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100 Voices: Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Arikara and American Eye-witness accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Lights' Story of the Battle
A Minneconjou Sioux's account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

From an interview with Sewell B. Weston in June 1909.1



Minneconjou Sioux war chief Spotted ElkQ. Name and age and to what tribe of Sioux did you belong?

A. Light (Cragre), or Runs after the Clouds (Mahpiyah Luwa Isaye [Chases Red Clouds]), 56 years. Minneconjou.

Q. What chief did he fight under?

A. Spotted Elk. (He was under several. Spotted Elk was his main chief.)2

Q. Were you in the fight against Crook on the Rosebud a week before the Custer fight?

A. Was in the fight with Crook on the Rosebud.

Q. How many days were you in the village before the fight with Custer?

A. Four or Five days.

Q. How long before the fight was it learned that soldiers were coming?

A. Short time before the arrival of soldiers, some Indians that were out returned and reported seeing clouds of dust northeast and east. They were not in camp long before Custer and his men appeared.

Q. Did the Indians suppose that it was Crook or Custer that was coming?

A. Did not know who it was.

Q. Where did the fight with Reno first begin? At what tepees?

A. With the Uncpapas. (Sitting Bull tepees.)

Q. What chief or chiefs or what tribes went out to Reno's fight?

A. Sitting Bull's outfit and some stragglers from other tepees. Could not state who led the Indians.

Q. How long did Reno's battle last? Take note of any incidents of this battle.

A. Fight started about 9:30 A.M. [and] lasted nearly until noon. This witness had a comrade who was shot in the head south of the high ridge. He stopped there to look after his friend. (This must have happened in front of Reno's skirmish line -- WMC.)

Q. In Reno's fight did any of the Indians cross the river to try to cut him off?

A. No one got ahead of Reno in his retreat. Lights was well in front when his comrade was shot. He did not proceed any farther than stated in the previous question.

Q. After the fight at "R", was there confusion in the village among the squaws and children, and did any of them prepare to leave the village?

A. Yes, considerable confusion. Excitement was intense. Women and children scattered down the stream and up in the hills.

Q. Where did the soldiers next appear -- to the east or to the north?

A. They were first seen at a point near "E" [NyeCartwright Ridge].

Q. When these soldiers appeared were there any Indians on that side of the river, and what was their purpose in being there?

A. None that he knows of.3

Q. If Custer came to Ford "B", were his men mounted or on foot?

A. They all appeared to be dismounted. They got to within a quarter of a mile of "B" [river]. That was as near as they ever got to the river.4

Q. Did they get to the river?

A. See previous question.

Q. If Custer came to the ford, was he driven off by the Indians in great force?

A. See previous answer. The Indians were swarming out of their tepees in such great numbers that he [Custer] appeared to be looking out for the safety of his men more than he did for a chance to cross the river at some other point than at "B". (That is to say, Custer hesitated when he saw the odds against him -- WMC.)

Q. If Custer's men went from Ford "B" to "C" [bluff], did they go in one body or in two divisions?

A. They were in company formation and apparently in good order.

Q. Was there fighting between "B" and "C"?

A. Yes, there was a continual fight from where Custer first stopped back to "C"-not very vigorous, but shooting was indulged in by both soldiers and warriors.

Q. Where did the Indians cross the stream to attack Custer?

A. At any place where they could find a convenient and safe crossing.

Q. (Important!) When Custer got to "C" did his men all go on to "D" in a body, or did they split up and part go to "H" and part to "D" [Instructions given to interviewer by Walter M. Camp] Try to draw him out definitely on this point.

A. All went from "C" [bluff] to "D" [Calhoun Hill]. (The witness was very positive on this point as he was just to the northeast of "C" and had a good command of the entire ridge between the two points mentioned.)

Q. Were there Indians on the long ridge (between "D" and "G") ahead of Custer, or when he got there, were all of the Indians behind him?

A. There were none in front. At "C" [bluff] they were on both sides of him.

Q. Were all of the Indians of the village, that is, all of the warriors, were they all against Custer? Or did some large number remain in the river bottom at "R", where the fight first started?

A. He does not know of any warrors being at "R". Thinks they were all out against Custer.

Q. Did any of the men make a stand and fight hard at "C" or at "D" or at "K", or was there only one firm stand, and that at "G"?

A. He is not very positive about any stand being made at "K" [Keogh's stand]. If there was a stand made it was short. The only stand of any great length was at "G" [Custer Hill]. At "C" [bluff] and "D" [Calhoun Hill] the soldiers were moving.

Q. The men killed between "C" and "D", between "D" and "K", and between "K" and "G", were they mounted or on foot, and were they making a stand or killed running?

A. They were mostly] all mounted. The soldiers who were afoot either had their horses shot or were stampeded. [The soldiers were] killed fighting [and] did not seem to be running away, only giving ground by reason of superior numbers.

Q. The men killed between "G" and "H" -- were they killed in fighting their way from "H" up toward "G", at the start of the fight, or in running from "G" toward the river at the last part of the fight?

A. [They] were fighting from "G" [Custer Hill] to "H" [Deep Ravine] at last of fight.

Q. In the last stand at "G" did the soldiers all fight to the last, or did some try to break away and escape?

A. Some of them tried to getaway by jumping over the high banks at places between "G" and "H".

Q. At what part of the battlefield were you stationed?

A. This witness went around the north and west side of the long ridge, to a point west of "G", being nearer to "G" than to "H". The fighting was a little too warm for him there, and he moved down nearer to "H" and was there at the finish. It was at this latter place that he saw a few of the soldiers jump over the banks.'

Q. One company had gray horses. What was seen of them in the fight?

A. One company had gray horses. In the retreat around to about "K" they were in the fighting front. At that point they were mixed up with the other horses. At this point the companies would alternate in covering the retreat of the others. (First one squad and then another would try to cover the retreat -- WMC.)

Q. Did the soldiers charge at the Indians, and at what points?

A. The soldiers never made a charge.

Q. Did any of the soldiers leave their horses to fight on foot, and where was this done?

A. No, the soldiers who were mounted kept their horses until it was shot from under him, stampeded or taken away by the warriors.

Q. Were many of the horses captured alive, and was there much ammunition found in the saddles?

A. Yes, many were caught, [and] all had plenty of ammunition in the saddles.

Q. Were any of the horses taken early in the fight?

A. Yes, some were caught early in the fight, [but] many were wounded however.

Q. Did the Indians hold the top of the long ridge between "D" and "G" during the whole fight?

A. Yes, the warriors kept the long ridge all through the fight, i.e., they kept the soldiers on the top of the ridge.6

Q. How long did the fight last, and where did the soldiers fight the hardest?

A. Witness states that after the fight with Custer he went back to camp and caught another horse and went after Reno. The sun was still up. Witness had no idea as to time measured by minutes and hours.

Q. At the end of the long ridge, at "G", was the fighting at close quarters?

A. Yes, near enough to look each other in the eyes. Between "G" [Custer Hill] and "H" [Deep Ravine] the warriors were taking the guns away from the soldiers. Also, the soldiers, in running away, became so demoralized that they would fire in the air, making them easy victims when they were caught. (Presumably they had fired and [had] not stopped to load -- WMC.)7

Q. Custer and 50 men were killed at "G", all on the side of the hill. Why were no soldiers killed on top of the ridge, where the monument [now] stands?

A. Witness states that many of the soldiers were killed on the top of the ridge where the monument stands. Those killed on the side of the ridge were trying to make their escape.

Q. At what part of the field did any soldiers try to get away, and how far did they get?

A. Soldiers tried to get away when they reached "G" [Custer Hill]. There was one who tried to get away by going north at "K" [Keogh's stand], [but] he did not get very far.8

Q. Did any of the soldiers escape to the river?

A. None that the witness personally knows of. Hearsay: one soldier was found some days after[wards] and many miles away. Wounded, he had been subsisting on raw frogs and some were found in his pockets after he was killed. Hearsay: the body of man wearing a buckskin suit and who resembled Tom Custer was first found about a quarter of a mile west of the ridge marked "C" [bluff] and who was afterward carried up and placed at "G" [Custer Hill].9

Q. Eighteen men could not be found. Could it have been that these men got considerable distance from the battlefield before being killed? [Note: actually, the bodies of 19 Americans were never found, if you include Mitch Bouyer, head scout and interpreter for the Crows.]

A. Does not know of any getting away.

Q. Were any of the wounded soldiers alive after the battle, and what was done with them? Who killed them-the squaws or the warriors?

A. Does not know of any. Saw squaws going up to where soldiers lay, [and] he supposed [they went] to strip them.

Q. Were any soldiers taken to the village alive?

A. No, none were taken to the village.

Q. Why were none of the soldiers around Custer (at "G") scalped?

A. Did not care to scalp any as they all had short hair. Did not know Custer or his brother from anyone else.

Q. Was Custer (Long Hair) recognized during the fight or afterward?

A. Custer was not recognized.

Q. Was Tom Custer (Little Hair) recognized during the fight or after he was dead?

A. Tom Custer was not recognized.

Q. Was any scout recognized during the fight or after he was dead?

A. Did not know of any scout being recognized.

Q. How many Indians were killed or wounded?

A. Could not state how many were killed. Quite a number were wounded.

Q. How soon after the Custer battle did the Indians leave to attack the soldiers (Reno) on the bluff?

A. Right after the fight with Custer.

Q. Why were the Indians unable to kill Reno and his soldiers like they did to Custer's men?

A. An Indian courier came from down the river [and] brought news that Crook [Gen. Alfred H. Terry] was coming, and they made haste to get away.

Q. Was there any quarreling between Sitting Bull and Gall or any other chiefs during the night after the battle, and what about?

A. Never heard of any quarrel.

Q. Why were 30 dead Indians left in the village when the Indians left?

A. Heard that other soldiers were coming and did not take time to bury them.

Q. Who was the chief of [a:] the Blackfeet in the fight? Of [b:] the Minneconjous? Who was chief of [c:] the Sans Arcs (without a bow)? Who was chief of [d:] the Brule warriors?

A. A: did not know; b: Lame Deer and Spotted Elk; c: Spotted Eagle; d: Brules had no chief; they were a hunting party who fell in with this outfit at this point.

Q. Was American Horse, afterward killed at Slim Buttes, there and with what tribe?

A. American Horse was not there.

Q. When the Sioux fought Crook, where was the village? How far from the battle with Crook?

A. On the Rosebud, or rather a branch. [We] were fighting at long range. Village was about ready to move at the time of the fight.

Q. How many tepees were there in the village of your particular tribe?

A. Witness is not clear about the information on the tepees. There were some Arapahoes, [but] their tepees were scattered among the other bands and among relatives.

Q. Were any men killed in the deep gully at "H" [Deep Ravine]? How many -- just a few or a good many?

A. There were quite a number killed in gully at "H", [but] not so many as at "G" [Custer Hill].

Q. When the soldiers arrived at "G", did many of them have their horses?

A. The most of the soldiers at "G" were afoot.

Q. How long did the battle at "G", last? If a long time, why so long? Did the soldiers there run out of ammunition before the Indians closed in on them?

A. They made a longer stand at "G" [Custer Hill] than at any other place. The warriors had the guns and ammunition of the soldiers at this time and were better equipped to fight. (And so would save their own ammunition -WMC.)

Q. Were there any defects in the guns?

A. No.

Q. Did the cartridges stick in the guns, and when shot off could the jacket be easily removed?

A. The guns were good.

Q. Did the soldiers who ran from "G" [Custer Hill] toward "H" [Deep Ravine] have their guns and ammunition? A. A few had guns, [and] all had revolvers. Some of the men running away had revolvers in their belts that had never been used. All [soldiers] were in bad state for want of water.

Q. Were any of the soldiers seen to commit suicide or to shoot each other when finally surrounded?

A. Did not see anything of that kind.

Richard G. Hardorff's Notes:

1 Lights was a Minneconjou Lakota who was born about 1853. His nickname may have been derived from his formal name which actually translates into Chases Red Clouds, meaning the arrival of daylight. This interview was arranged by Sewell B. Weston at the request of Walter M. Camp, and like the other Weston interviews it was probably conducted through the services of A. G. Shaw of Valentine, Nebraska, who interpreted for a number of pioneer field researchers. The Lights Interview is contained in the Camp Collection, Custer Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service, and it is hereby reproduced with their permission.

2 Spotted Elk was one of four sons born to the Minneconjou leader Lone Horn. Better known as Big Foot, he was slain with some 150 of his followers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. For a classic study of this regrettable affair, see Robert M. Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, (New Haven, 1963).

3 A small party of Cheyennes had left the encampment on a foray against tribal enemies, and on reaching a location east of Custer Hill, near present U.S. Highway 212, their attention was attracted by troops near Medicine Tail Coulee. One of these Cheyennes was Wolf Tooth whose experiences are related by his step-grandson, Stands in Timber, in Cheyenne Memories, pp. 197-98.

4 According to Sioux and Cheyenne sources, the initial opposition confronting Custer on the east bank near the ford may have been less than twenty warriors. See Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes, p. 350; Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 207.

5 The Hunkpapa, Good Voiced Elk, was also near the head of Deep Ravine, and he recalled that "those who broke from [the] end of ridge and tried to get away by running toward the river were dismounted. There was a deep gully without any water in it. I saw many jump over the steep bank into this gully in their effort to escape, but these were all killed. There were probably 25 or 30 of them." See Walter M. Camp Papers, Robert S. Ellison Collection, item 6, Denver Public Library.

6 The geographical limitations of Custer Ridge in 1876 would have prohibited its occupation by troops. Present-day visitors who travel over Custer Ridge do so by means of a blacktop which surface amply facilitates its motorized traffic. Yet, in 1876, this very ridge was a hogback, its top less than three feet wide, which narrow surface did not allow combat deployment and, therefore, it could not have contained firing refuse. It was not until 1934 that a road was laid out. This work required the razing of several hillocks, while at the same time the crest of the ridge was lowered several feet to widen its top. Thus, the fact that the ridge had been a hogback, combined with the disturbance of its top, may explain the lack of any situs artifacts.

7 This erratic behavior by the troops during the final phase of the battle was commented on by a number of informants. Two Minneconjous, One Bull and White Bull, told Walter Camp that those who ran down the ridge had discarded their carbines and used revolvers instead. This statement is corroborated by the Oglala, Bear Lying Down, who asserted further that some of these soldiers were firing in the air, firing wildly without taking aim, acting as if they were intoxicated. However, the Oglala, He Dog, made clear that none of these soldiers were drunk, but he added that some of them had played possum, which was considered a rather foolish thing to do when fighting Indians. See Camp Manuscripts, pp. 126-27, 269, 350, Indiana University Library. Additional information obtained by John G. Neihardt from the Hunkpapa, Iron Hawk, discloses that these soldiers "were so scared they didn't know what they were doing. They were making their arms go as though they were running very fast, but they were only walking. Some of them shot their guns in the air." See Black Elk Speaks, pp. 26-27.

8 The death of this soldier was witnessed by the Cheyenne, Wooden Leg, who claimed that this individual was a suicide. In spite of the alleged reluctance of the Cheyennes to touch such individuals, very little time was lost by one Cheyenne to remove the scalp of this suicide and to display it. See Marquis, Wooden Leg, pp. 233-34. See also McCreight, Firewater and Forked Tongues, p. 114, which may describe the same individual, although in this case the victim was overtaken and killed by Crazy Horse. The location of this kill site is known to battlefield personnel as Marker 174, which site yielded the following artifacts during the survey of 1984: three spent 45/55 casings, one Colt revolver cartridge, one Colt bullet which was vertically impacted into the ground, and one deformed 50/70 slug. Archeologists speculate that this individual was able to defend himself for a short while with his carbine. However, subsequent pressure by the arriving Indians did not allow him time to reload, whereupon he resorted to his revolver. He was apparently shot while drawing his Colt because his convulsive reaction discharged the revolver into the ground. See Scott and Fox, Jr., Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle, p. 124.

9 The statement about the man who ate frogs is corroborated by the Minneconjou, Flying By. See Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 210. In regards to the alleged transfer of Tom Custer's body, it may interest the reader to know that the Cheyennes may have outdone the Sioux with an even more incredible tale. In their case it was told that they had carried General Custer's body from the monument site all the way to Reno Hill, to deliver his remains to the surviving troops. However, having been fired upon by Reno's soldiers, they aborted any further attempts, but they were kind enough to return Custer's body to the location where it was later found! See Marquis, Custer on the Little Bighorn, pp. 17-18.

Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian - Military History, compiled and edited by Richard G. Hardorff, The Arthur Clark Co., Spokane, WA, 1991, p 163 - 174

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