August 1, 2018
The battleground itself is very simply, a place.
It is a place in the open wilderness of Montana.
Part of the mystique of the Battle of the Little Big Horn is its remoteness. Some of the exact movements and facts concerning the battle are shielded forever by that remoteness. This causes a ghostly veil to be cast upon the entire location, and it has become a magnet of perpetual curiosity. The battle only took a few hours, but its causes took decades and the resounding shock wave is still felt to this day.
The main event leading up to the Big Horn conflict was a decision in 1874 by the US Government to reclaim the Black Hills and other lands occupied by the Plains Indians after gold was discovered. They wanted the Natives out of the way and controlled on reservations. One of the reasons offered by the government was protection from the unstoppable hordes of settlers and gold seekers that were flooding in to the area. But the Black Hills and the plains were the Indians home. The Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868 put that in writing. However, even as the second Laramie Treaty was being negotiated, the Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud couldn’t help but noticed the scores of bluecoat soldiers pouring into Fort Laramie. Why are armed soldiers entering an area when peace is being negotiated? It didn’t seem right, and his suspicions were confirmed. Just five or six years after the peace pipe was passed at Fort Laramie the treaty was broken, Native lands were confiscated,.. again,.. and the result of that latest breach of trust was a showdown destined to bear witness. Eventually, it did, on June 25th, 1876 in the Little Big Horn Valley, just 60 miles southeast of Billings.
When one visits the battlefield, most people’s curiosity tends to lean towards the military side of the conflict. The US military is fully represented, of course. Not only by the headstones of the ill-fated 7th Cavalry but the National Military Cemetery there as well. That cemetery contains interments from Indian Wars, Spanish American War, World Wars I & II, Korea, and Vietnam. Of special notice was a monument saluting the brave Montana men who helped clear the Yellowstone of the “hostiles.” Over the years our history books, movies, television and such have echoed such sentiment against the Natives. But it was the Natives of the Plains that were being invaded. They were labeled as our “enemy” to forge our Manifest Destiny as we gave praise our “brave pioneers.”
Gladly, there has been a softening of that position and in 1991, Congress renamed the battlefield to Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, removing Custer’s name and establishing that a Native memorial also be built. That memorial was finally finished in 2014.
(This picture doesn’t even begin show the thoughtful, beautiful and informative design of the Native memorial, I wish I’d had more time to take more pics to share.)
For me, the Little Big Horn Battlefield is not just a battlefield, it is a place to contemplate our story, to step back from this violent event and question its’ causes, facts, biases, somehow come to terms with all that in order to expand our consciousness. I see this as the only hope to help heal this sacred spot and the corresponding cancer on the soul of our nation.
Our human species is constantly evolving. We must be diligent in our use of our individual free will to bring positivity to that evolution, not misery. The Little Big Horn battlefield and other like battlefields of genocide should be contemplated, lifted up, healed, and that healing held in our hearts and shared. This would serve as ground zero for an evolutionary shift away from the capitalistic and manifest destiny that our country has demonstrated for so long. Our dear human brothers, the Plains Indians, were hopelessly overrun by a lynch mob of racism and unconscious greed. We should offer penance at every such spot, whether it be The Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, or the Trail of Tears. We tend to overlook the fact while that the battle was indeed a last stand for Custer, it was also a last stand for the Indians. Their great nations were never the same after the Little Big Horn. Thank God we are finally, slowly starting to get that, even though it has taken over 150 years to do so.
Now here is how my day was spent on Aug 1, 2018.
The band had a day off as we had been making our way from Saratoga Springs California playing a Sweetheart of the Rodeo show with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman a couple of days before. Our next show was opening for Chris Stapleton in Billings on August 2. Marty and I took good advantage of the miraculous routing.
We left Billings in a rented silver Cadillac around 2pm headed for my third trip to the Little Big Horn Battlefield. We stop for gas on the way and come across this Crow Indian Barber shop. Fortunately, I’d had a trim before I left on this trip.
The secondary reason for this trip was to visit Putt Thompson’s Custer Battlefield Trading Post & Café, conveniently located just across from the Battlefield entrance.
The tour of the battlefield was first.
With cameras in hand we stopped in many locations of the 5-mile battlefield road to photograph and contemplate. We called the famed Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett to share with him where we were and to spiritually invite him along. We both love and admire ole Les. He has a way of being with you, making you smile and encouraging you that we both welcomed as we drove around. I studied the map and tried to establish once and for all the troop and Indian movements on that hot June day in 1876.
It has always been confusing and I was determined to picture it clearly this time. Unlike a Civil War Battlefield, the Little Big Horn is a vast Cavalry battlefield that even though there are very few trees beyond the Little Big Horn River, the rolling of the landscape makes it difficult to take the whole place in at once.
From Battlefield Road I could finally picture in my minds eye the huge Indian encampment of several thousand Cheyenne, Minniconjou, Oglala, Brule, Blackfoot and Hunkpapa down by the river near present day I-90, (which mirrors the original Bozeman Trail).
(The Native camp was located roughly around the green grass just above this tree line in this picture. The river is hidden by the trees. There were approximately 7000 men, women and children camped here.)
The tour of the battlefield is actually in reverse. The first spot you pass upon entering is “Last Stand Hill.”
(“Last Stand Hill” is to the right in this shot, while the Native memorial is the little knoll to the left)
You have to drive approximately 4 miles to the Reno-Benteen Entrenchment past this spot and even a couple miles farther to see where the 7th Cavalry entered the scene and divided into three columns. Maj Reno’s column was to attack from the south. Custer is believed to have ridden to the north, and other companies tried to ride right into the middle of the encampment. It was a disaster for the 7th. They were overwhelmed by the numbers and lack of surprise. Reno and Benteen were able to retreat to a ridge above where Reno tried to attack at the Little Bighorn River and hold their position until the Indians left the next day. There are US grave markers scattered everywhere and in clusters where the majority of fighting took place. Remember, this was a Cavalry conflict. The wide movement of troops is reflected in the scattered markers and they are mostly US soldier markers. Only recently have brown granite markers been placed for a few native fallen. After the battle, the Natives removed their dead so their death locations have been lost to time. The ones that have been placed were from family members who remembered.
The day was hot, and the sky was sunny, but slightly hazy, a result of the distant western wildfires. The wind whistles all around you filled with ghostly echoes of panic, sweat, thundering horse hooves and gunfire. There is no complete silence here, the land speaks, loudly.
This is the monument dedicated to the soldiers that fell on Last Stand Hill, built in 1881.
Prayer-ties in a newly sprouted bush near Last Stand Hill
The marker at Weir Point, a mile from Last Stand Hill
Weir Point without the benefit of the marker. (notice the hazy redness of the sky, a result of the western wildfires far to the west)
On our way back to Billings, we stopped across the street at Putt’s Trading Post. A longtime friend of Marty’s we see the he has expanded the post since our last visit. It is a combination trading post, museum and restaurant. There are artifacts all around, but the best ones are in the cabin just off to one side of the trading post, and upstairs in Putt’s and his wife’s apartment. Putt’s real claim to fame is a tintype that he acquired that he says is the only picture of Crazy Horse in existence, taken shortly before his death in 1877.
Here’s Putt Thompson standing in front of an enlargement of his famous tintype.
Putt’s place is open every day, seven days a week and he is a happy, jolly and informed proprietor. You can find real artifacts and modern beadwork, as well as jewelry a bit cheaper than you will find in Billings or anywhere else. The mood here is in stark contrast to across the street. Here there is life, happiness and commerce. Putt willingly shared behind the scenes stories and legends that you won’t hear over at the battlefield. His trading post is in a position to tell, “the rest of the story.” Believe it or not.
After a good long visit eying everything in the store and in the private archives, we sit down for a good meal. I had the Buffalo steak and asparagus, although I’m mostly vegetarian as of late. Sometimes you just have to go off the rails. As Marty and I dine, I take note of the Indian Chief lollipop dispenser amidst the potato chip rack and Coke dispenser directly across from our table.
There are many things to experience here at the Little Big Horn, but if you come, please take the time to listen and ponder the larger spiritual questions that will be whispered to you as you stroll among the tombstones in the greasy grass.
We will all benefit if you do.