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On the morning of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Stabbed, one of Lt. Col. George Custer's senior scouts, maneuvered his pony through 24 other Arikaras attached to the 7th Cavalry.

"Young men, keep up your courage, don't feel that you are children," he exhorted. "Today will be a hard battle."

Then he took some clay he had brought with him from the Arikara homeland in North Dakota and rubbed it in his hands. One by one, Stabbed called the scouts to him.

"He spat on the clay and then rubbed it on their chests," surviving scouts told historian O.G. Libby in interviews many years later.

It was good medicine to assure strong hearts and protection in a battle the scouts did not expect to win.

The scouts were among the first who plunged into the maelstrom on June 25, 1876, and three of their number fell as troops attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne village spread along the banks of the Little Bighorn.

Bloody Knife, about 39, Custer's close friend and interpreter, was hit with a shot that shattered his head and splattered Maj. Marcus Reno with blood and brains, unnerving the major. Reno, at Custer's orders, had initiated the attack on the village. Bob-tailed Bull, about 45, leader of the Arikara scouts, was felled in a duel with Whirlwind, a Cheyenne warrior. Little Brave, about 26, battled to the death during Reno's retreat across the river and onto the bluffs above.

During the anniversary week of the battle, the National Park Service will dedicate markers commemorating the three Arikara on the Reno Hill portion of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, not far from where they died.

The headstones won't be placed on the exact death sites because they were killed below the hill on what is now private land, battlefield Chief Historian John Doerner said.

Members of the Old Scouts Society, descendents of Custer's Arikara contingent, will recite their families' oral histories in ceremonies Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Tribal elder Rhoda Star, 60, a descendent of Bloody Knife, Young Hawk and Bob-tailed Bull, said the Old Scouts will sing Custer's honor song and the songs of the three scouts.

"The Ree (Arikara) scouts called him brother," she said of Custer. "We have no hard feeling against him like the Sioux and Cheyenne. He was a friend to our tribe. He came to our village, and he would eat with our people.

"It's not written down in books, but in our oral history, that during a very bad winter he and his soldiers brought a wagon of food, clothing and blankets to our village," she said.

In recent years, the Park Service has attempted to identify sites where Indian participants died. Several red granite markers have been placed where historical accounts and stone cairns piled by Sioux and Cheyenne in the aftermath of the battle identify warrior casualties.

But Arikara scouts, who were officially enlisted in the Army for the duration of the campaign, will be remembered on standard white military headstones provided by the Veterans Administration. Their names are also on the 7th Cavalry Monument on Last Stand Hill, Doerner said. Little Brave is listed as a soldier.

By the time the government decided to rein in the Sioux and their allies in 1876, the Arikara were a people under pressure. Most of that pressure was exerted by the Sioux.

Before the first wave of smallpox hit late in the 18th century, the Arikara had been a mighty force on the Missouri. Their population was estimated at 30,000. When Lewis and Clark visited in 1804, they numbered only about 2,600. Even then, the explorers took note of the strained relations between the weakened, agrarian Arikara and the more aggressive, nomadic Sioux.

"The Seaux who trade the goods which they get of the British Traders for their corn and (have) great influence over the Rickeres, poison their minds and keep them in perpetual dread," Capt. William Clark wrote on Oct. 12, 1804.

Tensions waxed and waned as alliances shifted during the next seven decades.

The Arikara, who welcomed Lewis and Clark, became bitter enemies of the Euro-American fur traders who came later. In 1823, the Army took on the Arikara in its first campaign against a Plains Indian nation. Leading the attacking force were 800 to 900 Sioux the Army had recruited as allies.

In the 1860s, with their population decimated and the ever-present danger of Sioux raids, the Arikara joined with the Mandan and Hidatsa for their mutual survival. The tribes are still together on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

As Euro-Americans pushed the Sioux west in the 1860s and 1870s, the Sioux pressed their old rivals, the Crow and Arikara. By 1871, just 1,650 Arikara were counted.

When Custer called for scouts for his expeditions, it wasn't hard to persuade Arikara guides to enlist.

Bloody Knife had nursed a hatred of the Sioux since childhood. The offspring of a Hunkpapa Sioux father and an Arikara mother, Bloody Knife grew up in his father's village. A deep, personal animosity developed between Bloody Knife and Gall, a Hunkpapa boy who became his tormentor.

Bloody Knife returned with his mother to her people as he approached adolescence. They left an infant sister behind in the Hunkpapa camp. When Bloody Knife tried to visit his father and sister a few years later, Gall and his followers beat him nearly to death, stripped him and put him out of the village, according to Star, keeper of the family's oral history.

Later, Gall and his followers killed two of Bloody Knife's brothers, and, in the spring of 1874, just before Custer set out on an expedition to the Black Hills, Bloody Knife's son was killed. Bloody Knife blamed that death on Gall, too, she said.

Custer and Bloody Knife hit it off immediately. Bloody Knife spoke a little English, having worked for white men previously. He could speak Sioux as well as Arikara, and he knew the country.

Custer's wife, Libbie, wrote of Bloody Knife that "He had proved himself such an invaluable scout to the general that they often had long interviews. Seated on the grass, the dogs lying about them, they talked over portions of the country that the general had never seen, the scout drawing excellent maps in the sand with a pointed stick."

In early May 1876, Custer, commander at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., sent out a call for scouts. The 7th Cavalry expected to march out of the fort later that month as the eastern column of a three-pronged offensive aimed at forcing resistant Sioux and Cheyenne onto reservations. Among those still wandering free were Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Bloody Knife's old nemesis, Gall.

Most of the newly recruited scouts signed up as privates for $13 a month, the same pay troopers received. But Custer got Bloody Knife a job with the quartermaster so he would be paid the princely sum of $75 a month, Doerner said.

The scouts rode out of the fort with the troops May 17. On June 22, Gen. Alfred Terry, commander of the expedition, issued his orders from the steamship Far West moored on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of Rosebud Creek. Custer was to march up Rosebud Creek toward the Little Bighorn with all 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry and 35 Indian scouts, among them 25 Arikara.

As they prepared, Fred Girard, a frontiersman and interpreter, told the Arikara to sing their death songs. The trail of the Sioux and Cheyenne had been found.

"Custer had a heart like an Indian," one of the scouts, Red Star, said later. "If we ever left out one thing in our ceremonies, he always suggested it to us. We got on our horses and rode around singing the songs. Then we fell in behind Custer and marched on."

On June 24, a general unease swept through the column as it reached the remains of a huge ceremonial site. Nine days earlier, Sitting Bull had conducted a Sun Dance there. In a vision, he saw soldiers falling upside down into the Indian camp, heralding a great victory for the Indian forces.

The Arikara could read the signs, too. The scouts told Libby many years later that they found a ridge of sand the Sioux had formed in one of the sweat lodges. Figures drawn in the sand showed that the Sioux were confident that the Great Spirit meant them to prevail.

At dinner that night, Custer came to sit with the Arikara. According to the account the scouts relayed to Libbie, Custer told them how much he appreciated their help and that great honors would await them if the battle were won.

By now, they knew the enemy was very near. Custer marched his men through the night, halting at dawn on the morning of June 25 for breakfast.

Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, who survived the siege on the bluffs above the river with the six companies and pack train under Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen, wrote in his famous narrative about Custer's conference with the Arikara scouts that morning. Just before the march resumed, Godfrey wrote, he went to Custer's bivouac and found the commander squatting in a circle with Bloody Knife and the other scouts. Godfrey described the scouts as nervous and disturbed as they talked to Custer, who seemed serious and distracted.

"Finally, Bloody Knife made a remark that recalled the General from his reverie, and he asked in his usual quick, brusque manner, 'What's that he says?' The interpreter replied, 'He says we'll find enough Sioux to keep us fighting for two or three days.' The General smiled and remarked, 'I guess we'll get through them in one day.' "

Just before the battle, Custer divided his command in three parts. He took five companies and assigned three each to Reno and Benteen. The pack train was escorted by the remaining company.

In a move that surprised many, Custer sent the scouts with Reno's battalion. The scouts said Custer ordered them to take as many enemy horses as they could once the attack began.

The charge on the village was a disaster. The scouts rode toward the pony herd, but warriors in the camp responded quickly and fired into the invading horde. Reno dismounted the troops.

Soon after, Reno decided to abandon his position and retreat to high bluffs across the river. As the troops mounted up, Bloody Knife stood next to the major. That's when a bullet exploded his skull. The troops retreated pell-mell across the river and onto the bluffs.

Bob-tailed Bull and Little Brave managed to cross the river.

Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior, described what may have been Little Brave's death.

"I and some others went around and got behind him. We dismounted and crept toward him. As we came close up to him he fell. A bullet had hit him. He raised himself up, though, and swung his rifle around at us. We rushed upon him. I crashed a blow of my rifle barrel upon his head. Others beat and stabbed him to death. I got also his gun."

The Cheyenne warrior appeared to have witnessed the death of Bob-tailed Bull, too.

"Whirlwind, a Cheyenne, charged after a war-bonnet Indian belonging with the whites," he said. "The enemy Indian bravely charged also toward Whirlwind. The two men fired rifles at the same moment. Both of them fell dead."

The face-off with Whirlwind is not in the family's oral history, Star said. She added that the Arikara didn't wear war bonnets into battle.

As a coda to the tragedy played out that day, Bloody Knife was beheaded. According to the family's oral history, his head was mounted on a lance and taken to the Hunkpapa circle, where Gall and his followers danced around it.

Gall wasn't the only one who recognized the head with its long, gray hair.

Bloody Knife's little sister, the one left behind years earlier, was in the Hunkpapa camp, too.

Contact Lorna Thackeray at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com or 657-1314.

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