June 17, 2006

The tragedy of Little Bighorn

This month marks the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, when Indians won the day but sealed their fate. Little Bighorn National Monument is an eerie place, and unless you listen carefully to all the ghosts that haunt Last Stand Hill, it's too easy to hear only the white man's version of this bloody bit of American history.

I write about a visit to Little Bighorn in my book:

Big Horn County was brown, dry, rolling. The Crow Reservation sits on the prairie. At Crow Agency, the reservation’s main town, Indians gathered for a festival in a green park off the highway, teepees pitched in the park and pickups lining the perimeter.

When we got to Little Bighorn, I thought of the Crow just down the road, and how they might feel about this national monument. We bought food at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outside the entrance, and I wondered what the young Sioux behind the counter thought of the site that brought in tourists who bought mashed potatoes and popcorn chicken.

I’d seen Little Bighorn many years before from the air, on a flight to somewhere in California. I’d seen Custer’s whole hill, and could contemplate the approach, the ambush, the surprise and the death, from 25,000 feet. The sky had been cloudless, as if God had said, “Here, look down now. Look down on a place where men killed each other for reasons even I don’t understand.”

William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead…it is not even past.” Last Stand Hill marks the spots where Custer and some forty of the approximately two hundred and forty Seventh Cavalry soldiers who died on June 25, 1876 fell. Directly across from Last Stand Hill, on the other side of a narrow road, we watched men work, bare-chested in the blast furnace heat, on the Native American monument that will be connected to Last Stand Hill by a rift, a slit, a gash – a physical feature announcing that “a weeping wound or cut exists.”

On June 25, 1988, American Indians placed a plaque at the foot of the granite obelisk commemorating Custer and his cavalrymen. Now in the Visitor Center, the plaque holds these words by G. Magpie, Cheyenne: “In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. Calvary (sic) In order to save our women and children from mass murder. In doing so, preserving our rights to our Homelands, Treaties, and Sovereignty.” At the base of the plaque were items left in tribute: coins, ribbons, flags, and notes saying, “Thank you for honoring the Sioux.”

Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho fought that day. After the battle, surviving Indians were rounded up and incarcerated, and some who had witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn drew pictures of what they had seen. Called ledger drawings, they were drawn on the only paper available in military prison camp – ledger paper from the camp commissary. The Marquis and Colter ledger drawing collections hung on the back wall of a Visitor Center room with sweeping views of the battlefield and Last Stand Hill. I turned from the wall to the windows, from the windows back to the wall. Looking at the drawings, – some na├»ve, some masterfully rendered, all the product of eye, hand, soul and heart – I realized Last Stand was a double-entendre. Yes, it was certainly Custer’s, but I was looking at eyewitness accounts of a victory by the victors, who were then swept away to draw pictures on paper that white men used to take stock and make an accurate and precise accounting of things.

from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America. To order your copy or download the e-book, click here. Your purchase will help me keep this blog ad-free. If you download the e-book ($8.95) and then find that you'd like a signed hard copy, I'm happy to offer a discount and pay the shipping. Send an e-mail with "Ribbons e-book" in the subject line and I'll shoot you the details.