Left Hand, Yellow Eagle, Yellow Fly, Waterman and a Southern Arapaho known as Green Grass or Well-Knowing One were five young Arapaho men present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn where General Custer was killed. The following is the story as told by Tom Shakespeare Sr., who was the Indian Interpreter used to translate the story for Colonel Tim McCoy in the 1920’s. Note that he spells Arapaho as Arapahoe though today we spell our tribe’s name without the “e” and Arapahoe refers to the town.
Instead of paraphrasing the story, I have chosen to present it in the words of Shakespeare himself as it appeared in his book, The Sky People.
“In the North, more trouble arose. By the treaty of 1867, the Sioux had agreed to give up all the territory south of the Niobrara River and to retire to south-western Dakota before January 1867. However, before this date trespassers on their reservation discovered gold in the Black Hills.
Miners rushed in and the Sioux attempted to drive them out. The military was sent to protect the treaty-violating gold seekers. The Sioux went wild with fury, left their reservation and swept westwards towards the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
Major Reno and General Custer went hunting for Indians, located their village on the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana and swiftly attacked. Two hundred and forty-seven white troopers died that day, June 25, 1876, while the Indians lost fort-three brave warriors.
The great Sioux Chief Gall said later he had with him Oglallas, Minnecojous, Brules, Tetons, Uncapapa Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoes and Gros Ventres.
Now here is an absolutely true story by eyewitnesses. I, myself, was selected as an official interpreter. The hearing took place somewhere in the early 1920s in Riverton, in the basement of the Teton Hotel. Colonel Tim McCoy and I think, two or three more army officers were present. The late Mr. J. A. Delfelter, who was mayor of Riverton at the time, was also present.
The two eyewitnesses of the battle were the only two left alive. Formerly there were five in the group of Northern Arapaho but the other three had died long before this.
These five Arapahoes had been young men at the time. They had gone out wandering around the country for sport and adventure when they happened to come along that part of the Little Big Horn where the battle later took place.
There was no sign of any inhabitants around. They were suddenly surrounded by Sioux Indians. When asked what they were doing,the five said that they were out on their own accord for adventure. They were told that they had been captured and were taken to the village.
Before the chiefs arrived at the camp, they noticed the somewhat strange attitude of all, even the children. They were asked if they had come around as spies for the United States Army. The five Arapahoes denied any part of such an undertaking, and did not know anything about the presence of white soldiers thereabouts.
They were told that messengers had gone out far and near to relay military movements every day, in the morning and evening, by smoke signal or, as I interpreted, the Indian telegraph.
The five were allowed to remain in camp but were told not to try wandering around, and that they would be closely watched as they moved about. They remained in camp about seven to ten days. Every day they got news from west, north, south and east indicating the locations where the white soldiers were.
The rest of this famous battle will be told separately. This is merely to record that the Arapahoes were there, but only five in number, and that they took no part in the battle. As for the other tribes mentioned, they were there according to Sioux Chief Gall. These five Arapaho did not notice many others of their tribe around – possibly there were a few who had married with the Sioux and Cheyenne. They were told, when questioned upon their arrival, that they were to witness big fighting very soon.
The Arapahoe mentioned as participating in the Custer battle were probably a small band of Southern Arapahoe, one of whom came back to the Northern Arapahoe and told the old people of his luck. He later returned to his home in Oklahoma and went back to his wife with a new name as a good warrior.
The Northern Arapahoe, on the other hand, claimed that they resisted the movement of the hostile Indians through their territory, and that it was at this time the Cheyenne, choosing to fight with the Sioux against Custer, parted company with them. They stuck to the terms of the 1867 treaty and intended to keep peace with the subjects and authorities of the United States.
I heard one informant say that during the Custer fight the Arapahoe fought with Custer against Sioux and Cheyenne. That would be the only time we opposed the Cheyenne.
Later, when I interpreted the testimony of the two remaining witnesses to the battle, there was no mention of seeing any Arapahoe. The two old men had not participated in the fight as they were closely watched by the others as if they were spies. After the battle they were released to go their way.”
The Sky People by Tom Shakespeare, Vintage Press, 1971
It is said that Spoonhunter, an Oglala Sioux and nephew of Chief Red Cloud, arrived at the Wind River Reservation in the company of the five young Arapaho hunters. Though the hunters say they did not fight in the battle, Spoonhunter said that he did under his father, a warrior chief named Black Deer.
For now, it is Tom Shakespeare’s turn to tell the story as he heard it firsthand from Left Hand and Waterman.