"A beautiful place...," I murmured to no one in particular, gazing down from a hilltop to cottonwood forests on both sides of a lazy river. A woman at my side finished the thought: "...to die."
From This Story
A touch morbid for an exchange between strangers? Perhaps, but this was not just any hilltop or any day. We were part of a small crowd gathered on Last Stand Hill on the 128th anniversary of the West's most famous battle. A few feet away, in the gently swaying grass, dozens of bone-white headstones mark the military's best guesstimates of where 42 of the Seventh Cavalry soldiers fell that June 25, 1876, some having held out behind a breastwork made of their dead horses. In the center of the markers, next to a small American flag, lay the headstone of their flamboyant, controversial leader, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Still, on that clear, sunny summer morning, it seemed hard to believe that this quiet corner of Montana had been the scene of desperate hand-to-hand combat, when Custer and 209 men under his command were wiped out by the combined forces of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.
And then a voice rang out in the distance: "Here they come!"
Suddenly, the earth began to quiver, and the breeze carried shrill cries—yip, yip, yip. Bursting from behind Battle Ridge thundered 100 Lakota on horseback. Several were carrying wooden staffs adorned with colored tassels and eagle feathers, the sacred war standards of the Sioux (a name assigned to several Indian tribes, including the Lakota, who find the term offensive). For a moment, 128 years dissolved, and we were given a pale glimpse of the emotions those U.S. cavalrymen must have felt when they realized what Custer, hoping to attack an Indian camp before it could scatter, had led them into. On that fateful morning—a suffocatingly hot day—the entire valley basin had been covered with tepees, part of the largest Indian force on record. Custer and the five companies he was leading were surrounded and annihilated.
The news of Custer's defeat reached American cities just after jubilant Fourth of July centennial celebrations had concluded, stunning the nation. How could a group of "uncivilized" Indians have wiped out a modern military force, killing even a decorated Civil War hero?
Now, as I stood on Last Stand Hill, history seemed to have come full circle. Another 27 Lakota horsemen, these led by descendants of Crazy Horse, the most revered of the Sioux warriors at the 1876 battle, had ridden 360 miles in two weeks from their South Dakota reservation. They had followed the same route as their ancestors, and were now praying for their dead killed at the battle at an impressive new Indian memorial, just 50 yards northwest of Last Stand Hill. Dedicated in 2003, the memorial is a circular earth-and-stonework balustrade, with a weeping wall, interpretive panels and an elegant sculpture of Spirit Warriors—spirits of the Indian soldiers that were protecting the village that day.
Until recently, the Great Sioux Nation Victory Ride—let alone the crowds of Native Americans participating in the anniversary festivities—would have been hard to imagine here. Indians "used to believe they weren't really welcome," said Tim McCleary, 42, a historian formerly at the battlefield who now teaches at Little Bighorn College. "And not surprisingly. All the interpretation was from the U.S. cavalry point of view." Kenneth Medicine Bull, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation visiting the battlefield, nodded in agreement. "Before, this place felt like it was a tribute to Custer," he said. "Nothing even mentioned the Cheyenne and Sioux."
Today, for Indians and whites alike, the June anniversary has become a three-day extravaganza of religious services, academic symposia and general whooping it up. (There is not one but two reenactments of the battle, held by rival groups.) After the Sioux had ridden off, John Doerner, the park's official historian, told me that there are still visitors who believe Custer was an American martyr who died to tame the Indians as well as Custerphobes who consider him a war criminal. But the arguments over the site no longer carry the same venom they did in the 1970s, when the American Indian Movement disrupted memorial services here by carrying a flag upside down across the battlefield, singing "Custer Died for Your Sins."
"The shouts have died down to whispers now," Doerner said. "Time heals all."
Back in 1876, the first U.S. Army reports of the site sanitized the grisly fate of Custer's men. Lt. James H. Bradley arrived two days after the battle to help identify the slain officers and bury the dead. Not wishing to further upset the families of the fallen, he described for the Helena Herald an almost pastoral scene where few soldiers had been scalped and Custer's body was "that of a man who had fallen asleep and enjoyed peaceful dreams." But another eyewitness, Gen. Edward S. Godfrey, privately admitted that the reality was "a sickening, ghastly horror." Some soldiers had been stripped, scalped and mutilated. Many had had their genitals severed, some say in retaliation for the genital mutilation of Indian men and women by soldiers in previous battles. The burial party was not only sickened by the carnage but feared further attacks. With only a handful of shovels, the men hastily threw dirt over the dead, dug a shallow grave for Custer and beat a hasty retreat.