New Podcast Episode: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse

Portrait of Crazy Horse, Tasunke Witko in Lakota, fresco on the interior wall of Wounded Knee museum, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, July 26th, 2017

I wake up at Fort Robinson, just a little ways east of the village of Harrison in northwest Nebraska. I drove here last night from Wounded Knee, which takes about one hour and forty-five minutes. I camped out in the backseat of the car, where I continue to keep my sleeping bag, camp pad, and coats ready to make a cozy nest, in a parking lot behind one of the museum’s lodges. It’s a soft pinkish-blue morning, a little warm with a cool breeze blowing. It rained a little last night and everything feels fresh and clean, except me. I’ll soon find a place to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into clean clothes. But right now, all I want to do is stretch my legs, drink my little thermos of coffee, and go out exploring in this calm and lovely early summer morning.

I drive the car around the fort, getting a good look at the layout and buildings until I see what I seek: a historical marker near apparent early fort buildings from the eighteenth century. I park. The grounds are lovely and well-maintained, and so are the buildings, from these rough log structures to the tidy clapboard ones painted white and green to the large lodges, halls, and offices of brick, adobe, and stone. This fort was in use more or less constantly, from its founding as Camp Robinson in 1874 as a military security outpost for the second Red Cloud Agency, to its reassignment as a training ground and quartermaster remount depot, breeding, training, and caring for up to 12,000 mules and horses at any given time prior to and for the duration of World War II. It was the regimental headquarters for the two African American black regiments in the then-segregated U.S. Army, first the Ninth Cavalry, then the Tenth, from 1887 to 1907. From 1885 to 1916, in fact, most of the troops stationed here were black.

Buffalo Soldiers historical monument at Fort Robinson, Nebraska

Crazy Horse was among the most revered war leaders of the Oglala Lakota and their allies in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. He had long been successful at resisting white settlers’ and the U.S. Army’s attempts to force him onto a reservation or to adopt their ways. He was one of the bold young warriors who led a contingent of soldiers into an ambush near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. This 1866 engagement, called the Fight of the Hundred in the Hand by the Lakota and the Fetterman Fight by the United States, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later. 81 U.S. troops from Fort Phil Kearny and a few civilians lost their lives here. This battle was the culmination of a series of skirmishes and raids on unwelcome white settlers and forts such as this one set up to protect them.

Fort Robinson historical sign and reconstructed buildings from the 1870’s

For a long time previously, white and Native American people traded with one another and enjoyed mostly good relations on the Great Plains. However, settlers began flooding in in ever great numbers, disrupting buffalo migrations, depleting game, clearing timber, and putting up fences. At a certain point, the white presence came to be seen as a menace to the way of life that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those who followed them believed was divinely and wisely arranged. Why resort to grubbing in the soil and putting up fences when Wakan Tanka, the Creator or Great Spirit, had given the people such rich herds of game, which, together with the rich stands of timber and plentiful flowing water, provided all the nourishment, clothing, and shelter one could need, on vast swaths of beautiful land where the people could roam as freely as the animals? The Bozeman Trail, which cut across this good land, was a major route for these white settlers and for a time, they passed through it mostly unmolested. But when the trickle became a flood, the situation changed from a matter of hospitality and mutual benefit to one of survival. Would any reasonable person continue to welcome guests once they’ve begun to ransack their home, raid their fridge, take their most prized possessions to sell, and block their passage from room to room?

Reconstruction of the old guardhouse with marker for Crazy Horse’s death, Fort Robinson

Crazy Horse was having none of it. Like Sitting Bull, he distrusted white people and disdained their way of life. It seemed stunted to him, caged, lacking soul and nobility. Unlike Sitting Bull, he made no concessions to white ways until forced to do so for the survival of his band; even then, he did the absolute minimum necessary. We don’t know what he looked like since he refused to have his picture taken; he was unimpressed with most white-made goods and would accept no bribes; he absolutely refused to visit Washington, D.C. as his fellow great chiefs had done because, as he observed, the experience changed them. They were dazzled and bewitched by what they saw, so they lost their independent spirit, their sense of who they were.

Red Cloud at Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson

Perhaps this touched a nerve: Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two chiefs who had once been among the greatest warrior defenders of the Lakota ways but who had adopted many white ways, grew jealous of the power and influence Crazy Horse enjoyed because of his steadfast independence. They remained great leaders of their people and had come to believe that the best way to preserve the lives of their people while preserving as much of their culture as they could was to work with the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it was a hard decision to make, and I’m sure they did so with a great degree of ambivalence. So, Crazy Horse’s recalcitrance must have been that much harder to take. They treated him with suspicion and took the U.S. Army’s side against him. Even his great friend who had fought at his side at the Little Bighorn, Little Big Man, had switched loyalties. He had visited Washington, too. He was one of those that assisted in the attempt to confine Crazy Horse the day he was killed.

Crazy Horse wasn’t only an independent spirit when it came to white ways. He was very unusual within Oglala Lakota society. He was a reserved man in a gregarious culture; he dressed simply at all times, when warbonnets, elaborate jewelry, and other showy regalia were the usual garb of warriors in battle; he didn’t scalp the enemies he killed; he didn’t take a wife until he was in his thirties when most of his fellows had started a family by age twenty; though he fought bravely and ferociously, he was also methodical in battle, planning his moves carefully and stopping to shoot accurately when a whirlwind, showy style of fighting was more customary; he spoke little of his own exploits when tales of personal heroism were the usual topic of conversation after a good fight. But his fame grew because the daring and magnificence of his exploits made him an irresistible topic of conversation for others.

The Fetterman fight and the Battle of the Little Bighorn were spectacular victories for Crazy Horse and his warriors, but he would never again enjoy that level of success in battle against the white invaders. His last fight with the U.S. Army was at the Battle of Wolf Mountains, which began when the soldiers attacked his band in the dead of winter.  Much of the fighting, in fact, occurred during a blizzard. The army decided to end the fighting, once and for all, to make an additional show of invincible strength by showing that they were willing and able to pursue the war even in the most extreme weather. The fighting was fierce and, though there was no decisive winner, the Lakota and Cheyenne’s losses were heavy. The camp, too, was suffering greatly from hunger and the intense cold. Crazy Horse was defeated, finally, not in battle, but by observing the suffering of his people. He, like so many great chiefs before him, surrendered so that his people, if they could not enjoy liberty, could at least survive.

Stones placed in formation near the Crazy Horse Monument and guardhouse. It appears to be an unfinished memorial: when doing research for this piece, I found an article from 2015 which discussed plans for a new memorial for Crazy Horse and his entire band, 899 lovers of freedom who were forced to surrender here in 1877. The outer stones to mark four cardinal directions are in place, though they are not the massive ones described in the article, and the central stone has another smaller one beside it for offerings. The concrete walkways and large plaques containing the names of the people are not in place. Perhaps this simplified version was put in place as the often long, tedious, sometimes indefinite fundraising efforts for the more elaborate one continue.

Crazy Horse led his people to the Red Cloud Agency next to Fort Robinson and surrendered there on May 5th, 1877. For the next few months, rumor, gossip, accusations, negotiations, and whispers of plot and conspiracy whirled while Crazy Horse retreated ever further into himself. He was a man of action, not words, and he was impatient with all this hubbub. He had lost his only child, his beloved daughter They Are Afraid Of Her, about four years before, and her mother, his wife Black Shawl, was suffering from tuberculosis. He wanted nothing to be left alone as much as possible so long as he could not fight nor be free. But the rumors that Crazy Horse was plotting to assassinate General George Crook and start another war intensified, and Crook was determined to have him arrested, even assassinated if need be. Later inquiries showed that the rumors were unfounded, that there was no evidence that Crazy Horse planned to do otherwise than keep his word not to fight the whites anymore. Jealousy, infighting, betrayal, and poor translations, both accidental and deliberate, all contributed to the drama.

Left: Adjutant’s office, where Crazy Horse died, to the left of the guardhouse where he was stabbed; all of these buildings are reconstructions based on written records, photographs, and archaeological evidence. So you can see the actual distance between the adjutant’s office from which Crazy Horse walked to the guardhouse. Right: interior of the adjutant’s office with informational sign

The rumors got so bad that Crazy Horse feared that he would be executed or, worse, arrested and removed to some distant land of the whites away from his people, so on September 4th, 1877, he wrapped up his sick wife, and he and a few friends fled to his old friend Spotted Tail’s agency about forty miles east. He sought protection and advice as to what the whites were thinking, and he didn’t think this would betray his promise, of surrender. After all, he was going to an agency. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee was ordered to retrieve Crazy Horse, and he escorted him back to Fort Robinson the next morning. They went first to the adjutant’s office.

Stone monument, dedicated in 1934, near the site where Crazy Horse was bayoneted. I placed this little spray of sage here, picked in Deep Ravine at the Little Bighorn Battlefield from which Crazy Horse led his charge to split Custer’s forces. This maneuver was key to the successful outcome of the at battle. You can see that the morning breeze is about to waft the sprig away

Crazy Horse understood that he was to have a chance to talk things over with U.S. Army officials and clear things up. Lee was pretty sure of his innocence regarding all those rumors of plots, conspiracies, and warmongering, and promised Crazy Horse an interview with the white authorities which he didn’t have the authority to arrange. Lee hoped he could persuade the higher-ups to talk to Crazy Horse before deciding his fate, but it was not to be. Unequivocal orders came down for Crazy Horse’s immediate arrest instead. When Crazy Horse was led from the adjutant’s office into the guardhouse, he showed no sign of resistance, walking hand in hand with the captain. But when he stepped in the door, he saw the bars of the prison, and he realized this was a trap: there would be no talks, only imprisonment and then, who knows? So Crazy Horse pushed himself out the door, and as soldiers and his old friend Little Big Man tried to restrain him, he pulled out his knife and slashed Little Big Man’s arm. Another soldier near the guardhouse lowered his bayonet at the ready, and when the opportunity came, he lunged and stabbed. The blade pierced Crazy Horse’ side and into his kidney, and he fell.

After some controversy over what to do (put Crazy Horse in prison as he was, now in his death struggle? Leave him lying where he was as his friends began to hear the news and gather in anger?), he was carried back to the adjutant’s office on the red blanket he had been wearing. He refused the white man’s cot offered to him and asked to be placed on the floor instead. Crazy Horse was given morphine to ease his intense pain and he died, after lingering for long and painful hours, in the presence of his father and stepfather. He spoke forgiving words for most involved with his death except Little Big Man, who had, it seemed, not only betrayed Crazy Horse but all of his people.

Working model at the Visitor Center for the Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota. When asked once where his lands were now that the Lakota were being driven out, Crazy Horse answered, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.

Crazy Horse has become one of the most widely revered Native Americans in history, if not the most. Many recognize similarities in the life and death story of Jesus Christ to that of Crazy Horse: each was called by the supernatural to be a deliverer of his people, each beheld visions and went out to the wilderness to seek them; each was warned by the supernatural of the nature and manner of death but boldly continued his mission nonetheless; each refused to be tempted away from his purpose by a vision of earthly reward and the sight of a glorious city; each was a loner and dreamer but also a charismatic leader; each called on his people to eschew a life of promised ease and comfort to follow him on a harder road; each preferred simplicity in dress and humility in comportment; each died, falsely accused and betrayed by a friend, with a stab wound in his side. These themes resonate in our American culture generally, in which Christianity plays such a significant formative role. There are so many great Native Americans that we remember and admire but perhaps Crazy Horse remains preeminent in our collective memory for these perceived Christlike qualities. In a strictly historical sense, these similarities are exaggerated and perhaps unwarranted, but in a cultural and spiritual sense, they stand out to us because of their resonance with our most cherished beliefs and values. Native American communities too, many of whom have adopted Christianity and especially those doctrines which echo their traditional faith, perceive Crazy Horse as everything from a stalwart warrior to a messianic figure, a great symbol of hope, deliverance, traditional virtue, and spiritual renewal for their beleaguered peoples.

Crazy Horse Memorial in progress, Black Hills, South Dakota

One last thing: three days ago, I climbed Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Sylvan Lake is nearby, and I had stopped there at a lakeside hotel to seek recommendations for the best hike to the top. One of the routes departs from the short of Sylvan Lake, but not the longer, more scenic one which I had chosen. As a teen, Crazy Horse went to Sylvan Lake with his father on a vision quest, one of the most important in his life, in which he was instructed how to paint his body with hailstones and his face with lightning for battle; to dress simply and wear his hair flowing down; to take no scalps; and generally to live a life of bravery and modest virtue. I wanted to find the exact place he went, but it would take a level of meticulous research and mapping that I had run out of time to do before I left. When I return to the Black Hills, I will make a point of seeking out that place.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Buecker, Thomas R. ‘Final Days of Crazy Horse,’ Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield website

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016

Crazy Horse.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency National Historic Landmark Nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Steven Lissandrello and Sarah J. Pearce, Historic Sites Survey, National Park Service / Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service, Sep 27, 1976/Jul 20, 1983

Fort Robinson History‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

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

Pearson, Jeffey V. ‘Nelson A. Miles, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Wolf Mountains‘. From Montana, The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Rose, Christina. ‘Native History: Crazy Horse Fights Final Battle,’ Indian Country Today, Jan 8, 2014

Rose, Christina. ‘New Fort Robinson Memorial Will Honor Crazy Horse and His Band,’ Indian Country Today, Jul 27, 2015

Schubert, Frank “Mickey”. ‘Fort Robinson, Nebraska (1874-1916)‘ Black Past website

Sites and Structures Maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2

Cheyenne Warrior Marker historical placard, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, NPS. I’m glad to see that there’s now public acknowledgement that other human beings died here that day besides U.S. soldiers. Soon, I hope, that more of the Oglala, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other tribe members, their slain warriors and slain women and children as well, will be specifically remembered too, as far as we can identify them. There’s a general remembrance in the Indian Memorial, but it would be a very good thing, I think, to see more of the victims named if possible. The attack began, after all, with U.S. soldiers firing into the lodges of families, regardless of the collateral damage (that pragmatic military term to ease the conscience of war-makers), the lives of noncombatants that would necessarily be lost.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As I continue to explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield the next morning and afternoon, I gain a much clearer idea of how the drama played out. I had read many accounts of the battle, but seeing the lay of the land helps me visualize it more clearly. For example, it all happened over a much larger area, and over a longer period of time, than I had conceived.

Here are just a few more images of the many, many more things I see and learn here this second day at the Little Bighorn battlefield:

Headstones marking where U.S. cavalry soldiers fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. The 7th cavalry was hopelessly outnumbered; later, Native American expressed their amazement that George Armstrong Custer’s 7th attacked the encampment given that it was so large, about 7,000 in all, including about 2,000 warriors. Though it was later revealed that Custer ordered the attack because he didn’t want the encampment to escape, still, it was suicidal to lead his men to attack such a large force before the other approaching U.S. troops arrived.  So it the question remains unanswered, at least satisfactorily: was it just hubris on his part, or dismissiveness of Native American prowess in war, or ignorance, or some of each? The debate continues….

John Stands in Timber, Lame White Man’s grandson, was one of those who helped the National Park Service to identify and honor the sites of fallen warriors

Here, about 7,000 people banded together near the banks of the Little Bighorn River in 1876 in a bid for freedom

Above: Deep Ravine, through which Crazy Horse led a charge towards Land Stand and Calhoun Hills from the Little Bighorn River.

Site of Major Marcus Reno’s retreat, about five miles from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield. He attacked the encampment from one direction, Custer from another, and his detachment of soldiers was the first to start firing

Looking towards the Crow’s Nest vantage point from which Custer directed his attack

Black Elk quote on the wall of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum. Black Elk, a Northern Cheyenne, was a young teenager when he fought in the battle here, and he went on to become an important witness to what occurred here. This quote is from Black Elk Speaks, poet and author John G. Neihardt’s account of Black Elk’s conversations about, among many things, this battle and of his life as a visionary and holy man. It was published in 1932, when Black Elk was in his late 60’s. Black Elk’s life was a fascinating one, and I’ll continue to follow him in this series. To be continued…

Many times throughout my life, especially as a child and teen, I had heard of the battle at the Little Bighorn, and shrugged my shoulders each time. I was not then inspired to learn more about it: it seemed to me like just one more of the countless times human beings have slaughtered each other for what were probably completely insufficient reasons. Why learn the tedious details?

I’ve only recently begun to make a serious study of the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and their encounters with the encroaching peoples of the United States and Europe. What I’ve learned is disturbing, amazing, complex, and heart-wrenching. Learning about this battle, it turns out, is not the least bit tedious. It’s dramatic, tragic, fascinating, and invaluable for understanding this very important and formative period in American history, and continues to be very relevant today. Human beings are still wasting lives on battlefields all over the world, and Americans are still dismissive of and doing wrong to the original inhabitants of the Plains, as the recent Dakota Access Pipeline debacle illustrates.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1

The view very near where I turned off to sleep at Beartooth Pass, Montana. It was quite a sight to wake up to.

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.

View of Custer-Gallatin National Forest from Rock Creek Vista Point off Beartooth / Highway 212 heading east

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.

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

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.

Great Sioux War map at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum, NPS

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.

Sitting Bull portrait etched into black granite at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. I like how the golden grassy hills are reflected on the stone as I am looking at it

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.

Last Stand Hill, where George Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with just a few of the multitude of headstones marking the site of U.S. casualties. At the time I saw this hill, throughout the rest of the evening here and my visit here the next day, I kept thinking ‘Hubris! Such hubris!’ (excessive pride)

Wooden Leg Hill. His account of the Little Bighorn battle was the first first-person account I read and is an integral part of the historical records of what happened here on June 25th and 26th, 1876.

Two Cheyenne warrior gravestones at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument. It took far, far too long, but finally, the sites of fallen Native American warriors began to be marked as well starting in the 1990’s, with elegant red granite headstones

Spirit Warriors Sculpture by Colleen Cutschall / Sister Wolf at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About some of the warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Custer’s pledge not to kill any more Cheyennes, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. Like so many other white promises to the Native Americans, this promise was unkept

Portraits and a list of warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

View of gravestones and visitor center from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial

A chokecherry bush with prayer ties. A jubilant songbird is perched on it as I look. You can see it if you look closely at the center top. Just off the path near Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial.

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.

To be continued…..

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way.

During this journey, I’ll explore Yellowstone and the history of National Parks in America (it’s been a great NP year for me!); I’ll travel throughout the Great Plains following the history of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, the Lakota and their and other Native Americans’ encounters with white invaders in the 1800’s and beyond; I’ll visit Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago following Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, uniquely American forms of art and architecture, and other topics. I’ll also make many more stops and detours along the way.

Patrons of this series: Ervin Epstein MD, Liz and Russ Eagle, Tracy Runyon, Genessa Kealoha, the Cools-Ramsden family, and Shannon Harrod Reyes ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh
Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike
Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2
The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2
My Great Year for National Parks, Monuments, and Forests
Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse
Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Debate
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2

And associated articles

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!
The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them
Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!
The Friendship of Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!