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It Happened at the Little Big Horn
Invasive species. That’s what the workers call it, workers protectively clothed in sun-flower yellow safety vests and donning wide brimmed hats, walking two-by-two up a hill, stooped over, pushing aside grasses, yanking out undesirable weeds. They are oblivious to the irony of their task. They are working mostly as volunteers at the Little Big Horn National Monument, in Montana, where, over 140 years ago, on the summer day of June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer clashed with 1,500 to 1,800 Cheyenne, Sioux, and Araphaho warriors led primarily by Crazy Horse. Lives were lost, the 7th Cavalry with over 200 men, while the Native tribes, between 60 and 100. Invasive species—a phrase Custer or even Crazy Horse would have used for each other.
Symbolism lingers at the Little Big Horn. The Apsaalooke (Crow) nation, who were Scouts for Custer, offers a tour of the battlefield in an old-fashioned, right out of the 1950's, non-air conditioned bus. Taking visitors down a narrow four-mile road, over rolling hills, through deep ravines, the tour culminates at a bluff where, with little-to-no water, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had been separated from Custer’s. Here, they held out against the attacking Natives, while drifting over the green hills and through deep ravines, rolled gunfire and shouts emanating from Custer’s plight. The Crow bus ambles along the tour road with the guide recreating the battle through his descriptive language. However, coming down the road from the opposite direction lumbers a Ford F-350, hauling a trailer the size of a small house, embodying the massive power of modern man. Then, it happens. This behemoth clips the bottom mirror on the Crow tour bus driver’s side. The new confronts the old like in the 1876 battle, when Custer of the 19th century modern age confronted Crazy Horse and company, representing the so-called old ways.
Time haunts the Little Big Horn. On top of Last Stand Hill, where supposedly Custer and parts of his 7th Cavalry fought to the death, sits an obelisk, the kind Victorians loved to raise during the 19th century in order to honor the dead. This obelisk—assertive, spare, even bleak by today’s standards—lists the generals and lieutenants and soldiers and scouts and even assistant surgeons who died at the battle, most of whom are interred below the granite monument. Residing on top of Last Stand Hill, the obelisk is solitary, its presence silhouetted against the sky reaffirming the men’s existence. But it’s mere folly. The granite, so solid an attempt to immortalize, proclaims only worn, weathered inscriptions. Time is at work.
||In the invasive grasses, just below the hill’s crest, stand marble markers showing where bodies of 7th Cavalry officers were found. All the markers are white except for where Custer supposedly fell. His exhibits a black background, with his name distinctly noted in white letters.
Given Custer’s penchant for being noticed and his desire for fame (In his lifetime, Custer had more photos taken of himself than did President Lincoln.), Custer would appreciate having his name so prominently noted.
Ghosts abide at the Little Big Horn. In the Visitor’s Center, there is a display case with a wedding ring belonging to one of the soldiers (a sad reminder of a domestic connection destroyed). There’s a cavalry boot from a soldier who possessed a tiny, delicate foot (surely the envy of any woman of the day). And there are faces of 7th Cavalry fights, faces reconstructed by forensic scientists to show the varied nationalities (Irish, Italian) who fought that June day in 1876.
Ghosts are everywhere else. Out on the grassy fields is a white marble maker noting where horses that served and died at the Little Big Horn battle are buried. Many of the 7th Cavalry shot their mounts in order to use them, hopelessly, as breastworks. Sitting Bull, Medicine Man for the Sioux, wept when he saw the soldiers’ desperation—the act of brave men who knew they were going to die, believed Sitting Bull.
More ghosts. Dotting the landscape are burgundy granite markers. These denote the spots where Native Americans died, as a marker declaims, “while defending the Cheyenne way of life.” The markers, emblematic of too many deaths, remind a visitor of Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: “a hit, a palpable hit” or perhaps a macabre game of Battleship.
Even more ghosts. In 2003, directly across from Last Stand Hill, Native nations—Arikara, Sioux, Cheyene, Crow, and Arapaho—erected the Indian Memorial to honor their own sacrifices at the battle. Built as a sacred circle, in native sandstone, the Memorial showcases three bronze, iron-worked sculptures depicting an Indian woman presenting her warrior with a shield and two other warriors on horseback, all galloping off into the east. On the walls of the circle are depictions of how each tribe fought and lost warriors. Ghosts are found at the Memorial’s Spirit Gate, a gap in the circle, directing facing the obelisk on Last Stand Hill. Standing in this gap, a visitor feels a wind pass; the spirits of the 7th Cavalry are marching through the memorial, out onto the plains and into the afterlife. Soldiers and Indians together, at last, in infinity.
Yet more ghosts. The battle at the Little Big Horn (or as the Native tribes call is “The Battle of the Greasy Grass”) generated more dead than those who fell that June day in 1876. The triumph of Crazy Horse and company was a pyrrhic victory. The defeat of Custer—as shocking to 19th century America celebrating its centennial as the 9-11 attacks were to the 21st century—meant a death sentence. All-out Indian Wars were conducted, leading, eventually, to the massacre at Wounded Knee, where 150 to 300 Indians, including over 60 women and children died on December 12, 1890. The final conflict between the Sioux and the Federal troops had occurred. The ghosts of the Indian Wars hover around the Little Big Horn.
And, yet, a last ghost remains. Although Custer is supposedly buried at his alma mater the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a National Park Ranger explains that when Custer’s bones were disinterred from the hill, probably not all the remains were found, and those carried away might not even be his. So, in all likelihood, lingering at the Little Big Horn is Custer, astonished and stupefied by the workers protected by their safety vest, removing the invasive species.
© Dr. Bonnie Devet - July 2019
Professor of English/Director of the Writing Lab
Department of English
College of Charleston
Visiting with the Treasures
of the British Library
It’s a British morning, with its customary grayness suspended heavily from the sky. Eager souls, including me, are queuing along London’s Euston Road, alining a ramp before the entrance to the British Library.
More travel notes in Hacktreks