Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017
Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.
The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well.
When I arrive at the Battlefield, it’s early evening. There’s still a good couple hours of daylight left, and the angled sunlight makes the grassy undulating land glow gold. It’s windy up here, the air soft.
You likely know at least this about the battle and its significance: it was the worst defeat inflicted on the United States military in the Great Sioux War of 1876. George Armstrong’s 209-man division of the 7th cavalry was annihilated when they attacked, shooting without warning into the lodges of families as they slept, a large encampment of allied Native Americans who defied the U.S. government’s orders to confine themselves to reservations.
These reservations were largely composed of lands undesirable to white encroachers: they were relatively poor in soil and natural resources and had often already been stripped of their timber, their buffalo herds and other game all but exterminated by the first wave of white arrivals; they were also often damp and mosquito-infested. Many of these Native Americans had already lived for a time on reservations and found that life there was miserable: the agencies which managed the reservations were often run by both military appointees and private entrepreneurs who supplemented their meager salaries by plundering the rations sent by the government to the tribes. So food was scarce, the lands inhospitable for reasons described above, and disease was rampant. Malnutrition, depression caused by forced inactivity and homesickness, malarial conditions, and diseases carried by whites for which the Native Americans had no evolved immunity, caused them to sicken and die at alarming rates. So, of course, they left. The risk of violent death at the hands of the military seemed preferable to a slow, depressing death by malnutrition and disease.
But the enforced life of hopelessness on the reservation was not the worst of the U.S. government’s depredations. The Black Hills (Lakota Pahá Sápa) of South Dakota and Wyoming were a sacred place to the Native Americans of the Great Plains and were guaranteed inviolate to white invasion by the Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Native Americans. However, in response to rumors of gold found in the Hills, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to confirm these reports. He also wanted to find a good location for a fort to defend prospectors and a possible route to the southwest through the Hills. Again, all this was illegal, in violation of the Treaty. But in this case as in countless others, the lust for money was allowed to conquer all. So not only did the U.S. decide to take their homes, they decided to take their sanctuary, their holy of holies, as well. the After Custer’s expedition, prospectors poured in, and after their first feeble attempts to keep them out, the U.S. government caved to monetary interests and took steps to buy, and then to steal, the Black Hills for annexation as a U.S. territory.
The Lakota Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyennes, were the victors of the Little Bighorn battle. They were led by the famed warrior Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other great Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Sitting Bull did not fight but stayed with the women, children, and aged to protect them. He believed it fitting to leave the fighting and its opportunities for glory to the next generation. After fasting and sacrificing 100 tiny pieces of his own flesh from his arms at a Sun Dance ritual two years before, the warrior and holy man Sitting Bull had a vision in which he beheld U.S. soldiers falling in great numbers headfirst into a Lakota camp. He believed this presaged a great victory. The minor victory the week before at the Battle of the Rosebud did not fulfill the prophecy he perceived in his vision; the Battle of the Little Bighorn very much did. But the battle victory sparked a much more vigorous crackdown and the Native Americans, as we all know, were ultimately defeated in this war.
From the time I arrive, to when I return the next morning, to the time I leave, I experience the place visually and emotionally, with very little inner dialogue. My eyes take over, and I let them. So accordingly, I’ve decided to tell the rest of this story, the story of my visit, in annotated photos, in which I share my thoughts as I review them. They portray just some of the many, many things I see and learn here.
I wandered here as long as I was allowed, then the ranger let me know it was time to go since it was five minutes before the 8 pm closing time. So I left to find a place to spend the night. I’ll return tomorrow.
To be continued…..
Sources and inspiration:
‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984
‘Indian Memorial‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Janiskee. Bob. ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008
Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931
Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932
Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010