Charles Trimble: After Custer, still fighting battles
In only a few weeks the Sioux national holiday will be upon us – June 25th. It will be the 133rd anniversary of the hot day in 1876 when Col. George Armstrong Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry detachment with him were laid low by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn. We Sioux had able help, of course, from good friends and loyal allies of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations.

I will unfurl my Oglala Nation flag, as I do on that day every year and it will fly in powerful splendor on my front porch. And as I anticipate that glorious day I was inspired to compose a poem in the Limerick genre. With great humility (much deserved, I’m told) I present this ode for publication and as a treasure for Lakota and all Indian Country posterity.
A Colonel by the name of George Custer,
With all the troops he could muster,
Rode down on the Sioux
And got himself slew;
Said Crazy Horse, “Serves you right, Buster!”

That battle – which was not a “massacre,” as some historians still call it – is still discussed and studied as to how and why the great Civil War hero Custer took such a shellacking at the hands of a bunch of “savages.” One noted historian summed it up well: “It’s simple, Custer was at the wrong place at the right time and got his butt kicked.” When the Lakotas rode into the bluecoat ranks shouting their battle cry, “It’s a great day to die,” they meant that for the cavalry: “It’s a great day for YOU to die.”

I recall a book that came out in paperback in the 1960s called “The Indians Won,” by Martin Cruz Smith, who went on to write several best sellers. He tells of Indian Country nationwide being greatly inspired by the Custer battle, and starts on the premise that the Lakota and Cheyenne had not broken up into traditional hunting bands that winter. Financed by a group of European investors, who were resentful of rising U.S. influence, the united tribal front was supplied with weapons, canned foods, and blankets. Secure in their unity, they stayed together to meet and defeat avenging waves of U.S. troops.

With the world’s attention on them, the Sioux/Cheyenne/Arapaho forces appealed to tribes throughout the country, which brought together a massive united front, forcing the U.S. to sue for peace -- on the Indians’ terms. This leads to the founding of an Indian nation on the Great Plains, the entire center of the U.S. from Mexico to Canada. The United Indian nation had urban industrial and economic centers, but maintained the rest of their country free of development for their traditional lifeways. Ultimately they developed “the Bomb,” and used it effectively as a deterrent.

That’s the gist of the story as far as I can recall it after more than thirty years. It was a fun read, but didn’t cause a great stir in Indian Country, and, fortunately or unfortunately, wasn’t used as a template by AIM. It’s an interesting concept that brings up the question of why Indian tribes or nations have not united more, outside of intertribal political organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians.

In 1993, as President of the Nebraska State Historical Society, I participated in the dedication of a monument marking the site of the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851 in far western Nebraska. That Treaty is better known to us as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, but it happened some thirty miles from the Fort because it was anticipated that the event would attract Native peoples by the thousands from many tribes. And it was feared that in the weeks it would take to negotiate a treaty, the grasses around the fort would be denuded by the thousands of Indian horses. Thus it was moved to Horse Creek inside the Nebraska border.

As we awaited the dedication ceremony to begin, I scanned the valley where the tribes had been camped, and in my mind I visualized the multitude of tipis that reportedly stretched for more than a mile down the valley, and the thousands of horses that grazed over the hillsides. At the beginning of the dedication ceremony I told of my thoughts that if there had been one person among the camps who could have united the chiefs of the various tribes, we would not be there dedicating a monument, for the tribes would still own all that land. I got a few chuckles from the audience, but I knew that some of the historians in the bunch understood how true that would have been, and there were no laughs from them.

A good account of the 1851 gathering was given in the book, “Centennial,” by James A. Michener. Included is an excellent description of the various tribes as they arrived at the camp and showed off their skills at horsemanship and dress before settling into their assigned areas. It tells of Cavalry forces having to restrain the Sioux from attacking the Shoshoni as they arrived, and other potential inter-tribal disputes as they awaited the long days for the treaty goods to arrive. This describes the proud autonomy and fierce independence of the sovereign nations that helped the separate tribes survive and flourish from time immemorial. And it shows how we Native peoples still see ourselves. But it also shows why the Sioux/Cheyenne/Arapaho alliance was not continued to greater and greater victories following their great victory at Little Big Horn.

But we do have unity in the matter of national issues. Organizations like the NCAI represent the consensus of the tribes who are its members. It does not speak for the tribes, but relays in the most appropriate forums and with the most effective media the consensus of the tribal nations, arrived at in convention assembled. On the regional levels we have organizations such as the United Sioux Tribes, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, and others working to provide a unified voice for their member tribes.

All these organizations are valid, and are the creation of the tribes they represent. It shouldn’t matter what we think of those organizations personally. If we dislike what they are doing, we must take part to correct it, not work to destroy the organizations. They represent our only united front that we should have had in 1851.

Back to Custer and the so-called Indian Wars. In discussions about the history of Indian-white relations, some people I know hereabouts resort to the rationale “It’s simple; we fought a war and you Indians lost. Nobody stole your lands. We won it fair and square.” The answer, of course, is that the war isn’t over, and they haven’t won anything fair and square. There is still much to do in protecting our homelands and the sovereign tribal nations that own those lands and manage them.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at or at

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