I just came back from a trip out west. We stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana on June 20th.
The weather the day I was there was clear with very little breeze. According to Indian accounts, the weather 138 YEARS AGO TODAY was very similar. As I stood looking over the rolling hills, watching the grass sway ever so slightly, I could almost imagine the chaos; the desperation; the panic that the 7th Cavalry troopers had to feel as thousands of warriors closed in on them.
According to one account passed down through generations, a warrior watched as a 7th Cavalry trooper dismounted his horse at Little Bighorn and shot the horse in the head so he could use the dead horse as cover. The warrior said it was an act by a man who already knew he would never see the sunset.
White markers are used to mark the locations where 7th Cavalry troops fell on June 25th, 1876. They are scattered over miles of grassland with the bulk of them being on or near a hilltop known as Little Bighorn.
It was not until 1999 that red markers were placed where warriors fell on June 25th, 1876. The tribes that they represent picked the color red. There are many, many more white markers than red.
The warrior markers say “[name] A [Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, etc.] FELL HERE ON JUNE 25, 1876 WHILE DEFENDING THE [Lakota, Cheyanne, Arapaho, etc.] WAY OF LIFE.”
All they wanted was to be free to live their way of life as they had been doing forever.
But President Ulysses S. Grant had other ideas for how the tribes should be handled. In January of 1871 he said: “Indians of the country should be encouraged…to adopt our form of government, and it is highly desirable that they become self-sustaining, self-relying, Christianized, and civilized.”
So in order to force his ideology and way of life onto the tribes, Grant ordered Custer to seek these disobedient Indians and break a March 15, 1869 promise he had made to Cheyenne Chief Stone Forehead. After smoking a peace pipe with the chief Custer promised to “never harm the Cheyenne again.”
When Custer made that promise, he was made a promise in return. Stone Forehead said: “If you ever break your promise you and your soldiers will return to dust like this.” [as he poured out the ashes of the peace pipe]. The Cheyenne kept their promise in full on June 25, 1876
The tribes were camped along the Little Bighorn River, in defiance of government orders to move on to the reservation. Indian scouts saw Custer’s troops approaching. Having good reason to fear for their own lives as well as the lives of their families, the warriors made a stand.
As I stepped up to the first warrior marker that I came to and read it a little chill traversed my spine. The words “WHILE DEFENDING THE CHEYENNE WAY OF LIFE” were like a slap in the face to me.
Custer and his men may have been following lawful orders that day but lawful orders do not make what they were doing right. It occurred to me, there standing on that ground once soaked with the blood of men and horses, that many Americans today are again being forced, by a government that thinks it knows best, onto reservations; into a way of life that they do not wish to live.
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether time remains to do anything about it before some future landscape is dotted with markers noting where fighters from both sides fell.