Giving voice to a Lakota history

  • Book cover of Lakota Noon


It is hard to convey just how good this book is; it's possibly the best book yet about the famous battle of the Little Bighorn. In Lakota Noon, Gregory F. Michno has gathered approximately 60 Indian narratives and produced a detailed reconstruction of the fighting. Individual warriors tell their stories through a chronological timeline of 10-minute intervals. So far as I know, this is the first time that any scholar has attempted such a compilation. Michno's results should cause historians to reconsider some long-held conclusions about the battle.

Every Western historian with even a passing interest in Custer and the Little Bighorn has known about the Indian accounts. But because the narratives are episodic and impossible to insert with accuracy into time and place, they posed difficulties. Michno notes that Native Americans tended to be excellent observers of what they personally saw and did, but they failed to provide transcribers and interviewers with continuity and context.

Thus, when used by earlier scholars, Indian testimony often consisted of little more than literary seasoning sprinkled into standard military accounts. The latter were viewed as more reliable, in part due to the structural shaping of soldier stories. Of course, the limitations of the military viewpoint are obvious. For the critical last phase of the battle, first-hand military accounts are nonexistent; while for the earlier action, soldier narratives may be tainted by self-interest, factual error or mental trauma.

There are many revelations in Lakota Noon. Michno concludes that Custer faced far fewer warriors than is usually reckoned. Too, the author throws aside old tales that the Indians were aware of the coming attack. Many accounts begin with Indian warriors at rest, and when word of the attack spread throughout the village, the Indian response was slow. From the Indian perspective, victory was a close thing.

The collected stories also reveal remarkable insights into the Native American attitude toward warfare. A Lakota warrior did not just grab a weapon and ride into battle. There were personal preparations to be made - war paint and other decorative items of personal power needed to be applied, a horse rounded up, and a decision made on whether to head directly to the fighting or first secure the safety of one's relatives.

Michno urges caution about citing the value of archaeological evidence recently unearthed. He notes that the site of the Last Stand was combed repeatedly by souvenir hunters over the many decades since 1876, thus destroying much of the original artifact record and matrix. Indian accounts state that warriors frequently picked up soldiers' weapons to fire at retreating cavalrymen. That means artifacts could indicate an Indian or cavalry position, or possibly both.

Lakota Noon features surprises on almost every page, as the victors, for the first time, tell a better and more accurate history than the losers.

The late Gerald Thompson taught history at the University of Toledo in Ohio. A longer version of this review appeared in the spring 1998 issue of Annals of Wyoming, the Wyoming History Journal, based at the Wyoming State Historical Society, 174OH184 Dell Range Blvd., Cheyenne, WY 82009.

Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat, by Gregory F. Michno. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1997. 336 pages. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $36; paper, $18.