A home for the braves: more than a century after the battle at Little Bighorn, the national battlefield has erected a memorial commemorating the bravery of the Indian tribes that fought--and won--there.
"It was a great day in Indian country, and a great day for the National Park Service," Darrell J. Cook, superintendent of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, says of the dedication. Cook, himself an Oglala Sioux, administers a staff that today is 75 percent American Indian.
Symbolizing "peace through unity," the Indian Memorial features a weeping wall where water drips down into a pool, a bronze sculpture of spirit warriors, and a gate to welcome the cavalry dead. It is a unique feature in the National Park System and the culmination of a 30-year effort during which management and interpretation at the battlefield "have evolved from a primary emphasis on the military perspective to inclusion of all those who were affected by the battle," according to a recent NPCA State of the Parks assessment of the battlefield.
When the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes outnumbered, outgunned, and outfought Custer's forces in 1876, the defeat shocked a nation that was celebrating its centennial and enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. But the battle also captured the public's imagination, thanks in large part to Custer's widow, Elizabeth, who devoted 57 years to perpetuating the legend of her flamboyant husband.
For most of the next century, the battle was known as Custer's Last Stand, the sire of the conflict as Custer Battlefield National Cemetery and later Custer Battlefield National Monument. The battleground was administered by the War Department until 1940, and many early staffers were themselves veterans of the Indian wars. Markers honored only the cavalry soldiers who fell in 1876. Tales of the battle lauded the bravery of the 7th Cavalry; the plight of the Indians was largely ignored.
"How many of us think of Little Bighorn as Sitting Bull's last stand as well?" asks the battlefield's chief historian, John Doerner. "The battle was the Indians' one final fight to maintain their nomadic way of life out here. They won the battle, but they lost the war."
Soon after the battle, Doerner adds, the Army pursued Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and others who fought at Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull fled to Canada in May 1877, and Crazy Horse surrendered that same month at Fort Robinson, where he was killed later that fall while being placed under arrest. Within a few years, the majority of the Plains tribes were relegated to reservations. Most Indian accounts of the battle were disregarded, and stone cairns that relatives had placed to mark sites where Indian warriors fell were largely forgotten. When the granddaughter of Cheyenne Chief Lame White Man requested a marker for him in 1925 just before the 50th anniversary of the battle, the War Department did not even bother to respond. It was not until 30 years later, in 1956, that the National Park Service erected a wooden marker to honor Lame White Man.
In the wake of the social activism of the 1960s and American Indian Movement protests in the 1970s and 1980s, the Park Service launched a serious effort to present the Indians' side of the story as well. Finally, in 1991, Congress passed legislation that changed the name from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and mandated creation of a memorial to the Indians who had fought there.
Even after 127 years, the story of the battle is still evolving. The first systematic archaeological survey of the battlefield was conducted in 1984 after a wildfire had burned off dense vegetation.
Using metal detectors, volunteers from around the world discovered 1,159 artifacts, some still lying on the surface of the ground. According to the latest figures, the Indians were armed with about 700 firearms, including Winchester repeating rifles, as well as bow and arrows and stone war clubs, Doerner says. Using powerful microscopes like those in police crime labs, experts have been able to match up cartridges with specific weapons and trace the movement of individual soldiers and warriors over the battlefield.
The recovery of skeletal remains during the 1980s yielded valuable information about the soldiers under Custer's command, including their ages, diets, and ailments, such as back problems caused by long hours in the saddle. The remains of the Indian dead had been removed from the field by relatives immediately after the battle and laid to rest in tipis and burial scaffolds, according to tribal custom.
With the help of the tribes and the historical record, Doerner has located five stone cairns indicating Indian casualties. Beside those cairns, the Park Service has erected red granite markers bearing the tribal and English names of the warriors and a brief historical text, making Little Bighorn the only national battlefield with government headstones denoting the original casualty/burial sites of 7th Cavalrymen, and now, red granite markers for Indian warriors' casualty sites.
The first stones, for Cheyenne warriors Lame White Man and Noisy Walking, were installed in 1999; the third, honoring Long Road, Minniconjou Lakota, on the 125th anniversary of the battle in 2001; and the most recent two, for Dog's Backbone, Minniconjou Lakota, and an unknown Sioux, in conjunction with this year's dedication of the Indian Memorial.
"It's a very powerful cultural landscape that we have here with the two memorials and the white and red granite markers that tell the story from both perspectives," Doerner says. He expects the number of red markers to grow as he continues to work with Crazy Horse's descendants and other Indian families to locate additional cairns.
As a result of ongoing research and the public's long fascination with the battle, the battlefield has accumulated one of the most extensive and valuable museum collections in the entire National Park System. It contains some 24,000 items, including 15,000 documents, papers, and photographs, more than 10,000 artifacts recovered from the battlefield, and some 200 items from the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux.
Among the most notable holdings are the Elizabeth Bacon Custer Collection, which includes numerous photographs and Custer's uniforms, buckskin suit, and personal correspondence and notes from the Civil War until the time of Little Bighorn; and the collection of Thomas Marquis, a physician who lived among the Cheyenne and interviewed and photographed tribal veterans of the Little Bighorn battle.
"Descendants of the 7th Cavalry men, the Custer family and relatives of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are still emerging with oral or family histories," says museum curator Kitty Deernose. "Particularly in the last decade, a certain amount of trust has evolved as a result of consultation with the tribes, and they realize that the information they bring us is in a good safe place and that these collections are here for posterity."
NPCA's State of the Parks report found, however, that insufficient funding hinders the Park Service's ability to display and protect these artifacts. With only one main gallery and six exhibit cases, the museum shares less than 1 percent of its collection with the public. Storage space is lacking, there is no fire suppression system, and artifacts are not adequately protected from fluctuations in temperature and humidity, In addition, staffing shortages make it difficult to catalog all the archival items.
The report concluded that other improvements are sorely needed to accommodate an ever-increasing flood of visitors to the battlefield, now the second most visited site in Montana after Glacier National Park. NPCA has called on Congress to provide funding for a planned new visitor center and remote parking facility and shuttle bus system to replace inadequate 1950s-era facilities.
"Little Bighorn is nationally significant," says Tony Jewett, NPCA'S senior director for the Northern Rockies. "We need a first-rate visitor center where Americans can fully immerse themselves in this story. We need to invest in a transportation system that allows visitors to focus on the park's history rather than the RV in front of them."
Because the battle took place over 14 square miles, Jewett says it is also critical to protect the historical character of land surrounding the 765-acre national monument. Just like the Civil War battlefields back East, the area has become increasingly attractive for residential and commercial development. NPC's report urges park staff to continue to work with adjacent landowners, including the Crow Indian Nation, to preserve the integrity of the battle corridor.
In addition to its $1.3 million budget, the battlefield has a $2.6 million list of unfunded projects, which means that the park is in fact only 28 percent funded, says Darcy Gamble of NPCA's State of the Parks office in Fort Collins, Colorado. Implementation of the proposed remote parking area and shuttle system would cost an additional $2.6 million, and about $3 million is needed to help secure land around the boundaries of the park.
Despite these challenges, Little Bighorn Battlefield has made great strides toward creating an accurate legacy of the battle and completing the healing process. The monument "is a testament to what a small, determined staff and partnerships with external organizations can accomplish," the NPCA report concluded. "This special place is one example of how people of different cultures can come together to understand the past and work toward a better future."
Phyllis McIntosh lives in Maryland and last wrote for National Parks about the sale of historical artifacts.