[This is day 5 of a 7 day trip to Montana and Wyoming in September 2012]
The Civil War figures large in U.S. history but it is also a topic of broad interest within our family. We have visited a number of the battlefields and even our youngest is aware of the major figures. The Indian wars that came after are also well-covered in our library but we haven’t had as much opportunity to experience the locations in which it took place. The goal for our last day before arriving in Billings was to drive to the famous battlefield at the Little Bighorn.
Custer’s Last Stand
I grew up in Michigan and imbibed the Wolverine culture. George Armstong Custer led the Wolverines in the Civil War, although I always considered him with the same disdain I had for the foppish and foolish-seeming J.E.B. Stuart of the Confederacy. They both seemed to have shared a sense of self-importance that undercut their other abilities. The fact that he came a cropper on the plains at the hands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors shocked the world in 1876 but it hardly seems surprising when you see the landscape on which the battle was fought.
It was also interesting to listen to the very interesting park ranger explain the back story to why Custer was there, why Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had camped there, and where Generals Crook and Terry were in the meantime. It helped to understand that a clash was inevitable, which makes the calamity so much more foolish. When you see the ground with the understanding how dispersed Custer’s men were, how uninformed he was, and how overwhelming the numbers the native warriors could put in the field, it seems surprising that any U.S. soldier walked away from the battle.
Like the Civil War, visiting a site of a historic battle of the Indian wars offers a great opportunity to discuss the duplicity and ignorance that the white European culture brought to its dealings with native Americans. But at the same time, it was interesting to better understand why this nomadic culture, hemmed up now on both the east and west, was unlikely to survive the collision with the dominant, more populous, technologically advanced society bearing down on it. Nomadic culture only survives in lands where no-one wants the land on which the nomads live.
Honoring the Dead
The first time I visited the battlefield was in 2001. I had visited the Montana state bar on September 10th and been stranded when the al Quaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington. I drove back from Montana to Chicago and stopped on the way. By my next visit, in 2005, the Indian memorial had been built to honor the warriors who had fought on both sides of the battle: Sioux and Cheyenne on the one, and Arikara scouts for the U.S. on the other. The memorial and the red gravestones that have placed on the battlefield to mark where warriors fell are late in coming but better late than never.
Here’s a panorama taken from a point of view at the bottom corner of the Last Stand Hill graveyard. The Indian memorial is a mound with a metal sculpture at an opening on the far side.
This is the monument:
Back to Billings
We had passed through Billings to get to the Little Bighorn and now we returned, getting to the hotel we’d stay at for the rest of the trip. It had been hot on the battlefield and we had driven the 5 mile route from Last Stand Hill to where Reno and Benteen had defended their position until the Indian tribes had pulled out and moved on. I had purchased a CD with some of my favorite Indian (or, more accurately, First Nations since they’re from Alberta and Saskatchewan) singers on it. We played Slide and Sway around the battlefield and all the way back to the big city.