1876: The Choice on the End of a Barrel

Erick Hicks, guest writer

The steady, monotonous drone of iron clanking against rock wafted up the valley toward Tatanka. Ever since gold had been discovered on the Black Hill Reservation, white settlers had arrived in droves to claim their portion of the shiny goddess. Most of the Sioux tribes, including Tatanka’s father’s tribe, were peaceful and tolerated the temporary invasion of their land. Conversely, other Sioux, like his uncle Tatonka Iyotake, continued to resist by planning small raids on the mining camps.
Personally, Tatanka saw nothing wrong with the white-man; he only considered them to be extremely ignorant of his people’s ways. As he slowly stalked the ridge he began to think about the rift that had existed between their cultures for the last two centuries. The Indian Wars, which had raged red hot over the past few decades had finally seemed to subside into a tense peace.
* * *
As Tatanka stepped out of his teepee, located on the outskirts of the village, he took in the windswept prairie and drew in a breath of crisp, clean air. In the pre-dawn, he quickly jogged through the knee-high grass over to the nearby corral. Tatanka traded horses for a living, and it was imperative that he get an early start. The other day, he spotted a new settler move on a plot of land just outside the reservation and he had a logical hunch that he would be needing strong, new stock.
After tying up three of his best specimens, Tatanka walked briskly over to his own horse. Iktomi, a golden-yellow buckskin, had been his companion for six years. The bond he had formed with the stallion over those years gave him the drive to pursue the horse-trading business. The name he had chosen to give the beautiful creature translated as Trickster Spirit, and rightly so.
* * *
As Tatanka rounded the corner, the tiny cottage came into view. The two-bit structure sat in a valley within the shadow of the Black Hills, and a small garden ran along three sides. A barn had been constructed about thirty yards behind with a large corral attached; it seemed to tower over the house.
An uncultured looking man suddenly stepped onto the porch with a lever-action Henry rifle laid carefully in the crook of his arm. “What’re you doin’ here, Injun?” he spat gruffly. “I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble.”
Tatanka pulled on the reins and brought his horse to a halt. “I do not want trouble either,” he replied calmly without breaking eye contact. “I am only here to offer some horses that I have for sale.”
“I know yer type. As soon as I put down this here rifle and invite you in, your tribe’ll surround my home, kill me, and run off with what little I have.”
“Look around. There are no rocks or trees to hide behind. Any threat could be spotted well before it arrived.”
“Ya make a fair point,” he conceded reluctantly. “Come on in.”
Tatanka hopped off his horse and walked it up to the front of the house. As he stepped up onto the porch, the man stuck out his hand. Tentatively, Tatanka accepted the firm handshake and followed him into the shack.
“The name’s Henry Erickson. I apologize if I seemed threatenin’ to you. One can never be too careful out here.”
“It was no trouble, ignorance is a disease that plagues all. My name is Tatanka. Buffalo Bull, in your tongue.”
“I see. Well Buffalo Bull, what’re you askin’ for those three horses out there. Keep in mind that I’ve got very little to trade.”
“It might be easier then, if you tell me what you are willing to offer.”
* * *
After much deliberation, the two agreed that in exchange for two of the three horses, Henry Erickson would give him a Spencer repeating rifle, a Colt Frontier six-shooter, and two pounds of ammunition.
“Thank ya for yer business. These horses will definitely help get things moving around here. You can go ahead and put them back in the barn; my daughter will help you.”
Henry called for his daughter who appeared in the doorway of the second, and only other, room of the house. Tatanka looked up and was immediately starstruck. Standing before him was a girl of about sixteen with wavy, oak-brown hair that came down to mid-back. Her eyes were most vibrant, emerald-green and had an uncanny ability of drawing your attention. A slim figure complimented by porcelain skin brought everything into focus.
* * *
Over the next few months, Tatanka returned to Henry Erickson’s periodically to meet with him and Ruth. After the fourth visit, Henry had told Tatanka that he was a Baptist missionary from northwestern Alabama who had moved up here to try teach the Gospel to the Indians and white miners.
Intrigued by this white-man’s God, Tatanka continued to return with steadily increasing questions. His tribe was not happy that he spent so much time with the missionary; they saw it as abandoning the Great Spirit. He was torn between this new discovery of a God who does not require sacrifices and his culture that was based heavily on the Great Spirit.
These thoughts were still being mulled over in his mind as he walked up the porch into Henry Erickson’s house. As always, Henry greeted him with a firm handshake and a warm smile that was infectious to anyone who saw it. Each of these meetings always by exchanging of information of events on and off the reservation.
“How’re events farin’ on the reservation?”
“Tensions are frayed. Most of my people thought that the miner would be here for a few months and then leave, but villages are springing up all over the reservation. In fact, the United States Army is even getting involved by escorting the shipments and guarding the camps.”
“Have you heard about President Grant’s executive order?”
“Yes, most of the tribes have decided to move off the reservation, including my father’s, but a couple are choosing to stay and make a stand.”
“Word is that Lieutenant Colonel George Custer has mobilized the 7th Calvary regiment to neutralize this threat. Have you decided which group you will join?”
“No, my father wishes for me to go with him, but my uncle, Sitting Bull, has asked me to accompany him and Crazy Horse in their campaign.”
“You’ve got a third option: stay here with us. You could marry my daughter and become my son-in-law.”
Tatanka’s face grew pale in embarrassment; he had never mentioned his interest in Ruth to Henry. The feeling of red-hot embarrassment that coursed through his body was uncomfortable and made him squirm a little. Had Henry mentioned this to Ruth? Did she reciprocate his feelings toward her? All these questions and more flooded his mind.
Henry let out a deep throaty laugh, “It’s okay son, I was a once a seventeen-year-old myself. No young spry, like yourself, visits weekly to see an old Baptist missionary like me. But I know that it’s gettin’ late and this decision is a lot to decide in a few minutes. Promise me that you’ll think it over though.”
* * *
Tatanka did not get the chance to return to Henry with his reply. The whole Lakota nation was in an uproar over the eviction and mass confusion had set in as braves and squaws alike rushed to take sides. Due to the persistence of his cousins, Siha Kangi and Tunweya Luta, he had chosen to stay and fight alongside Tatonka Iyotake, much to his father’s disapproval.
Over ten thousand warriors had answered the call to arms and were now camped along the Little Bighorn River. Scouts had reported that Custer and about six hundred men were camped “in a ravine, some four or five miles from the summit” (Taylor). The information they had received indicated that he was waiting for reinforcements to arrive from Fort Lincoln before commencing the attack (Rankin).
Currently, he was in a war lodge with Tatonka Iyotake, Tashunke-Witke, Siha Kangi, Tunweya Luta, and Nakin Wakana going over extensive strategies for the much anticipated battle. The 7th Calvary regiment was too well protected to mount an attack; they would be forced to wait for them to make the first move. That proposed a problem in of itself: by waiting for the Army to attack, they were risking the chance of being outnumbered by reinforcements.
Suddenly, Chikala Ozuye rushed into the lodge and ran to Tatonka Iyotake, “A patrol just returned and reported that Custer’s forces are crossing the river to the East.”
“Assemble as many warriors as possible. The white-man must be stopped.” Tatonka Iyotake commanded sternly.
As Tatanka stepped out of the lodge he saw thousands of braves grabbing bows, tomahawks, clubs, spears, and even a few rifles frantically trying to prepare for the inevitable onslaught. He rushed over to his own horse that was saddled and waiting. The Colt Frontier was resting in a holster at his hip and the Spencer rifle was tucked securely in a saddle holster.
A long, blood-curdling war cry was sounded and the thundering of thousands of hooves drowned out all thought. Tatanka’s braids streamed straight out behind him as he raced across the grassy knolls. Shots could already be heard echoing from afar.
As he emerged over the last hill, Tatanka was met with a thick cloud of smoke, the distinctive stench of blood, and strewn bodies of humans and horses alike. He reached to his right and deftly pulled the rifle out of its holster. Raising the barrel up, he sighted it and started firing at the sea of blue uniforms.
Soldier after soldier fell and the battle was quickly shifting in their favor. In a matter of minutes, the once army of six hundred became a chaotic group of horsemen. Custer raised his hand and called out an inaudible group of words; slowly the U.S. Calvary started to pull-back into a hasty retreat.
As one, the entire Lakota war party began to flank the fleeing soldiers and completely circumvented them. The braves then began to systematically massacre the remaining soldiers as they struggled helplessly to break through the Indian ranks.
While Tatanka was firing into the throng of horses and men, he remembered Henry Erickson’s offer. He thought about Ruth, what it would be like to be her husband, and for a split second he saw himself raising a family. It was not too late to put down the gun, ride away, and abandon his tribe.
An officer’s uniform caught Tatanka’s eye and he sighted his rifle on the flashes of yellow and blue. All sound was drowned out as he steadied his rifle and lined up the sights. A feeling washed over him that was quite unexpected. Anger did not begin to describe it. It was nothing short of an unbridled, white-hot rage. These white-men were attempting to take his homeland; how could he even consider joining with them.
His finger pulled the trigger and the bullet found its mark. A voice rang out, “‘Custer’s been shot! Colonel Custer is dead!’” (Rankin). He had made his choice, and there was no going back.
Works Cited
Rankin, Charles. Legacy: New Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn. Montana Historical Society Press, 1996. Print.
Taylor, William. With Custer on the Little Bighorn. Viking. Print.
“Battle of the Little Bighorn.” History. www.history.com. 2009. Web. 29 January 2018.
Clark, Linda. “Sioux Treaty of 1868.” National Archives. Revised 23 September 2016.
www.archives.gov. Web. 23 January 2018.
“Historical Events in 1876.” On This Day. www.onthisday.com. n.d. Web. 18 January 2018.