South Dakota man recalls capturing iconic photo

By Hannah Baker
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) July 2011

With one quick click Bill Groethe captured history when he photographed the nine remaining Native American survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn on Sept. 2, 1948.

“They agreed to let me photograph them because after the war they were around me in the area and they got to know me,” said Groethe, who turns 88 in November.

Groethe’s curiosity with photography began when he was just 10 years old after getting his first camera. He started taking photos and selling the prints for a nickel each. Then at the young age of 12, he started working as an apprentice at Bell Studio in Rapid City.

In 1943 during World War II, Groethe worked as a war photographer. When he returned he then began taking photos and documenting the construction of Mount Rushmore.

These experiences are what lead him to that September day when he did what he considers his most important accomplishment.

“There’s no question about it that these are my most important photos,” said Groethe. “Anyone can take pictures of Mount Rushmore, but being able to take the survivor photos meant a lot.”

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, was a battle between the 7th Cavalry Regiment and the combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho people on June 25 and June 26 in 1876. The Native Americans, including one of their leaders Crazy Horse, were overwhelmingly victorious, marking the event as the beginning of the end to the Indian Wars.

Groethe said he knew he needed to take the pictures of the remaining survivors because they were in their late 80s and early 90s and may not have been around much longer. One of the survivors he photographed died just a month later.

Although he did not expect it, the 11 photos received global attention and now appear in places around the world including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., Australia, Japan, Italy, Sweden, England and elsewhere in Europe. Many schools across the country also feature his work as tools for educating students about the historic battle.

“We’ve sold pictures to places all over the world,” said Groethe. “There have been times when people have come up and just stared at the photos for a half an hour, just looking at it. Some people really have an emotional experience.”

Because of his accomplishments, every year on Sept. 2, Rapid City and South Dakota celebrates Bill Groethe Day. Groethe said he “doesn’t know about that” and said he was just happy to take the pictures.

Groethe now volunteers at Mount Rushmore, selling copies of his photos in the gift shop. He can also be found at his store, First Photo, in Rapid City four days a week.

“He’ll never quit,” said Alice, Groethe’s wife of 58 years.