Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 42 – Little Bighorn Battlefield: In the end

Monday June 30, 2014, 34 miles (55 km) – Total so far: 1,893 miles (3,046 km)

In the end, there were no winners. In the end, soldiers and warriors littered battlefields all over the West. In the end, a culture was irrevocably broken and a way of life lost. There were many battlefields and many forts. There were many broken treaties. But the Battle of the Little Bighorn is perhaps the most famous of them all. After visiting so many sites of significance in Western American history on my previous tours, today I’m heading down to put in another piece of the puzzle.

The wind is already giving me a 20 mph push down toward the battlefield when I leave Hardin. I’m trying to get down there when the monument opens because the wind is supposed to increase to 30 mph with 45 mph gusts later. Storms are also forecast.

I ride down to the Little Bighorn Battlefield as a day ride from Hardin. It is about 17 miles each way. There is a frontage road next to the interstate the whole way. If you start out on the west side, you need to cross over to the east side at one of the interstate exits. The western frontage road ends just before Crow Agency – if you stay on the west side, you’ll have to ride on some dirt, carry your bike over the railroad tracks, then ride up a steep hill before coming back down to the road that crosses under the interstate to town.

The exhibit room is not all that large – I think the gift shop is about the same size. I try to take it all in and get my head around all of it. To me, the battle details are not as important as the greater context. I’m drawn to the timeline which shows how all of the treaties and battles led up to this one. I also need to be reminded of the U.S. Army response to this battle’s outcomes and the length of time between this Indian victory and when most tribes surrendered, returned or were forced back to the reservations.

As I’m trying to put it all together in my head, there is an overweight woman sucking on a 64-oz Big Gulp that is oohing and aahing over the exhibits explaining the way of life of the Plains Indians. “Oh, isn’t this so genius!”, she says, to no one in particular. She continues, her loud voice proclaiming all of the ways the Indian way of life is superior to our lives today. I just want to turn around and tell her, “Shut up! You are being obnoxious! This is a very small room! Every time you open your mouth, you reveal your ignorance. Shut up”! But I don’t say anything, though her tone of voice irritates me. I think it is wonderful if you can respect the tools and traditions of a culture other than your own, but praising them in a tone of voice and with the words you’d use to congratulate a six-year-old on a well-done piece of colouring… well that is just disrespectful and derogatory. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. She is everything the rest of the world sees when they see an obnoxious American tourist.

When we all wander in to watch the introductory film, the husband sits down in a different aisle to the woman. So the woman scoots down and sits next to me! Oh dear. Then she starts talking to me. Oh dear. “Ooohhh, are you the person riding the bicycle outside”? She wants to know all of the standard six. Oh gosh, please let the film start, please let the film start….

She just thinks I’m doing the most wonderful thing and thinks I must be incredibly proud of myself. She turns around to tell her husband that I’m doing a four-month bike tour. “Isn’t that just the most wonderful thing!”, she exclaims, in the same tone as if she was congratulating me on going potty in the toilet. Good grief!

The film is very well done. There is a somber silence in the room as the curtains are raised. Even that lady shuts up. I wander outside. Most people go sit on the porch to listen to the Battle Talk that starts at 9am. The wind has picked up even more since I’ve been inside. It’s as obnoxious as that lady. If the weather were nicer, I would ride all the way down to the end of the road and take in all of the tour stops that explain the battle. But with the wind roaring out of the north, I decide I will just look around within walking distance of the visitor’s center. I just want to think about the events, I don’t need a blow-by-blow of the battle.

Because everyone is sitting down to wait on the interpretive program, there is no one up at the obelisk at the moment. That’s perfect. I would like to be up there when it is quiet, so I can reflect on the events and their repercussions.

7th Cavalry Memorial on Last Stand Hill. In 1876, just days after the battle, the bodies of Custer’s command were buried in shallow graves near where they fell. In 1877, the remains of 11 officers and 2 civilians were transferred to eastern cemeteries. In 1881, the remains of the rest of the command were buried in a mass grave around the base of the memorial.

I stand there at the top of the hill and read the park brochure which explains the battle. Basically, Custer was a bit arrogant and cocky. He either underestimated the Indians and their skill, numbers and willingness to defend their camp and way of life OR he overestimated the abilities of himself and his 600 men to take on 1,500 to 2,000 Indian warriors. Whatever the case, he divided the cavalry into three battalions. He kept five companies, and gave three companies each to the other two battalion leaders, Reno and Benteen. Another company was to guard the pack train.

Reno first crossed the creek to engage the Indian encampment, Custer headed north to the other end. Reno engaged the Indians and was forced to retreat to the hill that Benteen was on at the south end. Nobody really knows exactly where Custer went and when – but there is a lot of speculation and many theories. The brochure presents one possibility. The brochure also provides a coloured diagram of the battlefield with lines drawn showing advances and retreats of ‘known’ and ‘conjectural’ troop movements. It all looks a bit like a playbook for a football team.

In the end, Custer and approximately 41 of his men shot and killed their horses to shoot from behind on Last Stand Hill. The men were all killed – 10 near the present-day memorial and the rest on the knoll below. The rest of Custer’s command, and some of Reno and Benteen’s troops, died elsewhere on the battlefield – around 260 men in all. The Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho lost 60-100 men.

For many people, traversing the battlefield, and trying to understand where the troops were and when they did certain things, is very important. But I don’t need to know each proposed battle movement because I doubt that any one line or arrow is what really happened. From the top of the hill, I just think the diagram is way too neat and tidy. I imagine it as a scene of chaos with warriors and soldiers all over the place. You cannot decimate 260 men in a little flow-chart of arrows – well, you can kill them with a flurry of arrows, and they did, but it certainly can’t be done as neatly as outlined on the sheet. I guess the minutiae of means doesn’t rouse me like the consequences of the ends.

Looking out over the battlefield from Last Stand Hill. The Indian encampment was down along the river where all of the trees are located.

I try to imagine the noise – the sound of the horses galloping along the ridge, the gunshots, the sound of arrow piercing flesh, the sound of people crying out, moaning and dying. I try to imagine the dust rising up, the smoke from the guns, the movement of so many men all at once everywhere. I try to imagine the absolute carnage and chaos on this picturesque prairie hill. But today, the only sound is the wind whipping against the fence and whistling through the long grass. The peacefulness betrays any sense of destruction and death. It does feel like a somber place. You can’t look at all the names on the obelisk, and view all the little red and white markers that peek above the grass all over the hillsides, and not feel a great sense of loss. But I just don’t think there is any way to completely imagine the death and chaos, though maybe war veterans have a much better chance.

The Indian Memorial was dedicated in 2003 and completed last year. It is built in the shape of a circle, as this shape is sacred to many tribes. Through a window in the memorial, there is a view of the Cavalry memorial. This window, or spirit gate, welcomes the soldiers into the memorial circle symbolically. This “Spirit Warrior” sculpture represents warriors that fought in the battle.

I walk down to the Indian Memorial and read the quotes. I gaze out over the peaceful prairie and the horses grazing below. The loss of so much – not just here on this one battlefield – is a little overwhelming. But I cannot think of any other place or time in world history that subjugation and decimation of a culture went any better than it did in the American West in the late 1800s. The times, locations and languages are different, but the story is still the same.

I note that the clouds off to the north are getting dark and threatening rain, so I head down to the Deep Ravine trail to see the marked soldiers’ graves down there. I try to imagine a person fighting and dying at each stone. I try to imagine what was in their heads as they fell. The trail gives you a better sense of the topography, and I can’t imagine any heroics here – just people fearing and fighting for their lives, or their way of life.

A 7th Cavalry Memorial marker down in the Deep Ravine. There are markers scattered all the way down the hill into the ravine and in the ravine itself. It is not known why the soldiers were here but it has been proposed that they were trying to signal their position to the rest of the command or trying to drive back the Indians. I think I agree with another proposition that, in the middle of all of the chaos and slaughter, they were trying to flee. You can see the memorial obelisk on Last Stand Hill about 2/3 across the ridge on the right in this photo.

I eat some food on the visitor centre porch overlooking the battlefield. Everyone else has gone on to other parts of the monument. I review the information I’ve read and seen and try to form a little chapter in my head. A ranger walks by and asks where I’m staying. When I say “Hardin”, he shakes his head and says, ‘that’s going to be a tough ride back today’. I say, “yes, it could take me three hours, but at least it took much less than that to get here. Sometimes you get a nasty wind both ways”. He smiles and says, “well, at least you’ve got a good attitude about it. Be safe”. Then he wanders off.

Pretty soon, I do, too. The wind is quite crazy out of the north. Crazy enough to be funny at times. Some of the gusts almost completely stop me. There’s no way to spin any sort of rhythm with that! At least I’m a little more aerodynamic today without the full load.

The rain catches me just a few miles up the road as I ride into Crow Agency. The dogs come along again for a run. Crow Agency has a gas station, post office and general store type place but not many options for getting out of the rain. So I head over to the park area and go stand under a covered picnic table that smells like piss and vomit. There is not a surface clean enough to want to sit, so I just stand over the bike and wait for the rain to pass.

I stand there for 45 minutes while the rain pelts down and the wind blows in cold gusts. There is an absolutely gigantic Crow flag flying on a pole to the north. That strong wind ripples it out and does not diminish. I gaze about at all of the buildings constructed when the reservation was established and at the efforts to provide recreation – everything is run down and downtrodden. The Crow actually worked with the US Army from the very beginning, seeking protection from the Sioux and Cheyenne. This tribe was always known as being cooperative with the Army. They even had scouts helping Custer at Little Bighorn. So it’s sad that even if you didn’t fight or resist the Army, you still ended up with a pretty tiny reservation that is not the heart of your homeland. It’s hard not to have a heavy heart today, but I suppose that is how it should be. If you aren’t somewhat moved by other peoples’ and cultures’ losses, you probably aren’t human… or you’re a politician.

Finally, I can resume my trudge into the wind. I’m going faster than I thought I would. I’m usually doing about 8 mph instead of the 4 or 5 mph that I thought I would. People honk as they pass me. What a fool – they probably think! At least the wind dries the pavement quickly, and I don’t have to ride through a gritty spray for long.

In the end, it takes me about 1 hour and 45 minutes to crawl back to Hardin in the wind. Those strong gusts that nearly pushed me over or backward to a halt were actually a little bit humorous since they couldn’t be predicted. In the end, I really didn’t have a choice but to press on – I wouldn’t have missed going to see the monument just because of a 30 mph wind with higher gusts. I stop at the county museum on the way back into town, but it’s expensive to go in, and my brain is pretty full right now anyway. So, in the end, I head back to the campsite and go hide in the laundry again out of the wind. I reflect on the day and my gratitude that I’ve been able to so directly experience the places associated with Western American history in the past two years.

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