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Graves Beside a River: the Little Bighorn

I normally am not so affected emotionally when visiting a war memorial that the experience lodges in the back of my mind for months, maybe years, after the encounter. I was afflicted/affected, even sensing a welling of tears, while wandering amongst the hills, grasses, and gravestones scattered about the U.S. Park Service's monument in Montana dedicated to the soldiers and warriors who fought the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. This is not only a place that remembers conflict between human beings; there is an incoherence here in this beautiful place that witnessed a tragedy.

I arrived on Custer's hill with only a vague memory of references to the Indian wars raging in the 19th century, especially on the American western frontier. The human cost of these wars disturbed me as I walked, the realization rising like a ghostly mist in the sunshine and settling like a haze on the horizon.

There are two main memorial sites at this sacred Federal property (one dedicated to Custer and his soldiers and the other to the native combatants) and these, I believe, offer a modest introduction to a dilemma that confronted the frontier residents of the U.S. at one time.

Perhaps the relatively austere upbringing in a Mennonite religious community environment instructs my adherence to a pacifist outlook on life and government. Mennonites tend to be frugal with their emotions, and war in particular has been taboo (at least until very recently for most practitioners of this faith group). However, I left the Little Bighorn hills one afternoon in October 2016 with an abiding respect for the bravery of desperate players in the deadly game of hide and seek and futility that occurred on a remote Montana riverbank about 150 years before.

Last Stand Bluff overlooking the Little Bighorn River

It was in this place that General George Armstrong Custer in the summer of 1876 led his young troopers on a mission to remove what was perceived by the U.S. government as one of the last native population threats to ethnic peace in the West. Custer obliged the political command to search and destroy, and lost. He and his soldier band lost big.

Chief: Black White Man

Warriors: Limber Bones and Closed Hand

I happened to drive alongside first the Yellowstone and then the Little Bighorn rivers almost by accident during a journey from west to east across the United States. The Yellowstone behaved like a river, while the Little Bighorn seemed more like a stream. Here, near the Upper Missouri Breaks region, is a remote, almost stark landscape that emerges out of the Rocky Mountains. Plains' Indian reservations (Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow) administer the hills and winds that strafe them. Indian ponies and cattle lurk among the folds of the grassy hills that are almost bereft of trees altogether.

Native Warrior Memorials, Little Bighorn National Monument

On the riverbank, colorful alders and cottonwoods collectively form a protective oasis that beckons commerce and traffic (cars, trucks, trains, horses). Despite the steady stream of large cattle trucks, and freight trains, that regularly disturb the natural silence of monument hill, out here there is space to roam. Yet I think maybe I don't want to be crossing this lonely stretch after dark. Herds of deer are everywhere amongst the pastures as the sun drops below the horizon at twilight. I don't want to smash into them.

Cool already in mid-October

Indian Ponies

Painted pony, Appaloosa

Yellowstone River

More yellow trees than stones in October

FedEx delivers everywhere

Deer Heaven

Little Bighorn River, Indian encampment on these banks was the lure

Along the Little Bighorn River, a gathering of rebellious and desperate native tribal representatives and their families found themselves accosted by an overly self-confident U.S. military. The battle is now a legend but the lives lost were real and shared. A ghostly procession of players on the field is almost palpably real if a visitor adopts the proper attitude and proceeds cautiously along the carefully laid out paths winding through grasses and the occasional flower clumps to dead end bluffs and ravines, literally. I stood in the modest ravines where soldiers at one time thought their salvation and escape route lay. They were unanimously wrong. They were surrounded and finally dead. Their remains rested undisturbed for a year or so until the U.S. government eventually acted to collect them, wherever possible, and to conduct a proper and ceremonial burial.

The story of the deaths of the participants in this historic battle is a complex one and many books describe it from various perspectives. There are many eye witness accounts too that do not agree with each other. In the third of three blogs, I will summarize an account given by chief Two Moons.

See blog 2 (to be continued).

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