Bruce Brown's 100 Voices...
Eagle Elk's Story of the Battle #2
EAGLE ELK'S STORY OF THE BATTLE
THE SUN was already high and heat shimmered across the valley as a small scouting party rode into the Hunkpapa camp circle at the south end of the village. They had been out for several days, watching the continued retreat of the Gray Fox and his troops to the south, and so approached the camp from the up-river end. Because of throbbing victory drums in the village, buffalo were scarce in the vicinity. The scouts had been seeking game while they kept an eye on the Gray Fox, but, other than a small band of pronghorn up the valley, they had sighted nothing. Their leader, Eagle Elk, guessed the buffalo herds had been frightened away by soldiers somewhere in the country, but now he was anxious to report to the chiefs and let other scouts take over the futile search for game.
Eagle Elk was an Ogalala and, at twenty-five, a veteran warrior and skillful hunter. His prowess as a scout had earned him the reputation of a top specialist. But even he had little inkling that morning that a column of soldiers was approaching the Little Big Horn from the east.
As Eagle Elk and his brother-friend and fellow scout, High Horse, were crossing the Hunkpapa camp circle, people were just beginning to stir around. Judging from prone bodies visible under the walls of the lodges which were raised for freer ventilation, many were still asleep. But one old woman was up and about, cooking meat in an iron kettle. Eagle Elk recognized her as a friend of his grandmother; the two old ladies visited back and forth, and liked to help each other. When Eagle Elk rode near she said something to him, something the sudden swelling of the wind kept him from hearing. He motioned High Horse to slow down and when they stopped the old woman spoke again.
"Attackers are coming!" she said.
"Where are they coming, Grandmother?" Eagle Elk asked. "Grandson, I said attackers are coming!" And she went on stirring her kettle.
"Does she know anything?" High Horse asked.
"I know this old woman," Eagle Elk said. "There's something to what she says, I'm sure of it. I'm going on home to get ready."
High Horse was a Minneconjou. By different routes, the brother-friends headed toward their respective camps.
* * *
STRIPPED, his face carefully painted, mounted on his fastest war pony, a fine roan with a crooked white patch over its left eye, Eagle Elk rode into the fray [Marcus Reno's retreat from the timber]. The Ogalala warrior carried a Winchester repeater that was almost new. Striking out right and left, he knocked soldier after soldier from their saddles. It was as easy as killing buffalo cows. He saw one Sioux wielding a heavy saber, captured from one of the Gray Fox's troopers during the Rosebud fight. [Note: this could be Charging Hawk., who was photographed after the battle with a saber. It was probably the only saber on the battlefield that day, since none of Custer's Seventh carried sabers in this campaign.]
Sometimes a soldier and an Indian would wrestle each other, each trying to dismount the other, like the old Sioux game of "throwing-them-off-their-horses." With much practice, the warriors had every advantage. Even in the water they kept it up. Occasionally the fighting Indian and soldier would go under water, then bubble to the surface, finally go under again.
Eagle Elk killed two or three soldiers who were trying to get across the river. His was one of the better guns, and he used it with telling effect. He stayed out of the water, however, for he was looking for his Minneconjou brother-friend, High Horse. Glancing around, he saw an Arikara scout trying to get through to the river. [Note: see The Tangled Saga of the Unsung Seventh Cavalry Scouts for more info.] A Sioux jumped from his horse onto this Arikara. He had a long knife ready, and when he stood again, it was covered with blood all the way up the blade. Eagle Elk then saw the Sioux was High Horse. He was breathing hard and talking crazily.
"I cut off his neck," he kept saying. "I cut off the neck of that Arikara cur!"
Suddenly a large party of Cheyennes galloped up, chasing a big cavalry horse straight toward High Horse. The Minneconjou reached out and caught the bridle and leaped into the saddle.
Downstream, near the timber, Indians were setting the brush afire to drive out the soldiers hiding there. Racing back that way, Eagle Elk and High Horse saw some Sioux boys shooting arrows at a soldier who dodged around in the burning brush. He seemed to have lost his gun, and was trying to keep from being caught in the flames.
* * *
LOW ON the western slope of the ridge [Calhoun Ridge] a handful of [Custer's] soldiers fighting on foot held out in a shallow ravine. Past them swept a turmoil of mounted Indians and stampeding cavalry horses. Though the afternoon sun was bright, the valley seemed dark as evening from dust and gunsmoke. These soldiers presented a solid phalanx against frontal attack, and Indian sharpshooters could not see them well enough to pick them off.
Eagle Elk and his brother-friend High Horse rode up on the ravine without warning. It was not the best place to choose for a fight, but neither warrior was inclined to turn back. Eagle Elk lashed out with his quirt at High Horse's pony and shouted:
"It's a good day to die! Brave up, brother! Hoka hey!" And the two brother-friends charged straight in. Riding with his knees, Eagle Elk clubbed his rifle and struck at the soldiers with his gun butt. High Horse was slashing right and left with his long knife.
With aimed carbines, two soldiers rushed out at them. Then, when the warriors were almost on top of them, they fired straight up in the air and went down under the Indian ponies' flying hoofs.
Just then three mounted soldiers rode in on the warriors' flank. As his pony reared and wheeled, Eagle Elk struck out at one of the troopers with his gun butt, knocking him from his saddle. The trooper's gun flew out of his hands. High Horse leaped onto another soldier with his knife ready. A shot was fired at point-blank range. The third soldier had fired, but had already gone down in the dust. High Horse and his antagonist were struggling on the ground, rolling around in the dust. Eagle Elk jumped down from his horse and tried to hold him quiet, but the animal reared and jerked on the reins, pulling his owner back. By the time Eagle Elk got back to High Horse, his brother-friend's knife was across the soldier's throat and blood was pumping from the soldier's jugular vein Eagle Elk pulled High Horse away, but he had suddenly gone limp. Blood came out of wounds in his back and chest. He was dead. Eagle Elk's pony jerked away at the smell of death.
Eagle Elk carried High Horse's lifeless body on his back and took it to a hill apart from the field of battle. There Eagle Elk wept freely in his sorrow. Then a fierce anger swept over him. He only wanted to kill many soldiers, then die.
"My brother," he cried, "look back as you go. I am following. Look back and wait for me, for I'll be coming soon." Running back into the fight, Eagle Elk saw four cavalry horses, tied together in fours by their reins, running in a tight circle and rearing and yanking at one another. After getting one loose, Eagle Elk mounted and dashed into the dust cloud that told him where the fighting was thickest. He looked now for soldiers to kill, wanting them to kill him. Cavalry horses were breaking away from their holders, and other warriors were chasing after them. But Eagle Elk wanted no horses now. He only wanted killing. Time after time he rode into a shrinking knot of soldiers, flailing out with his gun butt until none were left standing. He had little idea how many he may have killed-but even that mattered but little, as long as he was killing.
Custer's Fall: The Indian Side of the Story by David Humphreys Miller, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE 1957 p 52 - 54, 107 - 110, 144 - 146
Eagle Elk was a member of the Last Child Society, a military lodge directed by Crazy Horse. The son of Long Whirlwind and Pretty Feather Woman (also known as Good Plume), he was also a cousin of Crazy Horse. Explaining this relationship, Eagle Elk said Crazy Horse "chose to call me 'cousin' [tahansi] from the marriage of his mother," adding, "My father married Crazy Horse's aunt."
* * *
Although not born into the Teton Sioux, David Humphreys Miller was adopted late in life by both Iron Hail and One Bull, and like the other Sioux, Cheyenne and Crow chroniclers in 100 Voices (Ohiyesa, John Stands In Timber, William Bordeaux, Pretty Shield, Bird Horse, George Bird Grinnell), he had unique access to important particpants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, some of whom left no other record, such as White Cow Bull and Drags The Rope.
Miller frequenlty made pastel sketches of the Sioux survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn whom he interviewed. Some of Miller's portraits are exceptionally fine evocations of the historic personalities in their own right, such as his portraits of Lazy White Bull and Old Eagle and Black Elk late in life.
Click here for information of David Humphreys Miller's sources among the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Arikara and Apapaho.
This material was excerpted from Custer's Fall by David Humphreys Miller, and appeared in American Heritage, June 1971.
-- Bruce Brown