his Indian forces. Legally, however, they were soldiers and subject to whatever discipline he might impose in a fluid tactical situation. To understand the role of the Arikara soldiers is to better comprehend what happened at the Little Bighorn. The Arikaras were combatants but also somewhat detached observers—and some became decidedly more detached as things grew worse for the 7th Cavalry.


The Arikaras—who called themselves the Sahnish (“original people”) and were informally known as the Rees—were the largest of three farming tribes (along with the Mandans and Hidatsas) that since the 18th century had lived in proximity along the Missouri River. To endure the brutal northern Plains winters, they lived in earth lodges thickly insulated with logs, soil and sod. The women raised corn and beans during the growing season, while the men organized sporadic buffalo hunts, camping out in small tepees transported by dogs. Author and illustrator Thomas E. Mails estimated that by 1800 the farming tribes had atrophied to about 3,800 Arikaras, 3,600 Mandans and 2,500 Hidatsas, while the Lakotas—full-time buffalo hunters who cackled at the “corn eaters”—had swollen to some 27,000 members.

In 1823 fur trappers clashed with the Arikaras, sparking a brief war in which the tribe faced a force of 230 U.S. soldiers, 50 trappers and 750 Sioux (yes, allies of the whites at the time). The Arikaras escaped extinction mostly through U.S. clemency, and by allowing the tribe a measure of independence, the Americans won the Arikaras’ cautious loyalty. A decade later the smallpox epidemic of 1837 all but exterminated the neighboring Mandans and severely reduced the Arikaras and Hidatsas. At that low point, mostly out of desperation, they became U.S. allies against their principal enemy, the Sioux. John James Audubon visited the survivors in 1843 and described them as lanky and squalid—perhaps because the smallpox had invalided so many Arikaras. Another white visitor in 1858 derided them as sullen, insolent and disease-ridden. By 1876 the Arikaras, badly outnumbered and targeted as white allies, had more reason than ever to side with soldiers trying to contain the powerful Sioux.

The nominal commander of the new 13th company was Lieutenant Charles Varnum, a 26-year-old West Point graduate. Custer, however, understood enough about Indians, the Arikaras in particular, to know they would be leery of leadership by such a young man. Indeed, the Arikaras seem to have regarded their own chiefs as field commanders, seldom mentioning Varnum in their reminiscences.

After the May 7 enlistment ceremony Custer met in his tent with two veteran Arikara warriors, Bob-tailed Bull and Soldier. The colonel, through interpreter Gerard, first expressed his appreciation:

The man before me, Bob-tailed Bull, is a man of good heart, of good character. I am pleased to have him here. I am glad he has enlisted. It will be a hard expedition, but we will all share the same hardships. I am very well pleased to have him in my party, and I told it in Washington. We are to live and fight together, children of one father and one mother. The great-grandfather has a plan. The Sioux camps have united, and you and I must work together for the Great Father and help each other. The Great Father is well pleased that it took few words to coax Son-of-the-Star [the principal Arikara chief] to furnish me scouts for this work we have to do, and he is pleased, too, at his behavior in helping on the plan of the Great Father. I, for one, am willing to help in this all I can, and you must help too. It is this way, my brothers. If I should happen to lose any of the men Son-of-the-Star has furnished, their reward will not be forgotten by the government. Their relations will be saddened by their death, but there will be some comfort in the pay that the United States will provide.

Bob-tailed Bull thanked Custer and shared his readiness to die in battle. “It is a good thing you say, my brother, my children and other relatives will receive my pay and other rewards,” he answered. “I am glad you say this, for I see there is some gain even though I lose my life.” Custer said further words were unnecessary and stated, “Bob-tailed Bull is to be the leader, and Soldier second in command of the scouts.”


“Scouts” they may have been in Custer’s view, but the Arikaras comprised their own company, and on May 17, accompanied by four mercenary Sioux scouts assigned to them, the Arikaras formed up to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln. Theirs was the first company to parade on the fort grounds but the last to leave, marching at the rear of the column that first day. The Arikaras spoke their own tongue, a subset of the Caddoan language family, and used sign language to converse with their attached Sioux scouts and the six Crow scouts Custer plucked from Colonel John Gibbons’ Montana column on June 21. The Crow scout Curley claimed Custer paid Gibbon $600 to “rent” the Crows.

Custer’s favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife, who had a Hunkpapa Sioux father and Arikara mother, also conversed with the Arikaras in sign language. As the column headed up the Yellowstone River, Bloody Knife encouraged the Arikaras to stick with the command no matter what happened. “There are numerous enemies in the country,” he told them. “If we attack their camp [and] are beaten, we must retreat in small groups. You scouts must not run away [or] go back to your homes.”

Around June 22 the Arikaras arrived at an abandoned Lakota camp, where they found the skeletal remains of a soldier. “All about him were clubs and sticks, as though he had been beaten to death,” Young Hawk recalled. “Only the bones were left. Custer stood still for some time and looked down at the remains.” The detachment also found a dead Sioux warrior on a scaffold. On Custer’s orders they dismantled the scaffold and stripped the corpse, finding a partially healed gunshot wound in the dead man’s back. They threw the body in the river.

On June 23 the Arikaras looked on as the steamboat Far West ferried “cannon” (referring to Gatling guns) back across the river, as Custer thought the gun carriages would only slow down the column; the Indians thought this was a mistake. Officers also detailed three Arikaras to carry mail back to Fort Lincoln. The other Arikaras received five mules to carry their supplies as the command, shifting to attack mode, moved out ahead of its supply train. “Here Gerard told us he wanted us to sing our death songs,” Young Hawk said. “Custer then ordered two groups of scouts to go ahead, one on each side of the river.”

The next day, June 24, the Arikaras and scouts found an abandoned Lakota camp set up around a circular clearing for a sun dance. “The Dakota [Sioux] scouts in Custer’s army said that this meant the enemy knew the Army was coming,” Young Hawk recalled. “In one of the sweat lodges was a long heap or ridge of sand. On this one Red Bear, Red Star and Soldier saw figures drawn, indicating by hoofprints Custer’s men on one side and the Dakota on the other. Between them dead men were drawn lying with their heads toward the Dakotas. The Arikara scouts understood this to mean that the Dakota medicine was too strong for them, and that they would be defeated by the Dakotas.”

Inside another sweat lodge Young Hawk found three stones, each painted red. “This meant in Dakota sign language that the Great Spirit had given them victory, and that if the whites did not come, they would seek them,” Young Hawk explained. They saw other signs, too, that shook their confidence. That may explain why later that day the Arikaras and their Crow scouts “missed” the obvious travois trail that ultimately led to the Little Bighorn. Varnum, their nominal commander, took the blame for the oversight and in 1909 shared his recollections with Walter Mason Camp, the dean of Little Bighorn interviewers: “Custer told me that [Lieutenant Edward S.] Godfrey had reported that a trail of a part of the Indians had gone up a branch stream to our left about 10 miles back, and Custer was rather angry that I had let anything get away from me.”

Custer assigned Lieutenant Luther Hare to “assist” Varnum and his Arikaras, and with Hare’s help and Custer’s rebuke fresh on their minds, the Arikaras had no trouble finding the travois trail. They and their attached Crows followed it about 10 miles that afternoon before stopping to make camp.


That night Custer summoned Red Star and five other Arikaras to his headquarters tent, around which the officers had clustered. Gerard gave them their instructions: “Long Hair wants to tell you that tonight you shall go without sleep. You are to go on ahead. You are to try to locate the Sioux camp. You are to do your best to find this camp. Travel all night. When day comes, if you have not found the Sioux camp, keep on going until noon. If your search is useless by this time, you are to come back to camp. These Crow Indians [known to the Arikaras as Big Belly, Strikes Enemy, Comes Leading and Curly Head] will be your guides, for they know the country.” White scout Charley Reynolds accompanied the Indians, as did Mitch Bouyer, a half-blood French-Sioux with a Crow wife who served as an interpreter. The party headed out and soon reached an overlook familiar to the Crows and later dubbed the Crow’s Nest.

“I saw two of the Crow scouts climbing up on the highest peak of the hill,” Red Star recalled. “I heard the Crows call like an owl, not loud but clear.” Returning to the group, the Crows warned the Arikaras not to sing a traditional song that meant an enemy was in sight. “Then all the scouts climbed up the peak to look for signs of the Dakotas,” Red Star continued. Crooked Horn, an older Arikara warrior, told Red Star, “Look sharp, my boy, you have better eyes than I.” Red Star saw a dark object and light smoke rising from what he assumed was the Lakota village. Reynolds scanned the horizon with his field glasses, scrawled out a note and gave it to Crooked Horn. He in turn handed the note to Red Star and sent him and another Arikara back to the soldiers’ main camp, marked by rising smoke in the opposite direction.

When Red Star reached Custer’s encampment, a fellow Arikara named Stabbed greeted him: “My son, this is no small thing you have done.” The Custer brothers, Bloody Knife and Gerard clustered around as George read Reynolds’ note. Custer then mounted up and headed for the overlook to see for himself.

When the party reached the hill, Custer at first claimed he couldn’t see the village. Reynolds then handed the colonel his field glasses, and a moment later Custer nodded. The Arikaras and Crows told Custer that while Red Star was relaying the message, they had seen six Sioux scouts, who seemed well aware of the soldiers’ presence. Custer brushed off the suggestion. “These Sioux we have seen at the foot of the hill, two going one way and four the other, are good scouts,” Big Belly, one of the Crow scouts, insisted. “They have seen the smoke of our camp.”

“I say again we have not been seen!” Custer snapped back. “That camp has not seen us. I am going ahead to carry out what I think. I want to wait until it is dark, and then we will march. We will place our army around the Sioux camp.”

“That plan is bad,” Big Belly replied bluntly. “It should not be carried out.”

“I have said what I propose to do,” the colonel said curtly. “I want to wait until it is dark and then go ahead with my plan.” Custer then rode back down to rejoin his command.

Circumstances soon forced him to reconsider. In his absence Sergeant William Curtis had turned back along the trail to recover a box of hardtack inadvertently left behind and had encountered several Sioux. After exchanging shots, the Sioux rode off. Ironically, the warriors Curtis saw wouldn’t make it back to the Indian village until after the battle. But Custer decided to strike first. He instructed the Arikaras, through Gerard: “Boys, I want you to take the horses away from the Sioux camp. Make up your minds to go straight to their camp and capture their horses. Boys, you are going to have a hard day. You must keep up your courage. You will get experience today.”


The company of Arikaras, by then at the head of the column, joined in the general charge toward the village and its horse herd. Encountering a lone burial tepee, they rode around it, slapping its sides with their quirts and slashing it open: Even a coup on a dead Lakota was worth something. Custer and Gerard soon caught up, and through Gerard the angry colonel said: “I told you to dash on and stop for nothing. You have disobeyed me. Move to one side and let the soldiers pass you in the charge. If any man of you is not brave, I will take away his weapons and make a woman of him.” Red Bear recalled what a fellow Arikara shouted back to Gerard: “Tell him if he does the same to all his white soldiers who are not so brave as we are, it will take him a very long time indeed.” The Arikaras laughed at the gibe and rushed into the brewing fight. Six or eight of them split off to rush the Sioux pony herd from two different directions. After cutting out a group of horses, they fired wildly on the Lakota village and then spent much of the day eluding angry Sioux warriors.

About half of the Arikaras stuck with Bob-tailed Bull, their war chief, and Bloody Knife, who had accompanied Major Marcus Reno and three companies of white soldiers. Young Hawk was with the Arikara company, as were two Crow scouts, on the left flank of Reno’s companies as they advanced on the village. Bob-tailed Bull was nearest to the opposing Sioux when they moved to flank Reno’s left, defending their village in overwhelming numbers.

“All at once over the middle of the ridge came riding a dense swarm of Dakotas in one mass straight toward Bob-tailed Bull,” Young Hawk recalled. At that moment a white soldier beside Young Hawk turned and shouted, “John, you go!” apparently advising the young Arikara to run for it. The attacking Sioux bore down on the Arikaras, and men started to flee back across the river. The Arikaras claimed the other soldiers were the first to run. In the midst of the melee Bloody Knife had taken a Sioux bullet to the head, and his brains and blood splattered Reno’s face, adding to the major’s dismay over a very bad situation.

As they crossed the river, several Arikaras got separated from the command and sought cover in a grove of trees. Among them was Young Hawk, who resolved to die fighting after his cousin Goose was severely wounded and lost his horse to Sioux bullets. After propping up Goose against a tree, Young Hawk helped Crow scout Half-Yellow-Face drag Strikes the Enemy, a wounded fellow Crow, into the shelter of the grove.

“The sight of the wounded men gave me queer feelings,” Young Hawk remembered. “I did not want to see them mutilated, so I decided to get killed myself at the edge of the timber. Before going out, I put my arms about my horse’s neck, saying, ‘I love you.’ I then crawled out and stood up and saw all in front of me Sioux warriors kneeling ready to shoot. I fired at them and received a volley but was not hit. I was determined to try again and get killed.”

Just then he spotted Forked Horn, an experienced Arikara warrior, who was firing from behind a cluster of driftwood. “Don’t you do so again!” Forked Horn scolded. “It is no way to act. This is not the way to fight at all, to show yourself as a mark.” Heeding the older man’s advice, Young Hawk fought alongside Forked Horn from behind cover. The Sioux set fire to the grass, trying to smoke out the Arikaras, but it was too green. When a Sioux on a gray horse rode into plain sight, Young Hawk fired, missed, then reloaded and fired again, killing the enemy warrior and shouting in triumph. “Some little time after this the Sioux came closer again,” he recalled. “I saw one Sioux coming right toward me, and I drew a fine bead on him and dropped him. Then I jumped up and gave the death call again.”

Young Hawk could hear Sioux women crying out, urging their warriors to kill the Arikaras, but the Sioux fire soon slackened, and their attackers rode off downstream. He and Half-Yellow-Face thought Custer must have struck the village from the other side, so they helped Goose and Strikes the Enemy up on their horses and prepared to leave. Spotting an American flag in the command’s fallback position atop Reno Hill, they rode that way under Sioux fire while Young Hawk waved a white flag to avoid being shot by fellow soldiers. Just outside the skirmish line on Reno Hill a Sioux bullet dropped the horse Young Hawk loved, but the scouts made it into camp. Major Reno told them in sign language that Bob-tailed Bull was dead. Young Hawk, Goose and the 11 other Arikaras who did reach Reno Hill took position alongside their fellow soldiers, firing at their attackers from behind stacked supply boxes. According to Young Hawk, an officer detailed him, four other Arikaras and a white sergeant to ride out at dusk with a message “to the President of the United States, in order that all might know what happened.” But enemy fire kept them pinned down all night.

The next morning, June 26, the firing resumed on all sides and persisted into the afternoon. Amid the din of battle around midday Young Hawk heard a Sioux singing a war song: “Come on, white man, come on if you are brave, we are ready for you.” All at once the firing stopped, and soon, just visible in the distance, the Sioux and Cheyennes gathered in the village to dismantle all of their tepees but five—the burial tepees, as the soldiers later learned. The men atop Reno Hill then watched as the enemy warriors and their families set off toward the Bighorn Mountains.

Late that afternoon the Arikaras saw what they first thought was a party of enemy hunters returning to the village. In fact the approaching party was Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry’s force, which had arrived to relieve the trapped white and Indian soldiers on Reno Hill. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was over.


The Arikaras spent the next day gathering troopers’ bodies for burial and foraging for food. Records show that of the 40- man company of Arikara soldiers, nine had remained at the Powder River camp or at Fort Lincoln. Of the 31 Arikaras in Custer’s command, 22 had followed Reno across the river to attack the massive Sioux and Cheyenne village. Only two were killed. Thirteen made it back across the river to join the defenders atop Reno Hill, while the others apparently just kept riding when things turned dire.

Brought to battle as mercenaries to fight a common enemy, and motivated by the need to feed their families, some Arikaras fought very well—to the death in the case of Bob-tailed Bull and Little Brave, and with suicidal courage in the case of Young Hawk. An equal or larger number lit out the minute the battle turned sour. That the other half proved plausible soldiers was overlooked when the booty was distributed and glory and honors bestowed. By June 28 the Arikara company had reassembled at Fort Lincoln. The Army quietly paid off the survivors and mustered them out of the service.

The Crows got to retain the site of the battlefield within the boundaries of their ample reservation. The Arikaras, though they boasted far more defenders on the firing line atop Reno Hill, resumed life among the Three Affiliated Tribes along the Missouri River, largely ignored by history until the 1940s. The 1947–53 construction of the Garrison Dam— despite vocal opposition by tribal residents of the Fort Berthold Reservation —forced the relocation of 1,700 tribal members and inundated virtually all of their farmland and several burial grounds. Though the Three Affiliated Tribes remain along the Missouri in North Dakota, many harbor bitter memories of this most recent battle. In the end the Garrison Dam project did the Arikaras far more harm than anything they suffered fighting their traditional enemies for Uncle Sam in 1876.


John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor. Colonel W.A. Graham collected key Arikara narratives in The Custer Myth (1953). Also see the 1920 work The Arikara Narrative of Custer’s Campaign and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, edited by Orin G. Libby.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.