Ghost Dancer - Part 3

Source: North American Indian
Edward S. Curtis (1907)

Ghost Dancer - Part 3

General Custer listens as the Crow scouts describe the scene at Greasy Grass River, and then musters his forces. 

“Varnum, these scouts say they saw the village from this place they call Crow’s Nest. Go there now with them, and look. Send word back. I will follow.” 

The group leaves to make the journey back to the outcropping where Many Eagle Feathers, White Swan, and Curley saw the village below. 

On the morning of the second day, Varnum sends two Arikara scouts ahead.

“Ride past the village,” he instructs them. “See if there are any more to be found.” 

Just after breaking camp that day, Varnum and his scouts come upon something in a large clearing that the scouts understand all too well.

“Built for sun dance,” Curley says, indicating two large circles of brush.

“Here they pray for victory, and make warriors -- many warriors -- ready for battle.” He waves his arms to encompass the two large circles as he speaks.

Unimpressed, Varnum commands, "Move on."

The group rides past the circles and as they enter the trail just beyond, one of the Arikara scouts says, “Look.”

He points to the edge of the trail, where a coup stick is shoved into the ground. The stick is adorned with feathers, and something else.

“Look,” the Arikara says again. “It bears fresh white man's scalp.”

“They pass here with this sun,” Goes Ahead says.

“We must be getting close.” Varnum comments as his spurs his horse forward. “Let’s keep moving.”

It's not long before the party spots smoke drifting toward the sky and they know the village is ahead. They ride closer and when they reach Crow’s Nest, they dismount and look below. There are still not many men to be seen in the large encampment.

Varnum turns to Reynolds. “Ride back and tell General Custer what we’ve seen. Make haste. We'll pull back to the clearing with the circles and wait for orders."

As Varnum’s group heads back to the clearing, they are joined by the two returning Arikara scouts.

“Well, did you find anything?” Varnum demands.

“No warriors,” one scout replies. “But many horses. 1,000 horses.”


The scouts are surprised when the white leader arrives at the clearing with a much smaller group of soldiers than they had left at Yellowstone River.  They stand listening as Custer and the white officers kneel on the ground around a hand-drawn map, discussing strategy. Custer explains that he has broken up the regiment, sending two smaller groups in different directions under Major Reno and Captain Benteen. His intention is to surround the village. 

“They are poorly defended,” Custer declares. “Now is the time to attack.”

“You must have more warriors,” Curley advises. “Bring your soldiers together. They are too many for a broken army to defeat.” 

“Nonsense,” Custer replies, his scorn for the red men he relies on for intelligence evident. “You’ve seen the village for yourself.”

He turns to his officers, and says “Ready your men. We attack immediately, as they sleep.

As the soldiers prepare to ride, the scouts move to one side of the clearing to talk.

“We attack immediately, and we die before dawn,” White Man Runs Him said.

White Man Runs Him had been the first of the Apsáalooke to volunteer to be a scout for the cavalry. As was the custom, his clan changed his name amid much good natured ribbing to suit his new status in life. 

Today, White Man Runs Him decides he will only run so far at the direction of the white man.

“If I am to die, I do not die a man in silly clothes.” The scout removes his hat and jacket, and throws them to the ground. “I will die a warrior.” 

He opens one of the leather pouches hanging from his pack horse, and begins to remove its contents. When the others see his intent, they follow suit. In minutes, the seven Apsáalooke wear full tribal battle dress. They move to one of the brush circles, and begin an abbreviated version of the sun dance.

“Belay there!” An angry voice reaches them, followed by a very angry General Custer.

“What are you doing? Stop immediately. You are Army scouts.”

Calling on his namesake for bravery, Many Eagle Feathers steps forward.

“General, leader of white warriors… We see death coming on the new sun. We do not die as ‘soldiers.’ We die as Apsáalooke warriors.”

Custer’s face glows red. “Not in my Army, you don’t!” he snaps. “Leave now. Report back to Fort Snelling for reassignment. Your work here is done.”

And with that, he spins on his heel and goes back to his troops.

The seven Apsáalooke look at each other, and without a word, they mount their horses and ride out of the clearing.

Once out of sight, White Swan holds up an arm to stop his fellow scouts. 

“Past Crow’s Nest, quicker way.”

The others nod assent and they turn their horses into the mountains.

As the seven ride to Crow’s Nest, they cross a stream with two white men in it, missing their uniforms and their scalps. White Swan nods as they pass.

“The white man rides into the sunset of his day,” he says in a low voice.

When they reach the Crow's Nest, the battle has begun below them. Despite the smoke of many dying fires, they can see that the small contingent of soldiers with Custer has been quickly overrun by Sioux, many braves to every white man. None of the rest of Custer’s regiment has reached the village from the other side to help, and the soldiers are helpless to defend themselves from the arrows, tomahawks, and rifles of the screeching Sioux warriors. Blood flows everywhere from downed men and horses.

As they view the carnage, Many Eagle Feathers has a vision of the bishée herd running beside him, and he hears the voice of his spirit guide.

He looks at his brother Apsáalooke warriors and says, “I was made to this moment. The Great Spirit has spoken. My sun is set.”

He turns and heads back down the trail, riding hard.


The tattoo of the drums grows louder.

As the party accompanying the travois slows, Many Eagle Feather’s memories fade, and the drumbeats of this day fill his head again.

The horse pulling the travois comes to a stop in a weed-filled clearing near the top of the hill and the mourners separate into groups around it. The scene is unlike anything that any of those present has ever seen before, let alone been a part of.

Several members of the tribe go to the travois and loosen the straps. They carefully lift the body, which has been wrapped in a bison robe and then a lodge skin of white-tanned deer. 

Source: North American Indian
Edward S. Curtis (1907)
With great ceremony, they carry the body to a scaffolding built in the clearing and strap it on securely, with the feet facing toward the east and the head toward the west. Then they step back and the drumbeats stop.

There is a small group of uniformed soldiers standing at attention at the sidelines. A man in the uniform of the US Army  7th Cavalry breaks from the group and goes to stand in front of the crude funeral bier. Colonel Henry Trostell was one of the first to walk among the bodies the day after the battle at Greasy Grass River, or Little Bighorn as it is called by the white man.

For a moment, he stands at attention in front of the scaffolding, then he removes his hat and says, “This man, Many Eagle Feathers, was a brave man and great warrior.” 

He pauses as the voice of Wind That Sings wails in sorrow. The sound scares the infant secured to a cradle board on her back, and Comes With Thunder begins to cry too. Teardrops stain the cheeks of most members of the Many Eagle Feathers’ clan.

“We have come here to honor him. There were over three hundred officers and troopers from the 7th Cavalry with General Custer that day. It’s impossible to say with certainty how many were killed, but the best estimate is 268, including General Custer himself.”

Colonel Trostell pauses to brush tears from his own cheeks before continuing.

“One thing we know for sure. Sixty-two of those men survived. Scouts who witnessed the massacre from above at Crow’s Nest reported that those survivors owe their lives to Many Eagle Feathers. This scout had been relieved of his duty at Little Bighorn, but he went back and fought the Sioux, pushing them back from a group of wounded soldiers who would have surely been killed and scalped. He gave his life in the process.”

The officer turns and gestures to a cavalry trooper. The soldier steps forward, puts a copper clarion to his lips, and blows a mournful song into a silence broken only by the sound of weeping. 

When the bugler steps back, the Apsáalooke drums begin again, joined by a wooden flute. As the drums continue, members of the tribe who have come to send the deceased on his journey to the Great Spirit begin dancing around the scaffold and chanting the song that tells the spirit he coming.

The spirit of Many Eagle Feathers watches for a few moments. Then he joins his clan and dances with them one more time, chanting his own death prayer.
My sun is set.
My day is done.
Darkness is stealing over me.
Shadows are long and dark before me.
I have no fear, for I go to dance with the spirits.

The End


Written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory


  1. I have been meaning to read this - and now I have done. All of my life I've been fascinated by Custer and his "Last Stand". Over the years he has morphed, in my mind and understanding, from Hero, to Arrogant Bastard - a man who would be the killer of women and children, but for the assembled braves who fought at "Greasy Grass River".

    Custer put proof to the old saw "Pride goeth before the fall".

    This was SO well done. This was SO easy a read, and yet so well researched and presented. What a fantastic piece of writing. THIS should be the basis of a book.

    All of that said, my own interests have always been piqued by the First Peoples. One of my great-great-great grandfathers married a Blackfoot women. They had seven sons - one of which I am descended from. I think that's why, sometimes, that I feel so at home in the North Country.

  2. very interesting take on the famous incident, told from a completely original angle! Well done

  3. BRAVO. I am standing up and applauding right now. You may just have found your niche - historical fiction. Everything rang true about this. It worked on so many levels. Good on you, Patti. A brilliant piece of writing!

  4. I'm fascinated by Indian native American culture and learned a lot researching Windtalkers, you've clearly researched this deeply and I think in some cases to the detriment of the story, it does read a little like a historylesson when I really wanted to fall in love with the characters. Masterfully written and a great take omn the muse, but I think I craved more angst from the young warrior and in the first part almost thought you were going to tell a shaggy dog tale, I found the names so distracting and someimes a little comical although Curly was real of course. All in all a fine tale that would polish up well with another draft. I agree with Selma, it is a lovely piece of writing, I envt your technical prowess

  5. There's no point in discussing your technical abilities anymore, since they're as good as they come.

    But... yeah, while they're a great emphasis on detail, the balance fails with the characters. Black Bear/Many Eagle Feathers is our latch, but he falls short. Again, this is an issue I'm often guilty of and you rightly point out... given that awareness, you should know better! ;)

    Also, I have to reiterate my concern for the naming of the American Indians. I am not positive and could easily be completely wrong, but most of them rang false to me. We'll discuss that offline.

    You said you wanted me to expand my latest story... I want you to expand this one. It's too clean a narration that the jumps hurt the narrative, it that makes sense.

  6. I know nothing about native Americans, and reading this had made me want to find out more. I wish I could take a paper here. Perhaps I'll just exchange to a Uni over there.


Thoughts? I would love to hear from you.