During our Trip of a Lifetime, we did not visit a single place that did not generate conversation around the supper table or campfire at the end of the day. We discussed the bone chilling truths of the Minuteman Missile Historical Site in Interior, South Dakota; the treasures found in the Buffalo Bill Museums in Cody, Wyoming; the mystical metric system we encountered in Canada; and the incredible talent of a twelve-year-old female fiddle player in Mountain View, Arkansas. From man-made history and marvels to the beauty carved by the hand of God in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota; Banff National Park, Canada; Glacier National Park, Montana; and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, we spoke of it all, sometimes with excitement and sometimes in reverent awe. Yet, the stop that generated the most conversation, immediately and for many days afterwards, was The Battle of the Little Big Horn National Park in Montana. The place where Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the United States 7th Calvary met their Waterloo June 26, 1876.
The Little Big Horn Battlefield challenged every belief we held of the famous battle. Although we did not realize it until we surveyed the battlefield and read the markers, listened to a native American guide, and visited the museums, our perceptions of the battle, from childhood to adulthood, had been schooled and skewed to be politically correct, twisted by racial ignorance, and warped by Hollywood theatrics that took liberties with the truth. The markers, museums, and guide presented us our first unbiased truth – the 7th Calvary was not all good nor were the Sioux Indians all bad. Atrocities took place on both sides; Indians scalped and disemboweled bodies of fallen soldiers, as well as cut the tips of Custer’s fingers from his hands, but only after the 7th Calvary desecrated their burial grounds and fired the first shots of the battle into tipis along the Little Big Horn River killing defenseless women and children.
Last Stand Hill itself, the site of Custer’s fall, also presented a different picture than the one we were taught in school and saw in the movies. Rather than riding their ponies in circles around and through the outnumbered soldiers, the Sioux, many of them armed with Henry or Winchester repeater rifles given to them by the United States government to hunt buffalo, lay concealed in the tall yellow grass or along nearby hills picking off Custer and his men much like an old-time turkey shoot. Not until the besieged soldiers, armed only with single-shot, breech-loading Springfield carbines and Colt revolvers, ran out of ammunition did the Sioux warriors swarm over Custer and his men. When the struggle was finished, 268 men of the United States 7th Calvary, including Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and an estimated 40 to 60 Sioux warriors, including 6 women and 4 children lay dead on the battlefield.
With every step, we took through the park, our perception of Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s last stand and the final fleeting glory of the American Indian gained a bit more clarity. The gallant Hollywood image of Custer, revolvers blazing in each hand, as he made his final stand against incredible odds, melted as we scanned the landscape from the ridge where Custer and his men perished to the Little Big Horn River below where thousands of Sioux Indians once camped. For us, one of America’s most provocative myths, the June 26, 1876 Battle at the Little Big Horn, died. It was replaced by bloody truths provoked and reciprocated on both sides. It was the day a new America of white settlers, soldiers, and Washington, D.C. politicians and aristocrats in top hats endured its worst battlefield defeat at the hands of Native Americans; the day the sun set on the old America of native sons hunting and living off the land. The Battle of the Little Big Horn ushered in a new era where all Americans, new and old, became forever locked under a veil of distrust, dishonor and deceit.
That is not to say, the men of the 7th Calvary and the Sioux nation who died on the battlefield were not men of honor; soldiers and Indians alike died believing they were right. Their bravery should never be questioned, but the underlying dishonorable political and self-serving greed of the new Americans that sent the 7th Calvary to provoke the battle should be questioned and never forgotten. The Little Big Horn resolved nothing. For the new America, the violation of fallen bodies on the battlefield, gave credibility to breaking treaties with Godless heathens, and helped them justify their own barbarism at a place called Wounded Knee. To the old America, the merciless slaughter of the 7th Calvary temporarily vindicated them against a treacherous “forked-tongue” enemy that looked upon them as less than human. However, in the end, any credibility or vindication claimed by either side was short-lived. No one won at Little Big Horn; the new America lost its honor, and the old America lost its way of life.
©Jack Linton, September 11, 2017