She said it was important for her to say, “Custer not only did wrong, he deserved to die for his folly. He didn’t just betray you. He betrayed me.”

Descendant’s visit served as painful reminder for some Native Americans that historical traumas are closely linked to present-day battles with US government

Floris White Bull couldn’t believe what she was hearing. On the same day the US government granted permission for the Dakota Access pipeline to drill under the Missouri river, a descendant of General George Armstrong Custer had arrived at Standing Rock.

Alisha Custer – whose lineage traces back to the US army commander who led the 19th-century wars against Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – had traveled from Wichita, Kansas, to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and was ready to speak to Standing Rock members.

“My initial feeling was anger. I was like, how dare she?” recounted White Bull, 33, who is a descendant of Chief White Bull, the man who some believed to have killed Custer in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Gathered inside a yurt last Wednesday at Oceti Sakowin, the main camp of “water protectors” fighting the oil pipeline, Custer and her four-year-old daughter Akira met with a small group of indigenous people to offer something these Standing Rock members had never received before from the Custer family – an apology.

Alisha Custer – whose lineage traces back to the US army commander who led the 19th century wars against Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – meets with Standing Rock members. Photograph: David Valdez 

“People need to hear ‘I’m sorry’,” Custer, 39, said in a recent phone interview after she left Standing Rock. “‘I’m sorry’ can go so far.”

The unlikely meeting 140 years after Little Bighorn came at a time of heightened tensions at Standing Rock. As one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump ordered the approval of pipeline construction across Lake Oahe, which the tribe says poses a grave threat to its water supply, is destroying sacred sites and is violating treaty rights.

For some Standing Rock members, Custer’s visit served as a painful reminder that their historical traumas are closely linked to the present-day battles with the US government, which they say continues to trample on their rights and use force.

From left: Kristen Tuske, Alisha Custer and Holly Young at Standing Rock. Photograph: Courtesy of Kristen Tuske 

On Saturday night at the home of Wasté Win Young, a 38-year-old Standing Rock member, a group of longtime friends who had sat face-to-face with Custer days earlier gathered for a pizza dinner and reflected on the unexpected and emotional meeting.

“Custer represents what America did to us,” said Young, who lives in Fort Yates, half an hour south of the anti-pipeline camps.

Young broke down crying as she spoke of Little Bighorn, where one of her ancestors was a female warrior. The event, also known as Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, was a victory for Native Americans. But the win was short-lived and was followed by further invasions, massacres and oppressive policies that have plagued indigenous people for generations.

“It was a devastating blow for the US military, and we’ve been paying for it ever since,” Young said.

Alisha Custer said she felt called to Standing Rock in part because she is also Osage and Cherokee and her daughter is Yankton Sioux. “This is her land, her birthright,” she said, adding, “You can’t teach environmental conscientiousness by sitting on the sidelines.”

But Custer said she also hoped an in-person apology could provide some sort of healing. “Trauma has been scientifically proven to not only run through our DNA, but to be passed on in our DNA to our children,” she said. “I didn’t do these things, but … someone needs to stand up and say I’m sorry.” She said it was important for her to say, “Custer not only did wrong, he deserved to die for his folly. He didn’t just betray you. He betrayed me.”

Kristen Tuske, a 39-year-old Standing Rock member, said the meeting was surreal. “It’s eerie. This is another test to see how we are in our hearts.”

The women said they were ultimately moved by Custer’s words.

“She’s not just being passive in history. She’s willing to accept and take on that responsibility,” White Bull said. “I feel like there’s an opportunity for healing.”

Young said she recognized Custer and her daughter as “relatives” and said the meeting helped her understand how rare this kind of accountability is.

“The US has not and will not acknowledge this. They’ve continued on that destructive path,” she said, wondering aloud if 150 years from now, the descendants of Americans pushing the pipeline and police who have targeted water protectors might offer an apology. “America could learn a lot from what she did.”

In a recent interview, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, Dave Archambault II, said he has come to terms with the fact that US officials have refused to acknowledge America’s legacy of harm against indigenous people.

“The federal government in this country is never going to apologize for what they’ve done to the first people of these lands,” he said. “We have to be able to forgive. I’ll never forget, but I can forgive.”

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