Indianz.Com > News > Auction under fire for sale of items from Battle of Little Bighorn
Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull is seen in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, around 1883. Photo by David F. Barry
‘I have the gun that killed Custer’
Auction under fire for sale of items from Battle of Little Bighorn
Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The chief wanted peace.

Sitting Bull called on his nephew, One Bull, to take another Lakota warrior, Good Bear Boy, and try to parley with the soldiers gathered near the Little Bighorn River.

Just then, a shot fired from the soldiers struck a nearby warrior in the head, killing him.

“Go kill them all,” the chief told the two warriors.

One Bull and Good Bear Boy rode out of the village with three other warriors and caught up to some of the retreating soldiers. A soldier shot and killed one of the warriors, and Good Bear Boy was shot through his legs and fell off his horse.

One Bull caught up to the injured man, got off his horse and put Good Bear Boy on the horse, then rode away as bullets flew around them. He returned Good Bear Boy to the village before riding back to the battle. There, he met Sitting Bull, who saw the blood on the warrior and told him to return to the village.

“No, this blood is from my friend Good Bear Boy,” One Bull told the chief.

Sitting Bull Memorial
A memorial to Sitting Bull sits along the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Photo: Daniel Lillis

This story of friendship during the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of hundreds told by a South Dakota gun collector who plans to sell his collection of rifles, revolvers and Native cultural items during an auction being held January 19-21 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Guns of History Auction features more than 330 items, much of which were gathered by Native warriors after famous battles such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the associated Battle of the Rosebud in Montana.

Wendell Grangaard spent years collecting the weapons and cultural items, as well as the stories associated with those items. Now he plans to sell his collection.

“For 60 years I’ve gathered oral and written histories for the many hundreds of items that I have collected,” he said in a news release. “The pieces and their histories are authenticated! General Custer carried a pair of nickel plated .455 caliber Webley Bulldog revolvers into the battle. I have these. I have the gun that killed Custer. I have the guns owned and used by Crazy Horse. Everything sells at the auction! There’s no other collection like mine on the planet.”

Some of the more notable items in Grangaard’s collection include Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s revolver, as well as two of his rifles, and weapons once owned by Native chiefs, including Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Gall and Crazy Horse.

Each item up for sale includes historical documents and stories detailing its origins gathered by Grangaard, who is the author of “Documenting the Weapons Used at the Little Bighorn.”

The auction, however, has generated controversy among some.

“Each of one of those is of incredible importance. Each one,” said Manape LaMere a Dakota activist from Sioux City, Iowa. “Some of those things are spiritual items that should be returned, but some of those artifacts should not be touched by Indian Country at all, especially the bugle.”

The auction features two bugles gathered at the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Native warriors.

In a description of one of the bugles, Grangaard relates his own belief that Sitting Bull told his warriors that they should not take anything from the battlefield because of a vision he had had that told him that “no spoils of the battle were to be taken.”

In a post LaMere made on Facebook last week, several people questioned why tribes couldn’t stop Grangaard from selling items that might be considered sacred to Native people, including medicine pipes.

LaMere said because those items appear to have been sold by Native people themselves they are likely not attainable through such laws as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which allows for the return of certain human remains, funerary objects, sacred items and objects of cultural patrimony to tribes.

Because the items being sold at the auction were sold privately to collectors, their owner probably isn’t required to return them to tribes, LaMere said.

“There’s a reason it’s not NAGPRA and it revolves around the selling of property and what white people would call ‘fair and square,’” he said. “Quite often, some of these items are actually sold by those family members.”

Also, the history of each object was willingly shared with Grangaard, LaMere said.

“Most of these items would not have a history tied in unless one of our relatives spoke for that,” he said.

He said even a recent federal law passed by Congress, the Safeguard Tribal Object Act, likely wouldn’t affect sales of the weapons and cultural items. That act focuses on stopping the export of objects of cultural value to tribes.

But LaMere said tribal historic preservation officers might consider attempting to file injunctions to stop the sale of certain objects that have cultural or historical importance to a specific tribe itself.

Still, others question the very authenticity of the items being sold at the Guns of History Auction.

Mark Miller, who has spent more than 30 years collecting and researching antique axes and tomahawks, said he questions the means Grangaard has used to authenticate his collection.

In the descriptions for the auction items, Grangaard relies on a pictographic language, which he says was once used by tribal people of the Great Plains, to authenticate the weapons in his collection. He calls the language “togia” and says he was taught this language by Benjamin Black Elk, the son of Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota holy man and subject of the novel “Black Elk Speaks.”

Benjamin Black Elk died in 1972, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Grangaard began using the ancient language of symbols to authenticate his collection, Miller said.

Miller said he’s never heard of “togia” and said it is convenient that Grangaard is the only person alive who seems to have heard of it or understands it.

In the descriptions for most of the items for sale in the Guns of History Auction, Grangaard includes photos of the weapons and shows the places on the weapons that he claims the togia symbols were etched.

“They just look like scratch marks and normal wear-and-tear to me,” Miller said.

In 2014, an auction house sold an axe that Grangaard had supposedly determined had been used by famed Lakota warrior He Dog, who was a friend to Crazy Horse, for $2,300. Miller said the axe was clearly African Songe axe, not the kind of axe a Lakota warrior would have used.

And Miller said at least one of the items listed for sale in the Guns of History Auction, a supposed Hudson Bay dagger, isn’t genuine.

“Hudson Bay daggers never looked like that,” he said. “He’s authenticating some items that are not even antique as from Little Bighorn or reproductions that were artificially aged.”

Grangaard couldn’t be reached for comment.

Brian Lovig of Lovig Auction Group, the auction house that plans to sell Grangaard’s collection, said his firm conducted background research of Grangaard and interviewed previous buyers of his collection and also took several guns to appraisal firms and gun stores to be evaluated.

“There is no evidence that any of the guns or artifacts are not authentic,” he said. “Appraisal people all agreed that all the items are legitimate.”

He said Grangaard has spent the past 60 years collecting firearms and artifacts on the open market and from Native people in an effort to preserve Native history.

“He has authenticated firearms and artifacts in a variety of ways including interviews with tribe members and families of selected individuals,” Lovig said. “Wendell has been able to translate the language of Togia which allowed him to learn and document stories inscribed on guns and other items. His research is available on the auction website for nearly every item being offered for sale.”

“The items in the auction are a testament to the bravery and influence of the Tribes and our intent is to present the items to potential buyers accordingly.”

Miller questioned why the Lovig Auction Group didn’t explain to buyers how it sought to authenticate Grangaard’s collection in its promotional materials for the auction. He said most of the major auctioneers that specialize in selling antique guns or items with historical significance to tribes have shied away from Grangaard in recent years.

“I imagine that is due to some of the controversies I mentioned that have become more obvious,” he said. “I am surprised to hear there is a whole auction still selling them.”

He said avid collectors of weapons and items associated with tribal peoples want desperately to believe the items they are considering purchasing are genuine.

“When you’re a collector, you can talk yourself into things.”