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.