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 National Park 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, and the air is soft.
I stop in at the Little Bighorn National Monument Visitor Center. At the entryway to the museum, I find life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant. Grant was disturbed by what he heard about the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers (that’s one thing to call them), but his idea of humane reform was to put Native Americans on reservations and convince them to adopt white language, religion, and culture, and to remove their children to white schools to train Indian ways out of them. Sitting Bull did not see things this way at all. He believed that the Great Spirit had placed his people where they were intending that they live in accordance with the opportunities and limitations of the land as he had created it for them. I think he also realized, as history has taught us time and time again, that culture and a sense of history are essential for health and happiness and a sense of purpose. Like natural immunity, culture takes time and a particular set of circumstances to develop. It works very well but is also very fragile. Rip people out of the environment in which they develop and try to force them to suddenly survive in another, and the results can be just as devastating and long-lasting to physical, mental, or spiritual health.
You likely know at least this about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its significance: it was the worst defeat inflicted on the United States military in the Great Sioux War of 1876. George Armstrong Custer’s 209-man division of the 7th cavalry was annihilated when they attacked a large encampment of allied Native Americans, shooting without warning into the lodges of families as they slept, for defying U.S. government 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 these 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 the 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, many of them 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 American tribes. However, in response to rumors of gold found there, 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 of 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. 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 U.S. territory.
The Lakota Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, were the victors of the Little Bighorn battle. They were led by the famed warrior Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other great Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Sitting Bull did not fight but stayed with the women, children, and the aged to protect them. He believed it fitting to leave the fighting and its opportunities for glory to the younger 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 seem to fulfill the prophecy he perceived in his vision; the Battle of the Little Bighorn very much did. But this 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 at the battlefield, 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 to the Little Bighorn, 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 wander here as long as I’s allowed, then the ranger lets me know it was time to go since it was five minutes before the 8 pm closing time. So I leave to find a place to spend the night, and I’ll return tomorrow.
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