Custer's Last Stand: Little Big Horn
Crow Agency, Montana
George A. Custer died fighting at Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, along with 262 troopers under his command in the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry. The worst military defeat in U.S. history* was subsequently remembered as Custer's Last Stand, doomed heroics endlessly recounted to rally a nation to righteous vengeance.
Today, what breaks patriotic ranks with the sinking of the USS Maine, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and 9/11, is that now our government wants you to hear both sides of the Little Big Horn story. Like maybe, just maybe, Custer was a cruel ass. And the Indians really kicked it.
We recommend checking out both perspectives, if for no other reason than to get full value from your $10.00 per car admission.
The Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument (formerly known as the Custer Battlefield National Monument) sits in Crow Agency adjacent to Native American reservation land.
When you first park, you see rows of gravestones -- a huge cemetery of thousands. "Wow -- those Indians killed a lot of people," is the first impression.
But a broadcast recorded voice is quick to point out this is a National Cemetery that holds the honored dead of many wars -- 4,400 veterans and their families, including "American Indians who joined in defending their country."
A short series of displays in the visitor center museum lays out the drama that unfolded on that fateful June day. A 7th Cavalry mannequin looks like Johnny Depp. Walk past the visitor center up the Last Stand Hill to find where Custer's troopers are buried (or marked -- a number have been exhumed and reburied).
Souvenir hunters have picked away at the Mass Grave monument's granite edges, though signs clearly advise: "Mass Grave - Please Keep Off." This part of the site still retains its "Custer's Last Stand" illusions. Brave cavalry soldiers, outnumbered and cut off on a lonely knoll...
A small monument saluting the dead horses of the 7th Cavalry was installed long before any permanent recognition of the Indian point-of-view. That changed in 2003, with the opening of a $2 million memorial telling the Indian side of the story.
In 1988, descendants of the battle's victors protested the lack of an Indian Memorial. The first President Bush approved the Congressional authorization for a memorial, the site to be renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield. In 2002 Congressional funds finally bankrolled the memorial, dedicated on June 25, 2003.
The Indian Memorial, a low earthen redoubt, is west of the 7th Cavalry Memorial, and wasn't getting as much traffic that first summer it was unveiled. Perhaps the way it blends into the landscape makes it hard for some visitors to notice it.
Walking down into the redoubt, the first decoration that stands out is an ironwork outline depicting three Indian horsemen in battle. An Indian woman runs alongside one, handing him a shield.
According to the handouts provided, "Peace through Unity" is the message of the monument. The stark, quiet spot on the plains is a "place where the Native American descendants can feel welcome"..."to honor and recognize the Indians who fought to preserve their land and culture." Peace and unity aren't quite what's conveyed by the illustrated panels around the inside of the memorial. There are Indian pictographs of small bands of US soldiers getting whupped from all sides. Other drawings show naked, mutilated soldiers with their legs and heads chopped off.
Water dribbles down from the circular walls of the monument, as if it's crying.
From our brief observation, white tourists didn't spend much time at the memorial. "This is for the Indians," we see one say quietly to his wife before leaving.
The new memorial is effective, though we're not quite getting the whole unity thing. Some visitors embrace the new perspective, and some are confused, beating a hasty retreat (perhaps to a distant, morally unambiguous WWII monument).
A few still defiantly wonder: "Who gave the Indians all those rifles?"
Update: Eli Raisovich points out: "It was the worst PLAINS Indian defeat of the US Army. It worst defeat was the Battle of the Wabash. The great Shawnee leader Blue Jacket helped inflict 623 soldiers killed or captured; 258 soldiers wounded; 24 workers killed; 14 wounded; and 33 women killed for a total of 952 casualties. One quarter of the ENTIRE US Army was wiped out." Earlier update: Sarah Chapman disagrees that the battle is presented with much balance at Little Big Horn: "The Cheyenne and Lakota stories of the battle are still not told truthfully and the National Park Service wants only to be SEEN to represent both sides. They do not even employ Lakota or Cheyenne interpreters although they could and the site would be much the richer for it."