Essay: On the Little Bighorn Battlefield

The West’s most famous battlefield resonates with desperation and defeat. Or, from another viewpoint, overwhelming victory.

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Standing on the last piece of ground ever seen by George Armstrong Custer, you can still feel his plight. White stone monuments to fallen soldiers mix with yucca and stubby prairie grass on the bleak hills skirting the muddy Little Bighorn River. A group of markers stands pathetically close together on Last Stand Hill, a spot that gave Custer a fine view of coulees and crags that to this day look as if they could conceal an endless supply of warriors. The West’s most famous battlefield resonates with desperation and defeat. Or, depending on your viewpoint, overwhelming victory. Shock and awe, Native style.

Custer’s charge on Chief Sitting Bull’s camp of 1,500 to 2,000 Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in 1876 in eastern Montana stands out as one of history’s greatest bad ideas. Legend has it that in the hours before leading 262 of his men to their death, he shouted out “Hurrah, boys! We’ve got them!” All bravado, no brains. The resulting battle has become the epitome of a decisive defeat. But what was decided?

I’ve lived most of my life in Billings, Mont., close enough to the battlefield to make many trips over the years. When I was a kid, it was called the Custer Battlefield, and the untold number of Indians who fought and died there were treated as an afterthought. Now it’s known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and the U.S. National Park Service has placed red granite headstones to mark the approximate spots where warriors met their ends. One marker near the base of Last Stand Hill reads: limber bones—a cheyenne warrior—fell here on june 25, 1876, while defending the cheyenne way of life. A nearby wall of honor lists other warriors killed in the fighting: Chased by Owls, Dog with Horns, Noisy Walking, and dozens more.

According to the inscription, Chased by Owls was Sioux. That’s all I know about the man. Or boy. Unlike Custer, he never had a town nor an elementary school named after him, and he’s never mentioned in the history books. But I wonder: If I could have somehow witnessed the fight, would I have rooted for him? He would have skewered me with arrows if he had seen my face, but I still feel sympathy for his side. He and the others were fighting for their land and homes. But the thought of those warriors swarming around the soldiers hunkered down on that hillside—a thought that hits all visitors here—well, that’s just too grim to celebrate, from either side.

Hindsight makes it even harder to pick sides. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho who “won” this battle soon faced the full might of the U.S. military. The defeated tribes were quickly rounded up and sent to reservations. There would be no more routs of the white man, no more camps in the open country, no more journeys with the bison herds. Sitting Bull ended up signing autographs at Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

Maybe the real winners are the ones who avoided the fight. The battlefield is surrounded by the reservation of the Crow, the only tribe in these parts that never tangled with the U.S. Army. On the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, a small band of Crow scouts helped guide Custer and his troops to Sitting Bull’s encampment. Most of the scouts headed home before the fighting started, showing an understanding of the situation that Custer never attained.

Unlike the Sioux or Cheyenne, the Crow kept their homeland with the blessing of the U.S. government. “The Crows are a tribe that was never defeated,” says Scott Bear Don’t Walk, a Crow friend from Billings who won a Rhodes Scholarship to study history at the University of Oxford.

“That’s the tradition, anyway,” Scott says. “In my mind, all Indians are in the same boat.”

Scott is Native to the roots—his mother is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe of Western Montana—but, growing up, he didn’t feel much kinship with Indians who fought the 7th Cavalry. Just the opposite. From a young age, he was a Custer fan. “I actually had a Custer doll when I was about 5,” he says in a tone most would reserve for admitting a felony. It was not a random gift, either. He asked for it. “When we played cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the cowboy,” he adds.

None of Scott’s direct ancestors took part in the battle, but his great-grandfather, Bear Don’t Walk, was a flag bearer at Fort Custer shortly afterward.

As an aside, my great-grandfather, Ernest Woolston, worked at a general store in Crow Agency for several years in the early 1900s. He spoke Crow fluently and was good friends with Curley, one of Custer’s Indian scouts, who may or may not have witnessed the battle. Whatever conversations Grandpa Ernest (known to the Crows as “No Hat”) had with Custer’s enabler are lost to time. I wouldn’t have understood them anyway.

To this day, the whole Custer business is still a major sticking point between the tribes, and the Crow still don’t get along with the Cheyenne or the Sioux. As Scott explains, the Crow have some unsavory terms for the Cheyenne that don’t need to be repeated here. But the Cheyenne have a word for the Crow that stings even more: collaborators.

Despite the divide, Scott once had a chance to see Custer and the battle through the eyes of the Sioux and Cheyenne. In 1990, he was hired as an extra for the TV miniseries Son of the Morning Star. Wearing a breechcloth, moccasins, and face paint, he went into full-warrior mode against the hapless 7th Cavalry. “I had a sawed-off shotgun with a feather hanging off the end,” he says. “It was pretty bad-ass.”

On several occasions, the Australian director stopped the action. “Remember your motivation,” he’d say, as if the Indians on the set had no idea why they should be fighting. “These people are coming to steal your land,” he reminded them, helpfully. “They’re coming to kill your families.”

As Scott tells it, motivation wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that he and the other Indians were having too much fun massacring the troops with their blank bullets and dummy arrows. They were smiling and laughing—the director had been hoping for scowls and sneers. “He wanted us to look at lot more serious,” Scott says, “but I think he misunderstood the situation. Those warriors would have been feeling a lot of joy.”

I’d like to think that Chased by Owls was smiling on the battlefield that day. I’m positive no one needed to tell him his motivation. In his last moments, he must have felt his people were headed for an overwhelming victory. He may have died in the wholehearted belief that the white man had been banished from Indian country forever. But here I am, living a good life just an hour’s drive away from where he fell. I guess there really was a winning side after all.

 

This article was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument can be reached by Interstate 90; take exit 510, 15 miles east of Hardin. Admission: $10 per vehicle. Self-guided driving and walking tours available. Visitor Center museum includes battle dioramas, guns, and Custer’s buckskin suit. (406) 638-3217, nps.gov/imr/libi.

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