We were heading down U.S. 212 to I-90 in Montana on our way to Sheridan.
I am sure readers of this blog tire from repeated statements that we avoid Interstate highways because they are boring. But we take them occasionally.
However, it was on 212 that we spotted a sign for the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the famous site of “Custer’s Last Stand” where perhaps some 2000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors killed General Custer, his soldiers and the Crow and Arikara scouts with them June 25-26, 1876.
We went in because we are interested in history, but we were a little skeptical. There is no doubt that for generations the history of the First Americans has been neglected or even deliberately been distorted. On our travels, however, we became irritated by park service signs and videos telling us how bad our ancestors were for stealing the poor Indian’s land. We believe invasions have occurred, cultures have clashed and people have lost their homelands throughout the millennia and across the world. The First Americans frequently fought among themselves and invaded other tribes’ territories for hundreds of years. They continued these wars among themselves even after Europeans arrived. That does not excuse the behavior of our ancestors, but it puts it in perspective.
It was with this somewhat negative attitude that we went in to see the introductory video and museum before going out to walk the battlefield.
Perhaps a great benefit of low expectations is that you are often pleasantly surprised. The video, the literature and signs were all very well done. Not only were events leading up to the battle and the battle itself well explained, all parties were treated with respect for their cultures.
After the battle, Cheyenne and Sioux removed their dead. The U.S. forces were buried in a mass grave. The first memorial was created by the Army in 1881. In 1890, the Army erected 249 headstones across the battlefield where Custer’s men were thought to have fallen.
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In 1991, over a hundred years after that first memorial, the National Park Service began erecting headstones where known Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors died. Subsequent oral history and paintings on animal hides told the story from the First American point of view. The most recent “Indian Memorial” was interesting from both an historical and artistic point of view. It included wall sections honoring not only the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, but also the Crow and Arikara scouts.
I really liked the memorial and would recommend stopping by if you are in Eastern Montana. One sign noted Custer had Crow and Arikara scouts with him because the Sioux invaded their lands [killing many Arikara who were already diminished by smallpox and war]. But perhaps I am never fully satisfied. The Sioux had a legitimate complaint that the U.S. went back on its treaty giving them the Black Hills. But there are also frequent statements that the Black Hills were “sacred” to the Sioux. I believe sometimes First Americans find it convenient to say all lands they once roamed are sacred. Close to one such sign in the museum was another noting the Sioux had driven the Crow out of the Black Hills just forty years before the battle. Forty years is a short time for the area to become “sacred.”
Noting that this post may be controversial to some, I have categorized it as Commentary as well as Travel.
Date of our visit: 15 September 2018