Outside magazine, August 1997
Up on Battle Ridge, of course, there are all manner of official memorials to the fallen white men. Down here by the river, however, where the engagement actually began, I saw no historical markers, no plaques. That this site is not part of the 765-acre Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument — the land surrounding the battlefield has been part of the Crow Indian Reservation since 1868 and remains generally off-limits to visitors — is no accident. The contrast between the uncommemorated ground on which I stood and the groomed and managed hills above, with their sacred grove of graves, reflects the historic imbalance of interpretation that existed for nearly a century after the last soldier went down on June 26, 1876.
On that gray morning, I made my way carefully along the riverbank through low, interlacing branches, watching where I put my feet. THIS IS RATTLESNAKE COUNTRY, advised signs up on the battlefield proper. Up ahead, six Canada geese flared out ahead of me, circled back to see what I was, and honked away toward the Bighorn Mountains. Then there was only the sound of the river gnawing away at the skin of the globe.
I'd been here before, in 1970, on the anniversary of the Last Stand, when you could still walk all around what was then called the Custer Battlefield National Monument. I'd hiked down to the riverside and had just started to strip for a ritual immersion when suddenly the air was split with a chorus of cries — "Yi! Yi! Yi! Yi!" — and beneath it the drumming of hoofbeats. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I looked wildly about. For a moment, history was suddenly too much alive, and I felt a muffled echo of the panic that beset those cavalrymen, raw recruits many of them, who had blundered into that huge village of Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Then I saw across the river a bunch of Crow kids on ponies, galloping along the bank and whooping in the high glee of youth and a summer's day. They'd come down to the river from some of the ranches that lie along the flats west of the Little Bighorn. They were wearing bathing suits, and while I watched they jerked their ponies to a halt, jumped off, and ran down to the riverside to plunge in. A hundred yards downstream the current eddied about the mostly submerged wreck of an old car, and the boys swung expertly about it and made their way to the bank. They clambered out of the water, their skin shining in the sun, and ran back up to their starting point, where they began their swift downstream glide all over again. My neck hairs relaxed, the momentary kinship with the doomed cavalrymen fell away from me, and I became once again just another tourist, safely protected by all the history made since the battle.
For almost a hundred years these were not even questions, and the legend of Custer's heroic martyrdom stood unchallenged. It was born the day after the Indians withdrew, when troopers under General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon arrived at the deserted encampment, its campfires still warm. They were to have formed the other arm of a pincer designed to crush the tribes and convey the remnants to their reservations. In a baffled effort at reprisal, Terry ordered everything left in the encampment burned. Then the soldiers went about the grisly business of inspecting what lay above them in the beaten grass of the ridge, where the mutilated bodies of the soldiers lay stripped and blazing in the sun like white boulders. Here and there the green bills of their last-issued pay fluttered about in the wind as if trying to find a pocket.
At the time, the terrible things that had been done to the corpses were attributed to the savagery of the Indians. But Connell, in Son of the Morning Star, has offered a more forbearing view: "The mutilation of Custer's troops may be explained partly by the grief and bewilderment these Indians felt. They could not understand why soldiers pursued them when all they ever wanted was to be left alone so that they might live as they had lived for centuries: hunting, fishing, trailing the munificent buffalo. They failed to see why they should be in one place all year, why they should become farmers when they had been hunters. They did not see how the land could be divided, allotted, owned."
At the battlefield the official interpretation of Little Bighorn was similarly pious, centering on what had happened to the general and the men he had led to their deaths. There, several hundred thousand visitors came each year and stood on the crest of the hill at the obelisk to the fallen, looking across the waving grasses and the slim white stones that marked where the bodies had been found, to the trees along the river bottom at the boundary of the site. The musing attitude of the visitors seemed perpetually to ask, "How could this have happened?"
In 1972, AIM activist Russell Means led a small group of protesters to the battlefield and demanded increased recognition of the Indian role. The demonstrators, many of them from the Crow Reservation, installed a homemade plaque honoring the Indians who had fought there and heard Means call for the creation of a permanent Indian monument. There was an even more dramatic AIM protest at the Little Bighorn centennial in 1976. Indian activists had threatened to vandalize the visitor center and disrupt the commemoration, which featured a ceremony in which U.S. Army Colonel George Armstrong Custer III was to lay a wreath in honor of his ancestor. To the accompaniment of solemn drumbeats, several hundred AIM protesters, many wearing red berets, marched into the monument past phalanxes of heavy security behind leaders dragging an upside-down American flag along the ground. Means mounted the speakers' platform and commandeered the microphone, once again demanding an Indian memorial. National Park Service historian Robert M. Utley, who was the principal speaker at the centennial, recalls that a number of participants in the official ceremony later demanded to know why law enforcement officers were not ordered to open fire on the Indians who were desecrating the flag.
However lawless and sometimes violent AIM was in its heyday, the movement did much to rearrange the political landscape of the American West and eventually that of the battle site along with it. Change was slow in coming, however, partly because of the entrenched influence of several groups of Custer partisans and buffs. The Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, an organization of amateur historians, had run the small bookstore at the Custer Battlefield for decades, and it steadfastly refused to sell Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1980s, under park superintendent Jim Court, the official interpretation of the battle had been revised from a simple account of a military engagement to the story of a clash between cultures, and Indians became a more prominent and visible component of the battlefield's staff. Court was forced to resign in 1986 after he tangled with higher-ups in the National Park Service and is now running a travel agency in nearby Hardin, but he's proud, he says, of the changes accomplished during his tenure. "People were always very pleased to hear Indians tell the story of what happened," Court recalls. Still, there was no monument to the tribes at Little Bighorn.
In 1989, another major change came to the battlefield with the appointment of Barbara Booher as superintendent. She was not only the first woman to hold the position, but the first American Indian. (She is of mixed Cherokee and Northern Ute descent.) Subsequent to Booher's appointment came a host of other changes that made the old-line Custer buffs feel a bit like those bewildered troopers who followed the Boy General into the valley and were quickly surrounded. Booher established a close relationship with the neighboring Crows and Cheyennes and with the Lakotas and Arapahos, and welcomed their participation in commemorative events, usually held in late June, that had previously been devoted largely to the memory of the Seventh Cavalry. And the offerings on the book racks in the visitor center began to include works expressing the Indian view.
The Custer buffs didn't take these transformations lying down, especially the removal of their hero's name, and Booher was under heavy fire throughout her three-and-a-half-year tenure. Her critics alleged that her appointment was rankly political and that she was unqualified for the position. "I think Barbara was selected for all the wrong reasons," says Bill Wells, perhaps the most outspoken of the Custer buffs, who then served on the boards of both the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association and the Little Bighorn Associates, many of whose members are devoted to preserving and burnishing Custer's reputation.
These days Barbara Booher — now Barbara Sutteer and the liaison to Indians for the National Park Service's Intermountain Region office in Denver — is apt to play down how rough it was for her at the battlefield. A small, compactly built person who radiates a controlled intensity, she says that a Park Service study conducted in 1989 showed "overwhelming support for recognizing the Indian part of the story." She acknowledges, however, that if the local whites had been surveyed about the proposed changes, they might not have been in favor of them. Many locals, she says, feared that taking "Custer" out of the monument's name would hurt tourism, but the year the name change went into effect, visitation went up 21 percent. (It continued to go up, and in the last three years about 400,000 people have visited Little Bighorn annually.)
But it was the Indians, she thinks, who were most dramatically affected by the changes. There was an Arapaho woman, she recalls, who often had occasion to pass by the monument in the old days and would always warn her grandson, "Don't look up there!" For her and for many other Indians the monument was not a place of honor, but a symbol of the triumph of white power. Near the end of her tenure, a Crow woman told Booher, "We've never felt like we could come here, but now it's for us, too."
When I told Gerard A. Baker, the current superintendent at Little Bighorn, about this chance encounter, his heavy shoulders and the long braids lying against them shook with silent laughter. As the second Indian to supervise the monument, he well knew that there would always be a small minority of such types among the hundreds of thousands of people who came to visit the site each year.
Meeting the imposing Baker in his office, I felt I was shaking hands with someone wearing a baseball mitt. Six feet, five inches tall and massively built, Baker is a Mandan-Hidatsa who grew up on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. He was brisk, cheerful, and confident about the direction in which things were going at the site, and he discussed the administrative and diplomatic niceties of his job with the adroitness of a longtime Park Service professional. At the same time, he remains a follower of traditional ways who sometime burns sweet grass in his office.
Valerie Zeeb, of Billings, a member of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association who acts as the organization's liaison to the monument, had been one of the most vocal critics of Barbara Booher's tenure as superintendent. But she now says that Baker represented an improvement, if only because of his impressive stature. "You have to have someone in that position who has a commanding physical presence," she notes. "You have to be able to physically stand up to all the pressures and factions."
Following last year's anniversary observance at Little Bighorn, the pressure has been intense. A few days before the anniversary, a reporter for the New York Times asked Baker if it might seem that Indians are now gloating over their defeat of Custer, and he replied, "That's right. It's about time." Custer partisans were outraged, but they were even more incensed when, on the morning of June 25, Baker permitted Cheyenne and Lakota Indians to "count coup" on the soldiers interred beneath the granite obelisk atop Last Stand Hill. (This practice was part of the highly ritualized Plains warfare of the nineteenth century, in which personal risk was often more significant than actual killing. In battle, a warrior would "count coup" by striking an enemy with a stick in battle and withdrawing successfully to his own lines.) Many saw this as a desecration. Robert M. Utley, who has been supportive of an increased Indian role at the battlefield, said that there was no historic precedent for counting coup by striking sticks on a grave. "It was exceedingly ill-advised," Utley declared, "and I don't think it will be repeated."
The Custer lobby called for the supervisor's head. "Gerard Baker is probably the worst thing that ever happened to the monument," Bill Wells told me when I telephoned him at his home in Malibu. The Park Service, he claimed, had given Baker "carte blanche" to do whatever he wanted. "Baker caters to the slightest whim of any and every Indian group," Wells continued, "and he is discriminating against everybody except Indians. The plan is to neutralize the military and Custer-oriented aspect of the battlefield. You might even say it's the 'Indianization' of Little Bighorn. If something isn't done — and done soon — to rein him in, he will effectively ruin the monument. What they'd like to do is turn it into a contemporary Indian social center." In an editorial in his newsletter, the Custer/Little Bighorn Battlefield Advocate, Wells condemned the coup-counting as an "atrocity" and demanded that Baker be dismissed.
Despite his rhetoric, Wells is a relatively easygoing fellow. He appears to be half-amused by the controversies and contretemps he follows and seems to feel as much affection for his ideological opponents as he does for the motley contingent of cultural conservatives, amateur historians, Custer worshipers, and reenactment enthusiasts who rally to his cause. On the other hand, his campaign to get Baker fired has clearly stung the Park Service.
The Park Service, though, has continued to support Baker, who with his measured, low-key style, hardly seems to be the firebrand his opponents say he is. Other than insisting that the coup-counting ceremony was respectful, he has little to say about the matter. When I asked him what he hopes to have accomplished when he leaves the monument, his reply could not have been milder: "A much-improved infrastructure for the monument. A better library, a better interpretive program. I want to leave behind me a better all-around environment for everybody who visits here, one that shows what happened before those two days in June and after."
But when I mentioned to Baker that I had been down at the river on the site of the encampment and had found it to be a powerful place, he nodded vigorously. "You know," he said, "the monument ought to have included that land, but at the time it was thought that only the site of the military engagement was important." Now the area was considerably divided between private inholdings and Crow tribal land, so that doing anything to make it a functioning part of the monument would be very difficult. "It would be a terrific thing, visually, for our visitors to see some lodges standing down there in the trees," he said, his dark eyes glowing. "It would give them a much more inclusive sense of what was involved here."
And as long as he was on the job, his attitude implied, his critics were free to take their best shots.
The changes up at the monument have not been favorably received in Hardin, a small cowboy town 15 miles to the north. Hardin is heavily dependent on tourists passing through on their way to and from the battlefield, and to a lesser extent on trade with the Crows. As in a number of other towns adjacent to reservations — Browning, near the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and Valentine, Nebraska, near the Pine Ridge Reservation, come to mind — many whites in Hardin seem to view the local Indians with a mixture of suspicion, contempt, and fear. Talk to a lot of people in such places, and they will tell you that there are no Indian heroes and that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were villains. Residents of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, an elder of that tribe told me, feel uncomfortable in Hardin, the closest town, and much prefer driving down to Sheridan, Wyoming, to shop and trade.
When I'd hung around Hardin back in the 1970s, it was a very edgy place, especially toward sundown, when the neon of the bars lining Center Street began to wink and the mood of the drinkers began to darken with the day. There may be fewer bars now, but otherwise things in the Merry Mixer, the Four Aces, and the Wagon Wheel seem about the same: The whites line up at one end of the bar, the Indian men at the other, and the available ladies in between. By nine o'clock on Saturday night at the Wagon Wheel, almost everybody was drunk, and I was beginning to get some very hard looks from a couple of young Crows when a 21-year-old white man named James Svaren happened along and sat down at my table.
Svaren and his father run a sporting goods and convenience store in town, and like everybody else, he said, they were dependent on the battlefield tourists. "Without them, nobody could make it," he said. "In winter here, nothing happens." He invited me to visit their shop, the Hook Line and Sinker, the next day.
When I arrived at the store in the morning, Svaren showed me the inventory, which ranged from fishing tackle to X-rated videos. "And back here," he said, showing me the refrigerator, "we have what Dad calls 'Indian Gear.'" He pulled out a bottle of something called Ice 800, a malt liquor with an 8 percent alcohol content. "I traded two bottles of this stuff yesterday for an ax," he said. "It's a good ax, and I needed one."
Svaren asked if I recalled the TV commercial of some years back — "the one where the Indian has a tear rolling down his cheek because the whites are polluting so much?" He continued, "That's kind of a laugh, because when you go on the reservation you see so many of them that have no respect whatever for the land: They throw their trash everywhere, leave junked cars all around. Now it's a stretch to say they'll get control of the battlefield, but it could happen. That's a place that has to be kept up, has to really be taken care of." He left it to me to catch his drift.
This conversation was still reverberating in my mind when I went back to Little Bighorn to meet with three Cheyenne elders. Gerard Baker had set up the meeting for me, thinking I'd like to hear their views on how things were going at the monument, but the meeting didn't go very well at first, as we sat in an office at the visitor center. Logan Curley Sr. and Clifford Long Sioux wore ball caps pulled low and large-framed dark glasses, so that it was impossible to read their expressions, while Alfred Strange Owl Sr., whose grandfather had fought at Little Bighorn, said nothing as he eyed me with what I took to be a mixture of patience and wariness. It wasn't until we had gone down the hill to a restaurant at the Crow-operated Little Bighorn Casino that they relaxed. Over hamburgers and coffee in the cheerless, empty room, Logan Curley finally spoke up.
"Barbara Booher opened a lot of doors for us," he said. "And now, with Gerard, things are kind of blooming for Native Americans. Prior to that, we felt like we could never set a foot inside that entrance gate. We sure wouldn't have had access to the office we just met in. Before, when we'd request to be part of some observance, our request would be thrown in the garbage." These days, however, everything was different, he said, and when the whites and the Crows staged their annual reenactment of the battle over in Hardin, the Cheyennes, Lakotas, and Arapahos held their ceremonies on the monument grounds and followed these with a public buffalo feast.
As he spoke, Clifford Long Sioux nodded in agreement. "The only time I came up there when I was a kid," he said when Logan Curley had finished, "was on a field trip. 'Here's where the massacre occurred,' they told us. There was no Indian presence at all — nothing. It was like we hadn't existed. But now we're welcome here, and there's an acknowledgment of what this actually meant."
Back in my motel room in Hardin, I wondered whether it's possible to overestimate the importance of this process — particularly now, at the end of what was to have been the American Century, when our sense of identity seems so fragile and attenuated. Of course, it hasn't been so simple and trivial a matter as changing Custer from hero to villain or making over the Red Devil into the Noble Red Man. The widening view at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument — which will soon include the long-awaited Indian monument on Battle Ridge — may be in truth a grand opportunity to see ourselves, as a people, steadily and honestly. The same opportunity exists in other places, some hugely popular, others unknown. It exists at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where they hammered out the high ideals we keep trying to live up to; at a desolate spot east of the Sierra in California, the site of Manzanar, the World War II Japanese-American internment camp, where we failed to do so; and at the reflecting pool in Washington where Martin Luther King restated those high ideals to the massed thousands who wanted to hear them again.
And at Little Bighorn we may be earning another chance to find some measure of unanimity along the American divide. One last voice: "If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhere to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure." So wrote George Armstrong Custer, two months before he met his fate that scorching day on the free open plains.
Frederick Turner wrote about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the April issue.