Little Bighorn Survivors & the Miller Collection

Jerry Anderson, Art Director, University of Mary
Patrick J. McCloskey, Author, Editor-in-Chief, 360 Review

One of Miller's field notebooks with an interview of Drags the Rope, who saw Custer's troops approaching and warned his people of the impending attack. The notebook, together with a large collection of Miller's art, artifacts and research, is currently exhibited at the Wrangler Gallery in Great Falls, MT.

One of Miller’s field notebooks with an interview of Drags the Rope, who saw Custer’s troops approaching and warned his people of the impending attack. The notebook, together with a large collection of Miller’s art, artifacts and research, is currently exhibited at the Wrangler Gallery in Great Falls, MT.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn has fascinated historians, military strategists, writers and readers since the afternoon of June 25, 1876 in southern Montana, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men died. Decades later, David Humphreys Miller was growing up in a family of artists in small-town Ohio. He discovered that Custer also grew up in Ohio and became intrigued by the general’s mystique. Miller read everything he could find about Custer’s Last Stand. At 16 years of age in 1935, he got permission from his parents to set out in the family’s Plymouth Coupe with $100 to search for warriors who survived the battle.

Miller believed that available historical accounts were biased and he was determined to find the native version of the conflicts. He drove to the Pine Ridge Reservation and then to other Sioux and Cheyenne reservations in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. Armed with sketchbooks, brushes and pencils, Miller sketched, painted and interviewed surviving warriors and U.S. army scouts.

Miller interviewed 72 warriors in their 70s, 80s and 90s who had taken part in the Custer fight: 54 Sioux, 16 Cheyennes, one Arapaho and one Assiniboine. “I questioned them in their own languages and found, with very few exceptions, that none of them had ever before told their stories to a white man or had their portraits painted,” Miller wrote in an article in American Heritage in 1971.

Warriors & Their Families

After his first visit in 1935, Miller returned to the reservations in the summers while studying American anthropology at the University of Michigan and then art at New York University. He learned Native American sign language and became fluent in several Indian languages. Miller was adopted by Black Elk, who named him Chief Iron White Man, prompting him to take “a solemn oath to tell the truth about [Black Elk’s] people.”

“Black Elk was one of the most famous Indians that ever lived,” Miller wrote in his field notes after interviewing Black Elk. “At the age of 13 he became a warrior, taking his first scalp in the Custer fight in 1876. Well known in later years as a chief, it was as a medicine-man and spiritual leader that he earned wide renown while still a young man. He became a prophet of the Ghost Dance, which touched off the last great Indian uprising in 1890.”

From 1942 to 1946, Miller served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, converting aerial photographs into drawings to help guide pilots. After the war, he returned to the reservations to continue his artwork and research. There were only 20 living Bighorn survivors then, including Dewey Beard, who lost his parents, several siblings, and his wife and daughter at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. After Black Elk died in 1950, Dewey and his second wife, Alice, adopted Miller. Four years later, when Miller married Jan, Dewey attended the wedding at 98 years of age in a feather headdress and full buckskin attire. He and Alice presented the Millers with their courting robe (included in the Miller collection).

Mystery of Who Killed Custer, Solved?

After Miller sketched Joseph White Cow Bull (in the photograph on page 36, and the drawing is below) in the late 1930s, the elderly warrior related how he might be the one who killed Custer. As the Battle of the Little Bighorn started, White Cow Bull joined several warriors at a ford on Medicine Tail Coulee just before a column of over 200 mounted troops of the 7th Cavalry charged down the coulee en route to attack the native village from the north.

Sitting Bull's life mask."[Sitting Bull] had vision before battle of warriors coming down from sun with heads down, horses feet up," Miller wrote in typed notes from One Bull interview. "Meant many soldiers would come, all would be killed."

Sitting Bull’s life mask.”[Sitting Bull] had vision before battle of warriors coming down from sun with heads down, horses feet up,” Miller wrote in typed notes from One Bull interview. “Meant many soldiers would come, all would be killed.”

“One white man had little hairs on his face [a mustache] and was wearing a big hat and a buckskin jacket. He was riding a fine-looking big horse, a sorrel with a blazed face and four white stockings,” White Cow Bull recounted. “The man in the buckskin jacket seemed to be the leader of these soldiers, for he shouted something and they all came charging at us across the ford … . [T]he soldier chief was firing his heavy rifle fast. I aimed my repeater at him and fired. I saw him fall out of his saddle and hit the water. Shooting that man stopped the soldiers from charging on. They all reined up their horses and gathered around where he had fallen. [Then] I saw the soldiers do a strange thing. Some of them got off their horses in the ford and seemed to be dragging something out of the water.”

That “something” was the buckskin-clad leader. Surprisingly, the soldiers retreated instead of attacking the village. Custer’s plan was to take the women and children hostages and parley, which would have secured victory. Most of the warriors were occupied fighting Major Marcus Reno’s troops, who had attacked from the south.

The retreat reversed the battle’s momentum, and Custer’s and Reno’s soldiers were never able to join forces, which could have changed the outcome. Losing Custer at this point would explain the sudden disarray among his troops. Also, as Miller wrote in Custer’s Fall (book cover on page 46), the lieutenant colonel’s men would have recovered his body to prevent desecration.

Ironically, that morning White Cow Bull went looking for Monahseetah, whom he called Meotzi, a Cheyenne woman he wanted to marry.  She had a seven-year-old son fathered by Custer who “had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle, in a battle … and captured her.”

As Custer’s soldiers retreated, White Cow Bull was joined by hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. “I kept riding with the Shahiyelas [Cheyenne],” he recalled, “still hoping that some of them might tell Meotzi later about my courage.” After the battle, Meotzi identified Custer’s body, which White Cow Bull recognized.

Miller found his account more credible than other warriors’ claims, and White Cow Bull’s story was supported by Bobtail Horse who fought with him at the coulee. If true, Custer was one of the first soldiers to fall at the battle.

Miller as Author & Artist

Miller documented the Indian way of life and historical deeds in print as well as art. He wrote two books from the Native American viewpoint: Custer’s Fall, published in 1957, and Ghost Dance, about the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, published in 1959. Custer’s Fall enjoyed wide distribution as a Book of the Month selection. Miller hoped to publish a third book about his experiences interviewing and painting the Little Bighorn warriors. He didn’t finish that book, but his sketches, photos and notes are in the collection at the Wrangler Gallery.

Miller’s research corrected historical details, for example that the Little Bighorn battle started at midday and lasted “the time for the sun to travel the width of the shadow of a teepee pole across the ground,” which equals 20 minutes.

From interviews with John Sitting Bull, the adopted deaf-mute son of Sitting Bull, Miller recounted how the bloodshed at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, started accidentally. John was trying to comply with U.S. Army orders to disarm when troopers approached him from behind and spun him around—unaware of his disabilities—as he was laying down his rifle. The weapon discharged, precipitating the massacre.

Miller sketched his portraits with charcoal and pastels (colored chalk), applied skillfully to textured paper. From 1951 to 1954, Miller worked with the Atomic Energy Commission illustrating reports from the Pacific Testing Grounds. Later, Miller completed mural commissions at Mount Rushmore (now in the Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota) and a series of murals at the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.

Miller also served as president of the Hollywood Author’s Club in the 1950s and early 1960s. For his article “Echoes of the Little Bighorn” in American Heritage, Miller was awarded the 1973 Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Left to right: Sherman Sage, Benjamin Black Elk (Black Elk's son), David H. Miller and Henry Fonda. Miller is teaching Fonda how to deliver some of his lines in Arapaho, which his character in the film speaks.

Left to right: Sherman Sage, Benjamin Black Elk (Black Elk’s son), David H. Miller and Henry Fonda. Miller is teaching Fonda how to deliver some of his lines in Arapaho, which his character in the film speaks.

Miller Brought the Real West to Hollywood

After World War II, Miller and his wife moved to Rancho Santa Fe, California, and he worked in Hollywood as a technical advisor on Native American language and culture for at least 25 films. He also had small acting roles in many of the movies, such as “How the West Was Won,” which starred Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and John Wayne. Other movies included “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Stagecoach” and “Tomahawk.” Miller was an advisor for the “Daniel Boone” TV show.

Miller often brought surviving warriors from the reservations and their grown children to work as extras and make badly needed cash. John Sitting Bull, for example, was cast in “Tomahawk.”

In “How the West Was Won,” Miller helped save one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, in which a group of Indians stampede a buffalo herd through a tent village. “When they let the buffalo out of a big corral, the lead cow headed right for the Indians on the set who were supposed to be chasing them,” recounted Brad Hamlett, owner of the Wrangler Gallery, in an interview. “That shoot didn’t work, so Miller talked to the Indian extras and found among them an elderly man who had actually hunted buffalo on horseback as a youth. He told the actors how to initiate the chase correctly and the scene was a success.”

It is no small irony that in the Westerns Miller worked on, there are real warriors—and their children who grew up hearing the stories firsthand—who defeated Custer and participated in other battles.

Last photo of survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, taken September 2, 1948, by Bill Groethe. Left to right: Little Warrior, Pemmican, Little Soldier, Dewey Beard, John Sitting Bull, High Eagle, Iron Hawk and Comes Again.

Last photo of survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, taken September 2, 1948, by Bill Groethe. Left to right: Little Warrior, Pemmican, Little Soldier, Dewey Beard, John Sitting Bull, High Eagle, Iron Hawk and Comes Again.

Little Bighorn Warriors’ Last Sit-Down

Strategically, Custer’s Last Stand was an insignificant defeat for the U.S. Army. A few thousand Indians from various tribes had gathered at the Little Bighorn River, hoping to preserve their traditional way of life. There weren’t hundreds of thousands of mounted warriors ready to sweep down from the Northern Great Plains like 13th-century Mongol hordes.

Miller sketching Joseph White Cow Bull on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., c. 1937.

Miller sketching Joseph White Cow Bull on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., c. 1937.

For the Native American tribes, the victory was Pyrrhic. It was June 25, 1876—days before the centenary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Custer’s rout was embarrassing and turned public opinion completely against Native Americans. Custer was a hero of the Civil War and Indian Wars. Final defeat for the tribes came swiftly, followed by generations of shameful treatment.

In 1948, Miller organized the last reunion of remaining Little Bighorn survivors (pictured above) in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Five survivors also attended the dedication of the Crazy Horse Memorial on June 3 that year. Crazy Horse was an Oglala Sioux war leader who fought at the Little Bighorn and was killed a year later while in custody. The memorial is located in the Black Hills, and work on the rock carving will continue for decades. When completed, it will dwarf the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

What Miller penned in his field notes about interviewing John Strange Owl, who was 78 and died soon after, best describes the demeanor of these warriors: “He sat for his portrait with such grace. We spoke in Cheyenne, his only language:  ‘I am tsis-tsis-tsas (Cheyenne). This is our land. We have been here many years. Nobody bothered us until Long Hair (Custer) came charging.”

In 1955, Dewey Beard, the last survivor, whom Miller called “my second father,” died. After Miller passed away in 1992, his ashes were scattered on Mount Coolidge in the Black Hills between Custer State Park and Black Elk Peak.

The Miller Collection at Wrangler Gallery

Brad Hamlett with some of Miller's framed art at the Wrangler Gallery in Great Falls, MT.

Brad Hamlett with some of Miller’s framed art at the Wrangler Gallery in Great Falls, MT.

The Millers kept almost their entire collection together throughout their lives. Since they had no children, Jan, who passed away in 2006, bequeathed the collection to close friend Sandy Solomon. The Solomon family’s foundation then placed the collection at the Wrangler Gallery in Great Falls, Montana. The Miller collection was appraised at $3.5 million in a down market in 2007 and is available now for $3.8 million, with one proviso. It was Jan’s express wish that the collection remains intact to honor her husband’s legacy.

In total, there are about 125 framed pieces of art, consisting of Miller’s drawings and paintings (as shown on the left). Also included are depictions of several of Custer’s Indian scouts. The portraits cover several walls, and often descendants have traveled to view the renderings and left saying gratefully that they never knew what their ancestors looked like.

There are also thousands of photographs and negatives of Native Americans and their way of life. These include Indian ceremonies and pageants, which Miller helped organize. Also available are several filing cabinets of Miller’s field notes and research. The collection includes many artifacts, for example, a soldier’s meat storage tin from the battlefield, and feather objects, such as a trailing war bonnet and Black Elk’s ceremonial staff with eagle feathers. By law, these cannot be sold but could be donated to a properly licensed institution.

The Wrangler Gallery is owned by Brad Hamlett, a local fifth-generation rancher who has also served as a Montana state senator and now representative since 2009. The gallery’s director is Sherry Gallagher, an accomplished regional artist. Hamlett says the collection would be perfect for a museum, public art gallery, university or corporation that could house, curate and display the works and artifacts. It would be a great public service, he notes, to make the collection available for scholarly research. For further information, please contact Hamlett or Gallagher at WranglerGalleryArt.com.

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