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BANNER — Out on a windswept hill north of Banner on Saturday, a group of nearly 50 people stood where 80 soldiers and dozens of American Indians had fallen 147 years earlier, almost to the hour, in the Fetterman massacre of 1866.
There they heard the oral narrative of the fight, stripped of the myths that often accompany war tales and with details that have never been scribed into written record, from multiple points of view.
Fort Phil Kearny hosted the annual Fetterman Battlefield tour to commemorate a battle that was the worst defeat suffered by U.S. forces in the western plains before Col. George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn 10 years later.
The event included a tour of the battle site, a Native drum presentation by the Thunder Lake Singers, a weapons demonstration, time to tour the Fort Phil Kearny museum and a book signing by Shannon Smith, author of “Give me 80 Men: Women and the Myth of the Fetterman Fight.”
“If Custer didn’t happen, this would be our nation’s Custer, wouldn’t it?” Smith said.
The Fetterman Fight occurred on Dec. 21, 1866, between the U.S. 18th Infantry 2nd Cavalry Regiments and members of the Lakota (Sioux), Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapahoe Native American nations. Captain William Fetterman led the 80 soldiers, and Crazy Horse, a member of the Oglala tribe, was believed to be part of the Indian decoy that trapped the soldiers in battle, which was part of Chief Red Cloud’s ongoing struggle against white settlers on the Great Plains.
On Saturday, R.C. Wilson, retired superintendent of Fort Phil Kearny, and Terry Richards, a Lakota oral historian, walked together and weaved the two sides of the battle into one narrative that differs from the one told on several Internet sites, including Wikipedia.
Yes, Fetterman and his men were stripped naked and mutilated by the Natives, as the story goes, but, Richards emphasized, there was a reason. It is believed the Indian forces allowed their women to mutilate the bodies in revenge for what had been done to Indian women and children in previous attacks on Indian nations.
The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapahoe attacked the soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny and in surrounding areas because they were defending their land. But, Richards said, they had no intention of wiping out the entire white nation, as some history books have said.
For the first time in the annual battlefield tour, the event included drumming and singing by members of the Thunder Lake Singers out of Pine Ridge, S.D., beneath an oak tree on the ridge that remains sacred to Native Americans to this day.
“Our people, we have songs for everything, each war, each battle, everything, love songs, even,” Thunder Lake Singer Robert Watters said. “It felt good to drum there because it’s the first time they’ve ever brought a drum group.”
Fort Phil Kearny Superintendent Misty Stoll, who has managed the site for one year, is intentionally trying to broaden its historical interpretation.
“Our banner in the Sheridan WYO parade said there’s two sides to every story, but the more and deeper I get into Fort Phil Kearny’s history, and especially as I bring in the Native narrative, I am realizing that it’s not two stories. It’s every man’s and woman’s experience,” Stoll said. “It’s hundreds of stories, and I am now…trying to move away, in fact, from that dichotomous us versus them, where there’s two side, cowboys and Indians or soldiers and Indians, or however people want to put it, interpretive experience for people because it is way more complicated than that.”
Stoll said she is tired of people putting Native Americans in a box.
“It has been my focus to bring that Native narrative back to the table. Part of that is making sure that Terry (Richards) and people like the Thunder Lake Singers have the time and space to say it in the way they want to say it. We let him decide what he’s going to talk about; we let him wear whatever he wants to wear. That is part of bringing the modern Native into the story. We’re not going to try to pigeon hole what we think the Native narrative should look or sound like for our visitors,” Stoll said.
In much the same way, Stoll tries to relate the historical stories of soldiers to those of modern soldiers returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan, preventing history from being relinquished to a dusty shelf.
“Having a space, a physical space, where people can come and experience or learn about what has come before them is so important to quality of life in any culture,” Stoll said.
Oh, and you can forget that whole bit about Fetterman arrogantly claiming, “Give me 80 men and I could ride through the whole Sioux nation,” Smith said. He likely never said that; he likely was not arrogant or incompetent; and the blame for his smeared reputation lies with the wives of Col. Henry Carrington, who wrote books about the battle to defend the reputation of their husband, as women are prone to do, Smith said.
History rewrites itself as myths are stripped away and its individual stories are told with honesty.
“Stay tuned for next year; we’ve got more new stuff coming and more new interpretation,” Stoll said.