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Students tour Little Bighorn Battlefield

West High School students examine artifacts in the museum at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument during bus tour of Native American sites on Tuesday.

Custer’s last stand has been the subject of dozens of books, movies, or TV specials that focus on the “Boy General” and his flowing locks.

For Walter Runsabove, they miss a big chunk of the story.

“These are things that you’re not going to see in the movies, you’re not going to see in the history books,” he told a group of West High students Tuesday as a bus rumbled down the Elk River valley — the Cheyenne name for the Yellowstone River.

Runsabove led a field trip for English and Montana history students to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations, including a stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

“I’ve done so many surveys of kids. They will say, 'Yeah, I’ve been to the battlefield,'” said Jacie Jeffers, an Indian Education Coach for Billings Public Schools. “Coming from (the Northern Cheyenne) side of it, they get another perspective.”

The Northern Cheyenne were allies of the Sioux, whose leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, are often recognized for the victory over Custer’s 7th Calvary. The Crow, hoping to protect their lands from Sioux and Northern Cheyenne encroachment as white expansion pushed tribes West, allied with the U.S. Army and scouted for Custer.

As the bus traveled east from Billings, Runsabove said that Pompey’s Pillar — so dubbed by William Clark — was a common area for fasting and vision quests.

Turning south, past Colstrip, Runsabove talked about how Dog Soldiers, a branch of Northern Cheyenne warriors who operated in small groups, tracked the movements of Custer’s army.

The students stopped at Custer’s Last Camp, a roadside marker between Colstrip and Lame Deer showing the U.S. Army’s last major camp before the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Medicine Deer Rocks, a site further south, is where Sitting Bull had a vision of victory in the battle to come, which bore out at Little Bighorn. It’s near the location of a historic Sun Dance around the same time.

There’s no historical marker.

Battlefield

The battle was the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Army in the Plains Indian Wars. Historians have extensively analyzed Custer’s actions, and many have picked out mistakes — splitting his troops, not listening to his Native American scouts, and being generally arrogant.

Runsabove believes that's true, but also that there's a simpler root explanation: “his fate brought him here.”

Many historians believe that Custer began to have sex with a Cheyenne woman captured after the “Battle of Washita,” where Custer and the 7th Calvary attacked a Cheyenne village on reservation soil that had been guaranteed safety by a different military commander, killing 103 people.

The woman, Meotzi, was pregnant when captured, and soon had a child. Custer had a months-long sexual relationship with her.

Rocky Mountain College history professor Tim Lehman discussed the relationship in his book, “Bloodshed at the Little Big Horn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations.”

“The relationship almost certainly began with Custer exploiting her as an object of his sexual desire. This was not unusual (for officers),” he wrote.

Runsabove told the students that Custer took a Cheyenne wife. Lehman argues that it’s unlikely that Custer viewed it that way, but likely that the Cheyenne did.

“The sexual union of a white leader and a native woman might represent the coming together of the two peoples in a kinship relationship. Cheyenne sources suggest that Meotzi came to think of her connection to Custer in this way. … At least some Cheyenne thought of Custer as a member of their extended family.”

Runsabove also said that Custer had a child with the woman, something found in several Cheyenne oral histories. However, other historians believe that Custer was sterile as the result of gonorrhea treatment while a student at West Point, and that if Meotzi had another child, it might have been fathered by Custer’s brother.

Regardless, while Runsabove can point out to students where in the battlefield fighting occurred, and where he and his own family have ridden horses tracing those movements, he believes Custer was riding to his doom as soon has he decided to attack, in the view of the Cheyenne, his own family.

The 30-minute video at the battlefield museum doesn't tell that story.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.