Battle of Little Bighorn (2020) Script

Narrator: Propelled by mystery, The battle of little bighorn gave rise to a legend That persists across centuries...

[gunfire]

...The astonishing death of a celebrated indian fighter.

Woman: This was akin to the country being shocked By the assassination of president kennedy.

Man: America likes a tragic loser.

Narrator: The beginning of the end of freedom on the plains.

Man: The strategy there was to find indian villages And to destroy them.

Man: We all had to do what we had to do to survive.

Narrator: The execution of an honored leader, The birth of an american cliché...

Man: Our mythic imagination is populated by american indians.

Narrator: ...And a fight for identity Against the tyranny of progress.

American indians call it the battle of the greasy grass.

In history books, it's the battle of the little bighorn.

The image seared into memory is simply custer's last stand.

[gunfire]

Three names, different lenses for viewing the same few hours, A pivotal moment in history that changed the fate of many And shaped the myth of a nation in unexpected ways.

Enthralling from the start, The story becomes a bona fide fixation.

From initial outrage to a global spectacle To cinematic obsession, The legend has persisted more than a century.

Even today, we continue to make sense of what happened.

The brutal battle played out in June of 1876, But the stage had been set decades earlier On the great plains, A vast expanse of prairie east of the rocky mountains.

In 1800, more than half a million people, A dozen distinct tribes, lived on those grasslands, But their days were numbered.

David penney: The customary way of thinking About settlement of north america Is this wave of settlers that move from east to west, But more accurately it's kind of like a doughnut, Because it's easier to go around the tip Of tierra del fuego in south america Than make your way across the continent.

So, california, oregon, The columbia valley had all been settled.

Native people who were living in the plains Were relatively undisturbed militarily Until about the middle of the century.

Narrator: When destiny finally leads American settlers westward ho, It sets up an epic clash of cultures on the plains, A grab for resources That will determine the fate of many nations.

Penney: The larger frame of this, of course, Is the progress of civilization, You know, that the american indians Are a valiant opponent, But their primitive nature dooms them to history.

They need to move out of the way of progress.

Narrator: As the country picks up the pieces After the civil war, The western frontier becomes the next battleground.

Michelle delaney: The military moves right into the west, Conquering those lands that had previously been held By american indians.

It is a hard time in american history.

Narrator: The military clears the way, As prospectors, businessmen, and settlers eager to stake claims Compete with native americans for land.

The genesis of the conflict at bighorn Occurs at the spiritual birthplace of the lakota sioux In present-day south dakota.

Emil her many horses: Part of our origin story Is that the lakota emerged from the black hills area And were taught how to use the buffalo For food and shelter, And that's all considered kind of sacred land.

Narrator: In 1868, the treaty of fort laramie Recognizes the black hills as lakota territory In exchange for an end to hostilities.

It also sets up a permanent reservation, Implying eventual containment--

A nuance lost to the lakota at the time.

The government's goal is to confine all native americans To agencies or reservations.

Marvin dawes: They didn't want them to be scattered, And the only way that they could contain Was to put them on the reservation, Put them on the reservation And keep an eye on them and watch them.

Narrator: Dozens of native leaders sign the document.

Dawes: There were two types of natives, indians.

We have the non-treaty indian and the treaty indians.

Narrator: Hunkpapa sioux chief sitting bull Is among those who refuse to sign.

But almost immediately in the black hills, A complication emerges.

Penney: The rumors about gold begin to develop Right after the signing of the treaty.

The agitation to kind of resolve that question results In the government-sponsored expedition in 1874, Which is led by george armstrong custer.

[gunshots]

Narrator: In the civil war, custer was a union hero, Though an unlikely one, Having graduated last in his class from west point.

Scott sagan: Custer had a long history Of successful, brave fights.

He would often have a charge into confederate units And came out victorious even at gettysburg.

Narrator: After the war, a 27-year-old custer Reinvents himself as an indian fighter.

Penney: He was a larger-than-life personality.

He had already declared interest in political office.

Narrator: Those larger ambitions are shared by his wife, Elizabeth, or libbie.

Penney: She was big in society.

She came from a prominent family.

They're big in politics.

They saw their union as a sort of bigger social opportunity, One kind of playing off the other.

They were a power couple.

Narrator: But their bid for power will prove perilous.

Soon there would be secrets and bloodshed.

Officially, the u.S. Expedition into the black hills Is scouting a site for a new fort, But it's really a hunt for gold, And custer, a 19th-century media darling, Wants to be the one to find it.

More than 1,000 soldiers, plus geologists, engineers, miners, A photographer, a band, the son of u.S. President grant, And 300 head of cattle for meat All go rolling into lakota sacred land.

Penney: And there's dispute Whether or not they found gold there.

There's a geologist who claims they didn't find any gold, And, uh, the papers, of course, say that they did.

Narrator: The gold rush is on, And when promising deposits are discovered In the northern black hills, thousands pour into sioux land.

Whole towns, like deadwood, south dakota, Rise up on treaty territory.

Penney: The first wave of american settlement And the dispossession of land from indians Is often mineral rights or timber rights.

After the 1874 expedition, by the summer of 1875, There are over 4,000 miners in the black hills.

They're primarily men, And they're sending all their money Back east to their families, You know, um, quick money and lots of it.

Narrator: President grant offers to purchase the black hills For $6 million, But the tribes refuse.

They want the land.

Penney: So, you've got all the ingredients Of a, of a big conflict there.

Her many horses: Really what they were fighting for Was the resources for the survival of their community, So say their hunting grounds, their hunting territories.

Narrator: Those who will not give up their land, And therefore their traditional way of life, Are designated hostiles.

Sarah sadlier: The term hostile was used by the u.S. Military To refer to those native americans Who had not come into the reservation system And who were rebelling against the edict That told them to do so.

Narrator: Sitting bull rallies so-called hostiles, And his envoys slip onto reservations And urge agency indians to join the resistance.

It's a fight for land that is vital to their very existence.

Her many horses: A lot of times, Lakota people are considered nomadic, But they actually were not nomadic wandering about.

They were actually following the buffalo, And that was a really important aspect of their survival.

Narrator: Buffalo were the walmart of the plains.

They provided food, clothing, tools, blankets, rope, glue, Utensils, weapons, and fuel.

For commercial hunters, they become a bonanza.

Penney: Large-scale industrial buffalo hunting Really begins in earnest after the civil war.

[gunshot]

They're being consumed In enormous and unprecedented numbers.

[gunshots]

Her many horses: There's a couple images That every time I see them, I'm kind of thrown off by them Because you just can't imagine that this was done.

An image of a pile of buffalo skulls, I mean, And there's someone standing on top of it.

Narrator: Bones are used to make fertilizer and china.

Hides are taken for robes And leather to make belts for industrial machinery.

Much is wasted.

Upwards of 30 million buffalo roam the plains in 1850.

Within just a few decades, They are hunted to near extinction.

On reservations, rations replace hunting.

Her many horses: You did not have that kind Of traditional ability to hunt and take care of yourself.

You had to depend on somebody else.

Narrator: The last free indians on the plains, As many as 10,000, banded together under sitting bull, Represent a threat to the reservation system.

Penney: So, in the summer of 1876, The army mobilizes against them To bring them back into the reservation, And then an announcement goes out--

If you're not at the agency, We're going to consider you a hostile, And you will be attacked.

Narrator: Custer and his seventh cavalry Depart from fort abraham lincoln in north dakota on may 17, 1876.

They are well supplied and armed with superior weapons.

Sagan: He and a number of other army units Went out to try to find sitting bull, crazy horse, And the various northern cheyenne and lakota villages That had left the reservations to join the remaining indians Who were still roaming the plains.

Penney: The strategy there was to find indian villages And to destroy them.

Narrator: A strategy of total war.

Eight years earlier, in November of 1868, Custer brought the same strategy to bear Near the washita river in modern-day oklahoma.

Penney: His first conflict was with a band of cheyenne Under the leadership of a man named black kettle, Camped on the washita river.

Narrator: Encamped for the winter in 51 lodges, Black kettle's people felt safe.

He had extracted a promise of peace from the u.S. Military.

They were not to be attacked.

Penney: But custer, new in the field, Found them early one morning.

[gunfire]

Narrator: They kill more than 100 cheyenne, Including black kettle himself.

Her many horses: When they were fleeing the cavalry, The village was burned and all their beautiful artwork, All their sacred material, everything was destroyed.

Narrator: To force them into reservation life, Custer orders the slaughter of their entire herd of 650 ponies.

The cavalry captures more than 50 women and children.

One of them becomes custer's prize.

Sagan: Custer had taken the youngest, prettiest one, Monahsetah, as his.

Narrator: The historical record Offers few clues to their association, But oral traditions suggest that there may have been a child, Or even two children, born from the union.

It's unknown if libbie was aware of the relationship, But monahsetah may have played a role In a promise custer made to the cheyenne.

Sagan: After the battle of washita, When the indians did surrender, they had a peace pipe ceremony, And custer said that I'm not going to fight you again.

Narrator: Despite that promise, just eight years later, Custer is in pursuit of the so-called hostiles, Which include cheyenne.

His regiment endures long periods of frustration On the plains.

Penney: The territory was very unfamiliar to the military.

Actually finding indians to fight was a big problem.

Narrator: Without tracking expertise, It's likely they would never have found them.

Traditional enemies of the lakota, Some crow serve the u.S. Military as scouts.

Penney: The crow, they had been skirmishing with lakota Kind of, um, war party to war party for decades.

It's, I think, helpful to think of the plains tribes As nations, small nations.

They have their own interests.

Sagan: Lakota, they had come From the minnesota, wisconsin woods into the plains, Became very great horsemen, But had conquered some of the lands Of the crow, the arikara, and others.

Dawes: All these tribes who were moved out Or pushed out away from their aboriginal lands Eventually had come into crow land.

There was conflict between the crow, the sioux, The cheyenne, the arapaho, and the blackfeet, And of course the crows, you know, fought to protect, To save their land.

Narrator: It's late June 1876 When custer's scouts find the abandoned campsite Of the so-called hostiles.

They track what appears to be a historically large gathering.

In hot pursuit, The seventh cavalry covers 70 miles in just three days.

The american indian combatants at bighorn Were formidable rivals.

Sagan: Lakota people were not popular among other tribes In that region.

They were particularly fierce and violent.

Narrator: Chief sitting bull foresaw the attack in a vision.

He saw white men falling into camp.

Sagan: Falling from the sky upside down like grasshoppers Without their hats on, and they have no ears.

"they have no ears" was the saying that the lakota used To say you're not listening to me.

The white men don't listen.

They promised us this land, and they're not listening.

Narrator: Today bighorn is cultural shorthand for disaster, But custer expected a victory.

Sagan: Custer's luck, it was called.

And I think he really believed in it, And he knew that the brave, the impetuous, get honors.

Narrator: He divides his regiment Into three columns to trap the sioux, But instead, his men are cut off from one another.

[gunfire]

He expects a few hundred warriors.

He meets with thousands.

Penney: He totally underestimated their size And overestimated his own abilities.

[gunshots]

[screaming]

Narrator: His cavalry is outnumbered By a factor of ten to one.

In just two hours, custer's luck has run out.

[gunshot]

One of his scouts is first to bring news to the outside world.

Dawes: Curley the crow scout didn't speak english very good, So he was using sign language.

Narrator: What curley recounts will shock the country.

Sagan: George custer and every trooper under him Was wiped out that day.

Narrator: More than 200 soldiers, Among them, custer's two brothers and his brother-in-law.

Penney: Telegraph communication was relatively new.

First news of the battle gets to bismarck on July 5th, Where there's a telegraph office.

The newspaper offices there Claim they sent over 40,000 words in telegraph, Um, working all day long.

They had to wait for the office In saint paul or fargo To open up in the morning, And then the telegraph people there Worked a 26-hour shift.

Cécile ganteaume: Because there were so many Telegraph offices and so many newspapers Throughout the entire united states, In small towns, big cities, Through various territories that hadn't even become states, Most americans learned of the battle At exactly the same time, So this was akin to the country being shocked By the assassination of president kennedy.

[fireworks]

Narrator: The news hits just as americans are contemplating A dazzling future, celebrating the nation's centennial.

Most consider conflict with indians a thing of the past And can't believe them capable Of defeating a sophisticated military force.

The inconceivable defeat, Topped off by the insulting loss of a national hero, Is too much to bear.

Sagan: Custer, he was fighting this battle for politics, For history, but also for showmanship.

He was that kind of general.

Penney: So, he was very much in the public eye And thought of as this kind of heroic figure.

Narrator: With his death, He becomes famous beyond all imagination.

Sagan: I think in part It's because america likes a tragic loser.

Narrator: The story becomes a tabloid obsession.

Ganteaume: The battle of the little bighorn Was literally seared into the american national consciousness.

Throughout the country, People wanted to know the names of the officers who were killed, The names of all the soldiers who were killed.

They wanted to know their biographies, Their life stories.

Narrator: Within weeks, Legendary showman buffalo bill cody Makes yet more news with a stunt of public vengeance.

Sagan: After the battle, Buffalo bill killed a cheyenne warrior, Took his scalp, and raised it up above saying, "this is the first scalp for custer."

Narrator: The press vilifies sitting bull, Calling him the killer of custer.

He replies, "they say I murdered custer.

It is a lie.

He was a fool and rode to his death."

Although the battle of little bighorn Is on every front page in america, Frustratingly few specifics are known.

Sadlier: There were no survivors From the u.S. Cavalry in custer's command, And so as a result of this lack of sources, The u.S. Public was forever questioning What indeed happened there.

It was, in fact, almost the conspiracy theory of the 1870s.

Narrator: Rumors generate new rumors.

Newspapers claim that tom custer, custer's brother, Had his heart ripped out and eaten.

It's reported that custer's half-sioux son Was killed at bighorn And that the bodies of the dead were horrifically mutilated.

Custer was the hero of every story.

Penney: There was no man left alive to tell the tale, So that immediately creates a kind of blank slate On which to, you know, project your fantasies.

Narrator: The drama of the last stand proves irresistible.

Penney: Walt whitman writes a poem For the new york daily news, you know, about custer.

One of the stanzas addressed to custer, He says, "thou of sunny flowing hair in battle."

He saw this as akin to shakespeare.

Better than shakespeare, Better than homer.

But something that was uniquely american.

Narrator: Anheuser-busch uses a painting Of custer's last stand to advertise beer.

Copies placed in 150,000 saloons across the country Elevate bighorn to the best advertised epic legend In history.

Sadlier: Folks would look up, see these mighty warriors And custer valiantly with his sword On last stand hill fighting to the death.

[gunfire]

Sagan: I grew up with this image Of the battle of the little bighorn Of george custer with his buckskin jacket on, His six-shooter out, on the last stand hill.

That's not what happened.

Narrator: The depictions were likely complete fantasy.

Sagan: Custer was killed Well before the final end of the battle.

The native americans attacking him had no idea It was even george custer who was leading this attack.

Narrator: The testimony of native american survivors Of bighorn paint an entirely different picture.

Sadlier: When they were brought into reservations, They were usually interviewed About what they had witnessed at the battle.

Narrator: Perhaps the most impactful testimony Is that of miniconjou lakota chief red horse.

Sagan: On the morning of June 25th, He was out getting turnips with some women...

...When he heard horses coming in the distance And saw dust clouds and realized that they were under attack.

[war cries]

[gunshot]

Narrator: But in the aftermath, the military crackdown Forces red horse to surrender in 1877.

His account of the battle Extinguishes all hope of survivors taken captive.

Sadlier: He answered those rampant questions Of the u.S. Public by responding, "all were killed, none were left alive, Even for a few minutes."

Narrator: It's likely that red horse's translator Was john "big leggins" bruguier, a half-french, half-lakota Adopted brother of sitting bull And sarah sadlier's distant ancestor.

Sadlier: I'm of miniconjou lakota descent.

I recognized his last name from my family stories, Went back through my own genealogy, And found that he was, in fact, The brother of my great-great-great-grandmother.

Narrator: What makes red horse's account truly exceptional Are the drawings he created to illustrate the battle.

Today his 42 drawings are a part Of the smithsonian's national anthropological archives.

Sadlier: The colors are amazing.

They're so well-preserved.

Narrator: Anthropologist candace greene Is a ledger art expert.

Candace greene: Well, the thing that, that strikes all of us Immediately is the size of the red horse work.

He worked on very large paper, So at what we would call an epic scale, Whereas most artists were working in a book of this size.

Sagan: They're called ledger drawings Because many of them were actually done on ledger books.

Those were the books that the traders And the people on the reservation had.

Narrator: The oversized paper Was supplied by a doctor compiling a guide To plains indian sign language in the 1880s.

His dictionary was destined for the smithsonian.

The drawings were made to double-check the accuracy Of red horse's sign language account of the battle.

Red horse's detailed scenes of the entire battle Are highly unusual.

Conventional ledger drawings Only depict one person's battle experience.

Greene: Each man would draw his own events Rather than one man combining other people's events.

Narrator: But red horse's works Are traditional in one significant way.

Sarah's research has revealed That the drawings are scrupulously accurate.

Sadlier: If you look at battlefield reports, They do accurately depict the types of injuries That men sustained on that battlefield.

Through these, we can actually identify Who some of these individual soldiers were.

Greene: Wow, that's amazing.

The enormous detail and accuracy Within what sort of seems like a scene of chaos.

Sagan: Now, what red horse does is show the horror of battle.

He wasn't ashamed of it.

He didn't do this for the white market.

He did it for a doctor friend Who wanted to have an accurate representation of the battle.

You see scalping, you see dismemberment, And you see dead native americans As well as dead white men.

Narrator: The newspaper headlines Were right on one point--

Bodies of the fallen were gruesomely mutilated.

Sadlier: Some of the native women went after the battle To cut the muscles and perform other mutilations To the bodies of u.S. Cavalry men Who had perished on the battlefields.

Narrator: What sounds pretty grisly on the face of it Was actually grounded in cultural tradition.

Sadlier: Women reportedly had done that So that these warriors could not come back And hurt their people in the afterlife.

Narrator: After the battle, custer's body was left whole.

Cheyenne women recognized him And remembered his broken promise After the massacre at washita.

Sagan: The women had took awls And stuck it in his ears and pierced his eardrums, And that was their way of saying, "you better learn to listen better next time."

Narrator: However, there is no evidence to support the claim That a child of monahsetah and custer Died at bighorn.

And sarah has not found any evidence of custer himself Depicted in the drawings.

Penney: No one seems to know who killed custer.

It just sort of happened in the thick of the moment.

Narrator: The drawings also refute another myth.

While there is plenty of carnage, There is no sign of tom custer's heart, Reportedly ripped from his body.

Lakota war chief rain-in-the-face Was once arrested by tom custer.

After the battle, he does indeed claim to have eaten his heart.

But later in life, Rain-in-the-face admits it wasn't true.

This image depicts warriors Leaving the battle in celebration.

Some lead captured horses, valuable battlefield trophies.

It also contains what sarah believes to be A self-portrait of red horse.

Greene: Ah, the artist himself.

Sadlier: The artist himself.

He's looking out at us, the viewer, And with sort of a side eye here.

But he's also one of the most detailed.

Narrator: But red horse's detailed eyewitness account Can't compete with a tsunami of press Cementing custer as a bona fide hero.

Custer's widow, libbie, surfaces from grief To push that narrative to new heights.

Sagan: Libbie becomes a professional widow And supports herself the rest of her career Beefing up his story, making him to be a hero.

Sadlier: Her many lectures focused on the sacrifice That her husband gave for the nation.

Narrator: But her versions of events are more fancy than fact.

Penney: Of course, the facts Are never as compelling as The stories we want to believe.

Sadlier: Libbie custer largely invented many of her stories About her life with her husband And his involvement in the cavalry.

Critics at the time did not want to criticize her Because of her status as his widow And so thought, "we'll wait until she perishes,"

But she lived into her nineties.

Narrator: Accurate or not, libbie secures a spot for custer In the canon of american heroes.

But it's another larger-than-life character That spins battlefield tragedy Into a 19th-century reality show.

Just a few years after bighorn, American scout, buffalo hunter, and showman buffalo bill cody Founds his wild west show, An extravagant touring pageant of all things western.

[cheering]

He had been eyeing the opportunity Since the battle occurred, And he took the first scalp for custer.

Sagan: He would actually go out and do things in real life In order to give himself better material For a performance afterwards.

[cheering]

Buffalo bill: Ladies and gentlemen, Buffalo bill's wild west.

Delaney: Racing horses, roping, riding, shooting, You know, all of these things were part of the show.

Narrator: The performance of custer's last stand Is a highlight.

[cheering]

Before cinema or television, The wild west brings history alive.

Delaney: Montana is pretty remote, And most people will never step foot on that land, But then you're sitting in an arena And you're attending a show.

And here it is in front of you.

And the guns and the noise and the dust, And it's all there.

Narrator: Curiously, the biggest draw Is the real-life native americans Performing in the show.

Penney: When american indians are seen as a threat, They're depicted as savages, of course, And they're something that's fearful.

Once they've become domesticated, They become an item of nostalgia.

Narrator: For the indians, The show represents a chance to escape reservation life.

Records show that cody paid his performers well.

The wild west starts out with 36 pawnee performers But shifts focus to sioux from the pine ridge reservation, Eventually employing 100 at a time.

Penney: The wild west shows offered native people Suffering under these pressures of assimilation an outlet, An ability to travel, an ability to perform.

Narrator: Hiring performers from reservations Takes intense negotiation with the government.

Delaney: You have to remember, Indian wars continued In the first almost decade Of the wild west.

The performances were happening While the u.S. Government and the army Were still engaging in battle in indian territory.

Almost inconceivable that this was happening At the same time as the performances.

Buffalo bill: Introducing the great leader Of the sioux people.

Narrator: Even more inconceivable, One of them was sitting bull.

Buffalo bill: Chief sitting bull!

Narrator: After the battle, he'd crossed the border To escape retribution.

Ganteaume: Sitting bull and his followers had fled into canada.

This became an international incident Because the united states wanted the return of sitting bull.

They wanted him and his followers to surrender.

Narrator: Eventually, without game to hunt, He was forced to bring his starving people south And surrender to a reservation.

But once there, he refuses to farm, Instead trading on his fame to sell autographs And charge visitors to take his picture.

Dawes: I think sitting bull said it very well when he said, "we all had to do what we had to do to survive."

Narrator: In 1885, he accepts a job with the wild west.

Delaney: To have him performing and meeting the public, That was a big deal.

Narrator: He negotiates an impressive rate of $50 a week And cannily maintains the right to continue to sell autographs.

The first publicity photos Show him standing awkwardly with cody, A man whose very name Celebrates the eradication of the buffalo.

Sadlier: His presence in the show lent it some validity In terms of representations Of the battle of the little bighorn And also familiarized the u.S. Public with the fight.

[booing]

Penney: People catcall him. They boo him.

And he takes it rather stoically, And that doesn't seem to bother him very much.

Narrator: Sitting bull strikes up a friendship With another wild west performer...

[cheering]

Annie oakley.

[gunshot]

He calls her "little sure shot"

And symbolically adopts her.

She later says he made a great pet of her.

On tour, the wild west depicts indian battles, bison hunts, Stage robberies, and of course, the heroics of custer In 50 cities a year throughout the u.S. And europe, Even playing for queen victoria's golden jubilee.

But the indian agent at standing rock Refuses to let sitting bull continue to perform, And he returns to the reservation in 1886, After one season.

Penney: He purposely moves far away from the agency itself.

He builds a cabin for himself by the grand river, And people gather around him, And they're kind of out of sight Of the agent, And so he's very suspicious.

Narrator: A new native american spiritual movement Adds to the suspicion.

Penney: Nations on the plains become very interested In what we refer today as the ghost dance.

Her many horses: The whole ghost dance movement Was really one of these last efforts To maintain the old way of life, because part of the belief Was that the buffalo was going to return, Even dead relatives were going to return, And the old way of life was going to return If they did this.

Penney: It really is a kind of ray of hope For the native nations of the west.

Narrator: Ghost dancers believe Their regalia can protect them from bullets.

Penney: Sitting bull's camp, his cabin, Become a little refuge for ghost dancers.

He's characterized as an antagonist to the government, And the ghost dance as a dangerous kind of development.

Narrator: In December of 1890, rumor that sitting bull Is preparing to leave the reservation Prompts the hasty order to arrest him.

Man: Come on, get up. You're under arrest.

You're under arrest.

Narrator: But it all goes wrong.

[gunshot]

[gunshot]

[people screaming]

Sitting bull, age 60, Is killed near daybreak on December 15, 1890.

And in the melee that follows, 14 lose their lives, Including sitting bull's teenage son.

More than 200 of his followers scatter.

38 join a band of miniconjou ghost dancers.

But the ghost dance doesn't protect them from bullets.

Just two weeks later, 300 men, women, and children Are slaughtered by u.S. Troops While camped in the snow near wounded knee creek.

Dawes: From then on, there was no more plains indian wars.

Narrator: But tragedy continues to be spun Into entertainment gold.

Sitting bull's death is reenacted At the 1893 world's columbian exposition in chicago, When his actual cabin is moved to the site and put on display.

With the wild west on break from a european tour, Buffalo bill cody returns to the states And manages to get 23 lakota ghost dancers, Incarcerated at fort sheridan in illinois, Released into his care.

Advertised as pows, their notoriety draws crowds When the tour resumes in germany in 1891.

Sagan: The mixing of real history and stage and drama Is exemplified by buffalo bill cody To help americans understand one version of the west, But it was his version only.

Narrator: For one thing, outside of the arena, Feathered headdresses were relatively rare.

Ganteaume: It was an honor that was earned.

Narrator: But the wild west unceasingly promotes What will become the iconic image of the west--

A plains indian in eagle feather war bonnet.

Today it's an image used to sell everything From baking powder to whiskey.

Ganteaume: It is a very unique phenomenon.

No other country in the world is constantly recreating images Of one segment of its society.

Penney: Before the plains wars, Before the battle of little bighorn, That wasn't the common image.

Narrator: The legends of daniel boone Are all about ohio indians like the mingo and shawnee, A different stereotype, but another bygone era.

Ganteaume: This imagery is always of indians Frozen in the past.

It actually works as a barrier That keeps americans from understanding Who american indians really are.

Penney: Our mythic imagination is populated by indians Who we recognize from these kind of big events Like the battle of little bighorn.

Narrator: Despite being celebrated in entertainment, The west itself is becoming a memory.

Buffalo are nearly extinct, railroads connect the coasts, And fences crisscross the plains.

Penney: The 1890s is a point when the united states Kind of declares its frontier history closed.

All the empty wild spaces have been occupied.

Narrator: Although the indians won the battle, Little bighorn was the decisive moment When it became inevitable they would lose the war.

On reservations, Life is designed to, quote, "kill the indian, save the man."

[children laughing]

Entire generations of children, Starting as young as four years old, Are sent away to school.

Her many horses: There were attempts to have Boarding schools on reservations, And then they found out that that was not working Because the children could go home to their families, So they came up with this great idea of shipping them off With the threat of if they didn't do it, Then rations would not be given to them.

Narrator: Their hair is cut short, And they are forbidden to speak indian languages.

Her many horses: They were not trained to be Teachers or doctors or lawyers.

They were taught to be nurses, maids, uh, maintenance men.

That's what they were teaching them at these places.

Penney: There is this firm and naive, kind of tragic belief That this was really the right way to go, That, that the progress of civilization Demanded that everyone climb on board, And that if you didn't, You would be left behind, And you had no future As a result.

So, an alternative future for american indians Was just a failure of imagination.

Narrator: And a paradox of imagination--

They are to become as un-indian as possible At the same time that the days of the wild west Are actively celebrated.

Ganteaume: Americans thought of it As a defining chapter in u.S. History, A chapter that defined the american character.

It defined the pioneer spirit, it defined rugged individualism, And so, ironically, the image of the plains indian warrior Evoked this idealized past for americans.

Narrator: One portrait photographer Captures images of the wild west show indians Very unlike those on cans of baking powder.

Delaney: Gertrude kasebier opens a studio in 1898 In new york city on fifth avenue.

She quickly becomes One of the foremost portraitists, Photographers in america.

Narrator: A contemporary of alfred stieglitz, Kasebier is the annie leibovitz of the turn of the century.

Delaney: And she's in her studio one day, And she looks out the window, and, lo and behold, Buffalo bill's wild west Is parading towards madison square garden.

Penney: Buffalo bill performs The battle of little bighorn, custer's last stand, In madison square garden.

Electricity was new. They had electric lights.

They had a huge stage set.

Narrator: With luminaries like mark twain in the audience, The show is described by the new york times As a spectacle with thrillers in abundance.

[whooping]

Kasebier invites the performers to sit for her camera.

She has a lifelong interest in plains indians, Kindled by her childhood Traveling the prairie in a covered wagon And playing with children from local tribes.

Delaney: They show up with full regalia, With headdresses and various head adornments and blankets.

Narrator: But kasebier refers to her portraits As human documents.

They dispense with beads and feathers, And she captures informal images Of the people behind the performance.

Delaney: She tried to create a very different setting Than one of commercial portraiture.

She was getting to know them, And she was involved in a very personal project And images that she would never sell.

Narrator: Kasebier's photos celebrate an unspoken truth--

That while native americans have been feared And stripped of their culture, they are also admired.

Penney: American indians are something That are distinctly american.

And in the united states of the 1890s, The early 20th century, that is desperately trying to establish A culture separate from europe, They're thinking about what is ours, What is unique to us?

The american indians become something That's distinctly, uniquely american.

Narrator: The lakota sioux continue to fight For their piece of america.

The tribe spends more than 60 years Battling in court for the black hills.

In 1980, their case is heard By the supreme court of the united states.

Arthur lazarus: Under the 1868 treaty, The united states promised to keep whites Out of the great sioux reservation, And it had a military obligation to do so.

Penney: They actually prevailed in modern court.

The court agreed with them And offered them a big settlement.

But once again, the lakota didn't want the money, They wanted the land.

Narrator: To date, the sioux persist In refusing the settlement, Which has grown to over a billion dollars.

Penney: No amount of money will bring back a sense of justice When you feel that you've been wronged in that way.

Narrator: On the sacred lost land, The homestake gold mine Produced 49 million troy ounces in 125 years, Ten percent of the gold in the u.S.

[gunshot]

Bighorn has been stirring emotions for almost 150 years.

Penney: Imperialist conquest is kind of an ugly thing, On the face of it, So how do we make an epic story about that?

Narrator: From a safe distance, The story of how the west was won Burnishes the american spirit.

Sagan: The romanticized view that helps perpetuate This vision of custer As a brilliant, brave, tragic figure Diminishes the role of the native americans Who fought very bravely that day.

Penney: Well, that's the trope of tragedy.

We're not threatened by it anymore.

It's not going to hurt us, But isn't it great to think about?

Narrator: The stereotype of the 19th-century indian Can overshadow the actuality of modern life.

Her many horses: We're still here.

We don't dress the same as we did back then Except on special occasions.

Narrator: And contemporary ledger drawings Show distinctly 21st-century american indians.

Her many horses: With over 500, you know, Federally recognized native communities, We're quite a diverse group.

Narrator: Today, the battle of the little bighorn Is still fought on crow land near the actual battle site.

Performed for a modern audience by modern indians, It means more than remembering a moment of glory.

Dawes: The young men, they like to ride horses, You know, paint, ride bareback.

It gives them that, uh, you know, the indian-ness.

When they're on that horse, yes, You know, they have that feeling.

Narrator: Whether celebrating the victors at the greasy grass Or dissecting the myth of custer's last stand, Perhaps the real power of bighorn Lies in the feelings it still fuels on all sides.

A pivotal moment in history, An important reminder of all that we are.