This was the refrain I kept repeating as we traveled toward the Wyoming town of Buffalo after leaving Custer State Park in South Dakota (where we saw all the buffalo/bison). The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (site of the infamous Custer’s Last Stand) is just a short 110 miles north of our base camp in Buffalo and we knew it was something we wanted to see.
On this day we traveled I-90 north through a dreary murky world, trying to get an idea of what the surrounding landscape might have looked like on a clear day. There isn’t a lot to see along this stretch of I-90 without the views of the beautiful mountains and broad vistas. Instead I kept checking the iPhone for InciWeb reports of the fires, reading that the worst fire was actually just a few miles north of us, right near our destination. I could see road closures, and hoped that at least the interstate was still open.
The more amazing thing about the day, however, was that as we neared the source of the fires, the smoke thinned and thinned and eventually was completely gone except for the big, dark plume at the fire just northeast of us near Rosebud. To the east, south, and west, the Montana skies opened up in all their Big Sky glory, filled with wild clouds flying to the southeast and brilliant sunshine. Sometimes I think it is more than just luck that follows us around on these roads.
Often, when traveling in this part of the world, as when working in the wilderness in the past, I find myself slipping back into thoughts of what it must have been like to be an Indian living here before the white man arrived. I look toward the skyline and imagine being on a horse overlooking a ravine or follow an old track with images of a heavily laden travois trailing behind me. Somehow this morning, as we drove north through small valleys along rivers lined with cottonwoods, I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be a young boy of 18, from somewhere in Illinois, riding along these meandering streams in hostile country, scared and trying to hide it, wondering what in the world his commander must be thinking.
I grew up with Cowboys and Indians, with the Indians most often being the “bad guys”. I lived through the awakening of our culture to the true atrocities of what was done to our native people, highlighted again on this trip as we visited Wounded Knee. I read the book as so many others did, and turned with so many to the belief that we were the “bad guys”. But somehow on this smoky morning, I felt sadness for those young boys who followed their leaders into the wild west and tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them. Maybe it is because I have had two of my own young boy grandsons led into war, two boys who tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them and suffer the sad consequences. Of course, that is another story.
Imagine my surprise to find out that at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, the story of the clash of both these cultures would be presented with such insight and authenticity. No one was the “bad guy”. Well, almost no one. I can’t help looking at photos of Colonel George Armstrong Custer and thinking, “That man was crazy. He looks crazy!”
Little Bighorn is a special place. The history has been well documented, the story studied and written from so many angles, you can find it anywhere. However, the actuality of walking this sacred ground is something that can’t be written about very well. It is a gut reaction, and no matter what your personal slant on this part of history, you will be moved if you have a soul.
The four of us wandered through the incredibly well done Visitor Center, and landed in a small theater to watch an Oscar-worthy documentary about the battle, the players, the strategy, and the politics. Yeah, it even made me cry. The movie used animated arrows to describe the movement of both sides toward the fated conflict, and the soft voices of Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow told the story of what this battle meant to them. Then a small quiet voice of a young solder talked about how it felt to be in this place on the fated day. It sounded just like that 18 year old boy I imagined wandering on his horse along the cottonwood lined streams.
We then took our time to walk through the museum and I was mesmerized by the famous photo of Sitting Bull, a life sized reproduction. Can you see brilliance and intelligence and compassion and resolution in a simple old black and white photo? I did! Can you see crazy insanity in a photo of a man? Looking at Custer’s photo, I wondered what made him tick, as many other historians have wondered and researched as well.
The book and gift shop was a treasure of history, with sections devoted to each part of the conflict and its as yet unresolved problems. What still stays with me is the way that the entire story was presented so beautifully, so fully, and with so much cooperation between once warring tribes and the invading white men. I bought a shiny new copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and a small slim volume documenting the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”. It is irrelevant, or almost irrelevant that my great-great grandmother was Cherokee, but I still wanted that book. A tiny part of the few family roots that I can actually track go back to the hardwood forests of the Carolinas when the Cherokee were still there.
After being thoroughly moved by the stories, the exhibits, the movie, the photos, we wandered off to drive the five mile narrow road that follows the famous ridge above the Little Bighorn River. We saw the markers that were placed after the battle, another story worth seeking out. We saw Custer’s marker, and pictured him behind the six horses that he killed in a futile attempt to make some kind of barrier between him and Death. We saw the new markers for where the Indians fell as well, testament to the fact that this place is sacred to the tribes as well as the white man.
What struck me most of all was the understanding that the Indians won this battle, but it was the marker of the end for them. Here they lost the war. There was such a huge outpouring of outrage at the time that congress enacted all sorts of programs to once and for all eradicate the “bad guys” from the rich west they wanted to exploit. Manifest Destiny and all that. It was a day for contemplation as well. I stood on those golden hills with that gorgeous Montana sky above me and wondered just what our country would have looked like if Manifest Destiny had failed. What it would look like today if we stayed where we belonged, but then how far east would that line go? The thirteen colonies? Ohio? Or maybe the Mississippi River? What kind of country would we have been in the world if we had treated our native people with true respect?
Time travel isn’t possible, you can’t go back and change anything, and even if you could, what kind of other messes would arise if you did?
It has taken me a month to write about this place. At the moment, it is 5 in the morning on September 10th in Rocky Point. Little Bighorn affected me profoundly in ways that have been meandering around in my soul for awhile now, and I wasn’t sure I could even come close to conveying what it was like to be there in any kind of way that mattered. You can view it as simply history, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit the lovely center, or you can stand there and feel the place. However it strikes you, it is a place not to be missed.