Libbie Custer remembers the meeting that happened in Fort Lincoln
CUSTER IN AN
source: Elizabeth Custer, Boots and Saddle: Life in Dakota with General Custer, pages 225-228
THE Indians came several times from the reservations for counsel, but the occasion that made the greatest impression upon me was towards the spring. They came to implore the general for food. In the fall the steamer bringing them supplies was detained in starting. It had hardly accomplished half the required distance before the ice impeded its progress, and it lay out in the channel, frozen in, all winter. The suffering among the Indians was very great. They were compelled to eat their dogs and ponies to keep from starving. Believing a personal appeal would be effectual, they asked to come to our post for a council.
The Indian band brought their great orator Running Antelope. He was intensely dignified and fine-looking. His face when he spoke was expressive and animated, contrary to all the precedents of Indian oratory we had become familiar with. As he stood among them all in the general's room, he made an indelible impression on my memory. The Indians' feet are usually small; sometimes their vanity induces them to put on women's shoes. The hands are slender and marvellously soft considering their life of exposure. Their speech is full of gesture, and the flexible wrist makes their movements expressive.
A distinguished scholar, speaking of the aid the hand is to an orator, calls it the "second face." It certainly was so with Running Antelope. He described the distressing condition of the tribe with real eloquence. While he spoke, lifting his graceful hands towards Heaven in appeal, one of my husband's birds that was uncaged floated down and alighted on the venerable warrior's head. It had been so petted, no ordinary movement startled the little thing. It maintained its poise, spreading its wings to keep its balance, as the Indian moved his head in gesture. The orator saw that the faces of the Indians showed signs of humor, but he was ignorant of what amused them. His inquiring eyes saw no solution in the general's, for, fearing to disconcert him, General Custer controlled every muscle in his face. Finally the bird whirled up to his favorite resting-place on the horn of the buffalo head, and the warrior understood the unusual sight of a smile from his people.
His whole appeal was most impressive, and touched the quick sympathies of my husband. He was a sincere friend of the reservation Indian. The storehouses at our post were filled with supplies, and he promised to telegraph to the Great Father for permission to give them rations until spring. Meantime, he promised them all they could eat while they awaited at the post the answer to the despatch. Not content with a complaint of their present wrongs, Running Antelope went off into an earnest denunciation of the agents, calling them dishonest.
One of the Indians, during the previous summer, with fox-like canning had lain out on the dock all day apparently sleeping, while he watched the steamer unloading supplies intended for them. A mental estimate was carefully made of what came off the boat, and compared as carefully afterwards with what was distributed. There was an undeniable deficit. A portion that should have been theirs was detained, and they accused the agent of keeping it. The general interrupted, and asked the interpreter to say that the Great Father selected the agents from among good men before sending them out from Washington. Running Antelope quickly responded, "They may be good men when they leave the Great Father, but they get to be desperate cheats by the time they reach us." I shall have to ask whoever reads, to substitute another more forcible adjective, such as an angry man would use, in place of "desperate." The Indian language is not deficient in abusive terms and epithets.
When the council was ended and the Indians were preparing to leave, my husband asked me to have Mary put everything we had ready to eat on the dining-room table. The manner in which Running Antelope folded his robe around him and strode in a stately way down the long parlor was worthy of a Roman emperor.
I had been so impressed by his oratory and lordly mien that I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw him at table, and descend from the lofty state of mind into which he had taken me to realize what he was doing. After gorging himself, he emptied the plates and swept all the remains from before the places of the other chiefs into the capacious folds of his robe. This he re-belted at the waist, so that it formed a very good temporary haversack. With an air signifying to "the victor belong the spoils," he swept majestically out of the house.
The answer came next day from the Secretary of War that the Department of the Interior which had the Indians in charge refused to allow any army supplies to be distributed. They gave as a reason that it would involve complexities in their relations with other departments. It was a very difficult thing for the general to explain to the Indians. They knew that both army and Indians were fed from the same source, and they could not comprehend what difference it could make when a question of starvation was pending. They could not be told, what we all knew, that had the War Department made good the deficiencies it would have reflected discredit on the management of the Department of the Interior.
The chiefs were compelled to return to their reservations, where long ago all the game had been shot and their famishing tribe were many of them driven to join the hostiles. We were not surprised that the warriors were discouraged and desperate, and that the depredations of Sitting Bull on the settlements increased with the new accessions to his numbers.