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The new Indian memorial. (Tony Perrottet)

Little Bighorn Reborn

With a new Indian memorial, the site of Custer's last stand draws descendants of victors and vanquished alike

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When I got to Hardin, a lonely looking, hard-bitten prairie town with a string of boarded-up bars, the place was getting ready for the anniversary that keeps its economy alive. Every hotel room was booked, and reennactors wearing bluecoats and war paint thronged the streets.

The day of the anniversary, I got to the battlefield before dawn to see, along with about 50 others, seven Cheyenne elders in cowboy hats and dark glasses conduct a peace ceremony at the Indian memorial. Donlin Many Bad Horses lit a wooden pipe and said: "When things were bad for us, we could not do this. There were times when we could not come in here. But now a door has opened to us. We can come in and worship and pray. I hope this opening will continue to grow."

One morning a couple of days later, I met Ernie Lapointe, a great-grandson of Sitting Bull. "For many years," he said, "the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahos, everyone didn't like the Crow. We're natural enemies. But it's time now to settle those differences, to heal all those wounds." He told me that Sitting Bull had had a vision before the battle that "told him our warriors shouldn't take the spoils of war, or injure the dead—but they did. That's why we're oppressed to this day—by the losers in the battle!"

"Who wants to see Custer get killed?" a man with a loudspeaker asked the thousand-strong crowd at the longest-running reenactment of the battle, hosted by the mostly white businesses of Hardin on a dusty plain just outside town. "Y-e-s-s-s!" came the roar from the bleachers, as bluecoats on horseback rode out from a wooden fort. Next to me sat Joy Austin, the wife of Tony Austin, a 50-year-old postman now living in British Columbia who plays Custer. I asked how she felt about watching her husband die three times a day. "It's OK," she answered. "The only place I get choked up is when he leads the column of soldiers over the hill. You know that he and everyone else who rides with him won’t be returning."

A Crow Indian, Joe Medicine Crow, wrote the script for this reenactment. It is based, he says, on interviews with a Cheyenne veteran of the battle, with echoes of the 1940 Errol Flynn film They Died With Their Boots On, and emphasizes reconciliation. "In this Battle of the Little Bighorn, there were no victors.... We red men and white men live in a united fortress of democracy, the United States of America."

Afterward, I went to the rival reenactment—hosted by the Real Bird family of Crow Indians by the Little Bighorn River—where I ran into Jason Heitland, who portrayed a federal soldier. "I'm going to fight here every year until I'm too old to do it," he told me breathlessly as we wandered among replica military tents by a shady creek. "You're fighting on the actual battlefield! You sleep where the actual Indian camp was, where the Cheyenne dog soldiers slept. And the battle itself is totally unscripted. You've got whooping Indians coming from all directions. It's quite a thrill."

"And the horses don't know it's fake," added Nicola Sgro, a coffee salesman from Michigan in his late-30s. "That's why it's so dangerous!"

By dusk on Sunday, after the last shot had been fired and the last memorial wreath had been laid, the battlefield had returned to its eerie silence. Visiting the site one last time, I was left with a sense of sadness for those on both sides—cavalrymen who were paid $13 a month to risk their scalps in an alien land, and Indian warriors desperately trying to preserve their nomadic way of life. "This was Custer's last stand," said John Doerner, "but it was also the last stand of the Indians. Within a year after the Little Bighorn, there wasn't a truly free Indian left on the plains."

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