"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."
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.
A year would pass before a second detail would come to remove the bodies of 11 officers and 2 civilians and send them to Eastern graveyards. (Indians had removed their dead shortly after the battle.) By now, as Lt. John G. Bourke noted, "pieces of clothing, soldiers' hats, cavalry coats, boots with the leather legs cut off, but with the human feet and bones still sticking in them, strewed the hill." Custer's shallow grave had been disturbed. After misidentifying one skeleton as Custer's—a blouse upon which the remains were lying identified it as belonging to a corporal—the party chose another. "I think we got the right body the second time," one member of the detail, Sgt. Michael Caddle, recalled in a letter to a historian; but another eyewitness remembered the commanding officer muttering: "Nail the box up; it is alright as long as the people think so."
The first actual sightseers at Little Bighorn were Indians. In the winter of 1876, Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior and a veteran of the battle, led a nine-man hunting party to the desolate spot. Acting as tour guide, he and the group rode through hills still strewn with unexpended gun cartridges, spears, arrows and the bleached bones of cavalrymen.
Two years later, 25 recently surrendered Sioux and Cheyenne veterans provided a battlefield tour for Col. Nelson A. Miles, commander of Fort Keogh, in Montana, and a personal friend of the Custer family, who sought "the attainment of the Indian narrative of the engagement." As 400,000 visitors a year learn today, the battle involved more than just the cinematic debacle on Last Stand Hill. Early in the afternoon of June 25, Custer sent one of his three battalions, led by Maj. Marcus Reno, to attack the Indian encampment from the south. Repulsed, Reno retreated across Little Bighorn River to the bluffs beyond to be joined by a second battalion led by Capt. Frederick Benteen. The force dug in four miles southwest of Last Stand Hill, where they held out overnight against Indian attacks. After a harrowing siege, tormented by thirst and picked at by sniper fire, the soldiers saw the Indians withdraw the next afternoon; the battalions had suffered 53 killed and 52 wounded. Some 380 survived.
In 1879, the battle site fell under the jurisdiction of the War Department, and that year troops from the nearby Fort Custer erected a rough log memorial on the crest of Last Stand Hill. Native American visitation waned. The Indians who had won the battle had lost the war, and with it the right to interpret the past. Back East, Custer was turned into a hero.
It was not until 1881 that the bones of the remaining cavalrymen and their horses were finally gathered by hand into a mass grave, over which a 36,000-pound granite memorial was erected. Even then, the job was hardly thorough: in 1925, a decapitated skeleton of a trooper in Reno's command was found near the modern-day hamlet of Garryowen; another, wearing an Army tunic, was exposed in a shallow grave on Reno Hill in 1958.
The memorial, and the growing popularity of the automobile, brought more tourists to Little Bighorn. But it was not until the 1926 semicentennial of the battle that a major event was staged at the site: 50,000 people showed up, including western film star William S. Hart, to participate in services and watch a reenactment. There was an official burying of the hatchet ceremony in which General Godfrey, who had fought with Benteen and White Bull, Sitting Bull's nephew, came together to erase old hatreds. Bull gave Godfrey a blanket, and Godfrey gave White Bull an American flag. The tomahawk was buried in the grave of the soldier found the year before, as a symbolic gesture. But to some in the predominantly white audience, the ceremony suggested that the Indians had accepted domination by the white man.
About this time, Nellie Beaverheart, daughter of possibly the only Indian chief killed at the battle, Lame White Man, asked for a marker from the War Department at the place where he died. The request was ignored until the 1950s, when the National Park Service, now administering the site, erected a wooden marker. Still, it took until the 1970s—with the publication of works such as Dee Brown’s poignant Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—for the winds of cultural change to stir the battlefield. In 1991, Barbara Sutteer, the first Native American superintendent of the site, oversaw the name change, long requested by Indians, from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. An 11-member Indian memorial design committee, authorized by the same legislation, oversaw the design and content of a memorial. A sculpture, in an opening in the north wall of the memorial, was based on the pictograph drawings of White Bird, a Cheyenne warrior who had participated in the battle at age 15. It consists of three horsemen crafted from thick black wire, representing warriors riding out to defend the Indian village from Custer's attack; a fourth figure, a woman running alongside and passing up a shield to one of the soldiers, emphasizes the importance of women in Indian life. Within the circular earthworks of the memorial, designed by Philadelphians John R. Collins and Allison J. Towers, are interpretive panels about the Native American groups. A symbolic "spirit gate" welcomes the Indians' and soldiers' spirits.
I met Sutteer, who works today as a consultant on Native American issues, at the Hardin Dairy Queen. A soft-spoken woman in her 60s, she told me she had received death threats for wanting to introduce Native American viewpoints to the site. "Of course, the battlefield has been sacred to the Indians far longer than for white people," she told me. "The quality of the grass made it an excellent hunting place. That's one reason the groups had camped here in 1876."
The attention to Indian history at the monument has highlighted some complexities of Native American culture. "White people often take Native Americans as a single monolithic culture," says Tim McCleary. The Crow and Arikara were actually on Custer's side, working as scouts. They regarded the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho as invaders of their homeland. "The opportunity to kill Sioux with the assistance of the U.S. military was really inviting," McCleary goes on, adding that the Arikara remain proud of their role as U.S. Army allies. To the Cheyenne and Sioux, on the other hand, the Battle of Little Bighorn climaxed long resistance to white incursions, and to this day they resent the favoritism they believe the government showed the Crow. (They also resent that the site of their greatest victory is on Crow land, adds McCleary, which allows Crow guides to give "Native American" tours. As for the Crow, they felt that the reservation they were given after the battle was too small and regard the creation of the Northern Cheyenne reservation right next door to their traditional home—with a slice of their original reservation carved off for their enemies—as a pointed insult.
These ancient rivalries still spill onto the battlefield today. Since 1999, five red-granite headstones have been placed to mark spots where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, counterparts to white tablets erected for the men of the Seventh Cavalry in 1890. But their inscriptions, saying that each warrior "Died in Defense of His Homeland," enrage the Crow, who argue that the battle was actually on their homeland. "The Sioux and Cheyenne were migrating onto our land from the east and the Arapaho from the south," says Marvin Dawes, a Crow Indian historian. "Shall we say, they were passing through. They were visitors in the area."
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."