BILLINGS, Mont. - In the fading light of a warm June evening, Sitting Bull crossed the Little Bighorn River and went alone to a ridge above a Sioux and Cheyenne village that spread for miles along the valley.
It was June 24, 1876, the night before the 7th Cavalry charged into the Indian camp, Henry Oscar One Bull, Sitting Bull's nephew, told David Humphreys Miller in a 1938 interview. On the eve of battle, One Bull was 23, a warrior of long standing and a special bodyguard for his uncle, who had forged the largest alliance of warriors on the Northern Plains. Estimates range from 800 to 2,000 fighting men.
"He sang a thunder song, then prayed for knowledge of things to come," One Bull said. "As he repeated for me later, he wailed aloud, offering a filled pipe as he prayed: 'Wakantanka, hear me and pity me. I offer you this pipe in the name of my people. Save them. We want to live. Guard my people against all danger and misfortune.' "
Before leaving, Sitting Bull plunged stakes into the ground and attached small buckskin bags of tobacco and willow bark to them.
On the afternoon of the next day, Custer and what was left of the 7th Cavalry found themselves on the same ridge in a bloody fight for their lives. Sitting Bull's offerings were destroyed in the course of that desperate battle, which no one in Custer's direct command survived.
Today a marker inscribed with names of more than 200 7th Cavalry dead stands where Sitting Bull prayed on what is now known as Last Stand Hill.
All across the battlefield, white marble headstones mark the spots were troopers' bodies were found by other military columns two days later.
Until a few years ago, nothing noted the death sites of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. But Little Bighorn Battlefield Chief Historian John Doerner has been working with the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne since 1999 to identify and mark places where warriors fell.
This weekend, to mark the 130th anniversary of the most famous battle of the Indian Wars, eight new red granite markers will be dedicated by the National Park Service to honor Lakota casualties.
Two will be added to the main battlefield at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Crow Agency and dedicated in ceremonies near the Visitor Center at noon Sunday. Six others will be unveiled at the Reno-Benteen Battlefield about six miles away at 4 p.m. today.
Seventeen markers for warriors now stand on Park Service property at the two battlesites. The warrior markers are made of red granite selected by participating tribes and engraved with the name of the warrior in English and in his native tongue. Each of the new markers includes the notation that the warrior died "defending the Lakota way of life."
More will be added as positions are identified, Doerner said. He is working with the Arikara to place markers for three of Custer's Indian scouts next summer. Other sites where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell have been identified, but are on private property. Doerner said he will try to work with property owners or try to locate those markers on battlefield land near the death sites.
Doerner carefully researched early Indian accounts and surviving soldier accounts to identify approximate areas where warriors fell. Some of the sites were marked by cairns, piles of rock that Sioux and Cheyenne warriors had gathered immediately after the battle to honor heroic deeds of deceased warriors.
"The Crazy Horse family really helped me out this year. They walked the battlefield and staked the cairns," he said.
It's not an exact science, Doerner said. Some areas of the battlefield have been cultivated or grazed over the years, and all physical evidence has disappeared. Battle accounts note general areas where warriors died or were fatally wounded, he said.
The National Park Service also honored the request of warrior families to place markers in areas more accessible to visitors than the actual death site, Doerner said. Signage may be used to explain discrepancies, he said.
Most of the markers placed this year will be on the west side of the river and at the Reno-Benteen Battle site.
Custer had split his command before the battle, ordering Maj. Marcus Reno and his three companies to cross the Little Bighorn and attack the village. Capt. Frederick Benteen and his command had been sent on a scout to the south.
Reno's attacking force was overwhelmed and retreated to high bluffs across the river after a brief stand in timber on the west side of the river. Benteen's command and the pack train joined Reno on the bluffs, where they withstood a two-day siege. The Sioux and Cheyenne withdrew toward the Bighorn Mountains, and soldiers, expecting a meeting with Custer, arrived to find the commander and 209 of his men dead.
Their death sites were marked by the initial burial detail, and marble military headstones were added later. The Sioux and Cheyenne moved their casualties from the battlefield and interred their dead in caves or on scaffolds. An exact count of warriors killed may never be known. Sioux and Cheyenne sources at the time gave widely varying numbers. Many were in the 40-to-60 range.
Doerner said that in talking with Sioux families over the years, he has come to believe that those numbers are significantly underestimated. Research may later show that as many as 200 Sioux and Cheyenne died, he said.
Headstones to be dedicated Saturday will honor:
* Two Bear (also called Three Bear), a Minnikojou (often spelled Minneconjou). White Bull, another of Sitting Bull's nephews, said Two Bear, an old man, may have been the first casualty. He was hit by a stray bullet as he stood near his tepee firing at Reno's men during their charge of the village. Two Bear died of his wound June 27 on Wood Louse Creek at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. Black Elk, an Oglala who was 13 at the time of the battle, said that in his final hours, Two Bear kept calling, "Jeneny, jeneny."
"I did not know what he meant," Black Elk said.
* Swift Bear, a Hunkpapa. Swift Bear also died early in the Reno assault. In the chaos of the initial stages, One Bull charged the troopers with five warriors, including Swift Bear. Only One Bull and Good Bear Boy survived. Good Bear Boy was shot in the hip but was rescued by One Bull.
* Hawk Man, a Sans Arc. While Reno's troops were firing from their skirmish line in the timber, Hawk Man led two charges. On the second, Hawk Man was shot. The charge routed the soldiers from the trees. Reno and his men beat a chaotic retreat to the bluffs on the east side of the Little Bighorn.
Descendants of Hawk Man plan to attend the dedication of his memorial.
* Elk Stands On Top, a Sans Arc. He reportedly was the second casualty as warriors swarmed across the river in pursuit of Reno's men. Elk Stands On Top was a leader of one of the military lodges. He is thought to have been killed by one of Custer's Arikara scouts, Little Brave, in the foothills below the bluff.
* White Eagle, a Minnikojou. This young warrior, son of Horned Horse, who was a leader of a warrior band and a close friend of Crazy Horse, was killed when he got too close to Reno's men as they scrambled up the bluffs. He reportedly was scalped by a trooper from G Company. After dark, his brother, Cow Walking, retrieved the body. A soldier account said White Eagle had a carbine in one hand and whip in the other.
* Breech Cloth, a Minnikojou. Breech Cloth was among the youngest warriors, probably between 13 and 15 years old. About dusk, the teenager made a "bravery run" on the east end of the hill where Reno and Benteen's men were hunkered down. Breech Cloth was shot from his horse as he charged the soldiers. His body lay within enemy firing range and could not be recovered until after nightfall.
Doerner said it is possible Breech Cloth was one the Lakota suicide boys. These were Lakota and Cheyenne who vowed to fight to the death in their next battle.
The remaining two headstones will honor warriors killed on the main battlefield in combat with troopers under Custer's direct command:
* Black White Man (Black Wasichu), a Minnikojou. A skilled horseman, Black White Man was leaning over the side of his pony as he charged toward the soldiers on Last Stand Hill. A bullet smashed through his right shoulder and lodged in his left hip.
When the firing stopped, Black Elk recalled seeing some men holding up the wounded warrior a few feet away from where several wounded soldiers lay.
"My father and Black Wasichu's father got so mad about the latter's son getting wounded that they went and butchered a white man and cut him open," Black Elk told John Neihardt in a 1931 interview.
Black White Man died two days later near present-day Wyola on Wood Louse Creek. His body was placed on a scaffold.