The Lakota Are Charging

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A new CD presents the Lakota side of Custer’s demise in the legendary Battle of the Little Bighorn through a historic collection of victory songs and oral history.

Review by Nicole War Eagle

It is said that history is written by the victors, and while that rings true in most cases, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has proven to be the exception to the rule. According to the cliché, more ink has been spilled on the epic encounter than blood was on the battlefield, but of those thousands of books and articles, scarcely a handful have been published from Lakota and Cheyenne historians – the descendants of the victors of the long-debated, legendary battle.

But now there is one more, an authentic Lakota voice communicating the Lakota side of the battle in the Lakota language. On his new CD, The Lakota Are Charging, Wilmer Stampede Mesteth (Wanapeya Najica), a direct descendant of Little Bighorn veterans, performs the historic Lakota victory songs from the battle.

“These songs tell our people’s side of the story from the Battle of the Greasy Grass,” said Mesteth, a Lakota educator, historian and Sun Dance leader from the Pine Ridge Reservation. “The songs were composed by the participants with the contributions of the eyewitnesses, the women who watched the battle from the bluffs on the west side of the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876”

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Chief Red Shirt

Mesteth said his motivation for recording the songs is cultural preservation. “These songs are a vital part of our history but they are virtually

obsolete. Very few people know them today, but I want our people to keep them for generations to come, to honor our ancestors, and to remind our people of our proud Lakota heritage.”

“We endure many hardships today,” he added, in reference to the socioeconomic conditions faced by the Lakota in reservation communities. “But we fight to retain our identity. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a key component in that, and the lives and legacies of our many great leaders who were there in 1876 continue to be a source of strength and inspiration.”

The victory songs on The Lakota Are Charging are framed by songs related to one of those great leaders; Crazy Horse.

“Crazy Horse epitomizes the spirit of the Lakota people,” continued Mesteth. “The words to the final song, Remember Me When You See the Black Hills, are these: ‘Tell my people that when they see the Sacred Black Hills to always remember me, a defender of my people and of this land.’ That tells you about the man and what he was fighting for at the Little Bighorn.”

“The words of that song were among the last Crazy Horse spoke to his father and stepmother at around 10 p.m. on September 5, 1877, at Fort Robinson, a short fourteen months after the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse’s stepmother sang the song again as Crazy Horse’s body was led away from camp the following afternoon,” explained Mesteth.

One of Mesteth’s grandfathers, Chief Red Shirt, was with Crazy Horse’s people when they surrendered at Fort Robinson in May 1877. Like Red Shirt, one of his other grandfathers, High Eagle, was a Little Bighorn battle veteran.

“When I was growing up I heard stories of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from my grandparents and also from my uncles who would tell what their parents had shared with them, and like my grandparents, their parents were actually there when the 7th Cavalry attacked the village on June 25, 1876,” said Mesteth. “This wasn’t speculation or theory, this is what they actually did on the battlefield or witnessed.”

It is that authenticity which is the signature of The Lakota Are Charging. Neither the songs nor the translations are subject to the vagaries of interpreters or the interpretations of non-Native academics, researchers or historians, as has been the norm. To date, aside from Richard G. Hardoff’s volumes of verbatim transcripts from battle veterans, the purported “Indian narrative of Custer’s defeat” has amounted to summaries of recorded oral histories selectively edited to support an author’s hypothesis.

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High Eagle Goethe

Mesteth’s The Lakota Are Charging does not suffer from a lack of cultural perspective when it comes to interpretation. Mesteth’s earthy vocals and pulsing drum take you to the very core of traditional Lakota narrative and communication of history, complimented by a beautifully spacious and atmospheric production by Serle Chapman.

“To me this is more than just a CD of songs,” said Mesteth. “The way Serle has produced this, added the sounds of battle, and then contrasted those with the sounds of our natural environment here in Lakota country, it really takes you back there in your imagination, to that day on the Little Bighorn in 1876.”

Chapman has managed to bring a movie soundtrack quality to the production without intruding onto Mesteth’s performances or the traditional qualities of the songs.

Chapman is no stranger to recording studios, having worked with acts that made the Billboard charts in the late 1980s, although he is best known as one of the Indigenous community’s foremost authors and orators. The Associated Press has described Chapman as “one of America’s fifty most influential writers” and his current book, Promise: Bozeman’s Trail to Destiny, is an award-winning Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho insight into “Red Cloud’s War” of 1866-1868.

The CD features a four-part narrative of the Battle of the Little Bighorn that is weaved within the chronology of the Lakota victory songs. Chapman and Lakota recording artist Sequoia Cross White provide the voice-overs. “It’s a great, concise and even-handed history of the battle that people can follow when they visit the Little Bighorn or visualize wherever they are,” commented Mesteth.

The narrative reflects not only Lakota oral history but is heavily influenced by Cheyenne accounts in regards to the movements of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Custer’s troops on the battlefield. “It may be controversial to some,” said Chapman. “But then again, hardly an account of the battle exists that isn’t, and that includes the National Park Service’s interpretation at the battlefield.

”Chapman, who has relatives on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and in Cheyenne-Arapaho communities in Oklahoma, insists that the Cheyenne battle veterans’ accounts communicate the sequence of the battle and the movements of Custer’s five companies from when they were sighted in the environs of Medicine Tail Coulee through to their destruction on Battle Ridge.

“It is clear what the old people were saying, and many of those recorded statements are supported by unpublished participants’ accounts

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Wilmer Mesteth

retained by descendants,” he said. “The problem has never been the veracity or accuracy of what these great Cheyenne patriots said, it has always been the ethnocentric interpretation of what they said and how some authors and historians have misrepresented them simply to validate their own theories of what happened at the Little Bighorn.”

Chapman said that it is often forgotten that some of the greatest honors on the battlefield were gained by Cheyennes “associated with or

originating from” southern bands, and he identified Lame White Man, Brave Bear, Chief Comes in Sight, Good Bear, Bull Head and Yellow Nose as being among them. “People still talk about how Yellow Nose captured a guidon at the battle,” he said, and added that Yellow Nose later settled at what used to be known as Cantonment, Oklahoma, near the Chapmans.

Chapman credits author Bruce R. Liddic with influencing the 7th Cavalry and military overview in the narrative. “Bruce Liddic’s conclusions buck the popular trend in regards to which companies approached the village at Medicine Tail but they correlate very well with Cheyenne oral history,” said Chapman. Liddic’s analysis, along with other aspects of the narrative and oral history accounts, will be presented at www.gnamusic.com.

Mesteth and Chapman said that both Lakota and Cheyenne veterans of Little Bighorn were often guarded in what they would tell outsiders when interviewed about the battle, as they feared reprisals. “My grandfathers chose to settle at Red Shirt Table for that very reason,” explained Mesteth. “If soldiers or representatives of the U.S. government came for them, they felt that on Red Shirt Table they would have a chance to escape into the Badlands.”

The Lakota Are Charging is quite simply one of the most important CDs to come from the Native community in this or any other year and it is deserving of attention and recognition. Here, for once, we get to tell our history our way, without reprisals.

 

 

 

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