We're headed to the annual Custer's Last Stand re- enactment and we've driven 10 miles on the wrong road. It's library-quiet in southeastern Montana and we see no other cars, a seeming indication we've made a bad move. Puffy clouds float above us, and amber waves of something bend and sway on either side of the two-lane asphalt. Every now and then a farmhouse appears, noting civilization and the economy of the area.
When we finally right ourselves, we are in the midst of prairie traffic on an unpaved trail, not unlike what a 19th century wagon train might have traversed. A chain of vehicles, including monster RVs, churns up enough dust to keep the local carwashes in business for a week. We fear a visit to the tire store, too. The road is that rough and we're probably lucky we're crawling.
Ahead is a clearing where more than 200 men, women and children will re-enact one of the last armed battles between the Northern Plains Indians and the U.S. cavalry. Before we find spots in the wooden stands, we buy corn dogs, funnel cakes and lemonade — the real stuff. T-shirts are on sale, too, including one with vintage pictures of American Indians and the message "Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492." We stop to snap photos of a yellow-haired Custer posing by his canvas bivouac.
The protective clouds have mostly blown away and the sun bakes everything below. A voice crackles over the loudspeaker. "Some of the re- enactors have been caught in traffic. We will start soon." Cars are still kicking dust. The unmistakable smell of marijuana tickles us from behind.
And then we hear it, over that same cranky sound system. Lee Greenwood and God Bless the USA. It's showtime.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also called Custer's Last Stand, was a pivotal moment in U.S. history and one that still fascinates Americans. There have been dozens of books written about every imaginable aspect and key player of the June 1876 battle. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a doorstopper account by award-winning writer Nathaniel Philbrick, was published earlier this year and has made it onto some critics' books-of-the-year lists.
On Friday, a frayed American flag, found under a dead soldier on the Little Bighorn battlefield, will be auctioned at Sotheby's in New York. The swallowtail Culbertson guidon, named after the soldier who found it, has been owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts for more than 100 years, and is expected to fetch $2.5 million, maybe more.
The story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn has also been retold in movies and song, mostly painting the swaggering Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who was born 171 years ago today, and the 7th Cavalry as heroes. Nearly all — about 270 men — were wiped out in the battle. Estimates of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho casualties vary widely, from just 36 to 300. There is no argument, though, that the Indians were victors in the battle, but the clash between two cultures would not end well for them. They ultimately lost the buffalo grazing grounds that sustained their nomadic life.
Today, 134 years later, the plains of southeastern Montana remain strongly associated with history. In Hardin, a farming town of 4,000 people, the annual Little Bighorn Days celebrates the Old West Heritage every June with a parade down Central Avenue, past Fort Custer General Store and other small businesses, nothing taller than two stories. Townspeople and some visitors line the street, sitting in folding chairs and on the curb. From the parade, many head to the re- enactment site, where Custer's final moments are played out four times over three days, then they return to town for the crafts fair, Indian tacos and live music.
There's a grand ball at the fairgrounds, with vintage or contemporary military uniforms encouraged, plus a more casual street dance, along with a quilt show in the library. This year, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann, a graduate of Hardin High, was grand marshal of the parade, whose theme was football, not Custer. That was before the news that Biermann and one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta were expecting a baby.
Another historic Hardin happening.
On the battlefield
For a more solemn remembrance of Custer's Last Stand, we drive a few miles farther east to the actual battlefield along the Little Bighorn River. The National Park Service operates the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
We stop at the visitors center for a talk by a park ranger, a woman of Cheyenne descent, whose ancestors died not far from where she spoke to us. She stifles tears as she recounts the warriors who fought to protect women and children, who lived near the river. Her emotions are raw for something that happened so long ago, until we learn that the other part of history, what happened to the Indians here, was only officially memorialized in the last 10 years.
Looking out on the vast plains, that famous Montana big sky forming a dome over us, we cannot help but be moved. We are now on the Crow Indian Reservation, and the weight of what the Indians lost is immense. It's not just the stone memorials that mark where both soldiers and warriors fell that tell that story. The undulating landscape shows us in living color, aided by a soft breeze and that blue sky, what the Indians fought so ferociously to keep. The grandeur and vibrancy of the land was their freedom, and the clash with Custer was the beginning of the final, crushing blow.
Though the government and the Indians lived and traveled the region in a tenuous balance created by joint treaty, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, in what is now South Dakota, changed the deal. President Ulysses S. Grant's budget was in dire shape and he wanted the gold. Custer, who had been so successful as a Civil War commander, and his men marched west.
We walk up to Last Stand Hill, where Custer and his brother, Tom, along with many other soldiers, were killed. Memorials mark the spots where they died, and all of the bodies remain except Custer's, which is buried at West Point Cemetery in New York. The names of the military dead, including three Arikaree Indian scouts, are inscribed on a stone obelisk.
Not far from the hill is the new Indian Memorial, an open, circular walking path carved into the earth. A "spirit gate" faces the cavalry obelisk on Last Stand Hill, symbolically welcoming the dead. The names of Indians who died in the battle are carved on the walls. Again, the vast Montana expanse forces us into contemplation. Is this the last scene taken in by a dying Lakota warrior?
From the Indian Memorial, we walk along paths through the battlefield, thinking about rattlesnakes in the tall grass, but focusing mostly on the markers.
U.S. soldier 7th Cavalry fell here, June 25, 1876
A Cheyenne Warrior fell here on June 25, 1876, while defending the Cheyenne way of life
And all these years later, they are remembered.
A HISTORY DO-OVER
Even from its cheesy beginnings, the re-enact- ment proves to be surprisingly moving. Joe Medicine Crow, the elderly Crow Indian historian and anthropologist who wrote the script, is helped onto the grassy "stage" to speak. He is 97 now and last year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He speaks in his native language, stopping at times to catch his breath; his words and the translation come over the loudspeakers. He is bolstered at both elbows by aides. There is gravity to his voice, which rises and falls lyrically, as he welcomes us to the tableau.
And then the program begins. It's a Wild West show, though not the Annie Oakley variety. It starts with the expedition of Lewis and Clark, touches on Sacagawea, and then portrays how both the pioneers and Indians lived on the plains. There is a ridge at the far side of the field, and we know that a line of men on horseback will eventually appear there. At least they do in the movies.
Indians ride bareback and cavalry men post up and down in full regalia. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse make their appearances. And, of course, Custer, with his curly, flaxen hair peeking out from a worn hat. The battle begins, and men fall all over the now-trampled field, affecting injury and death. The large crowd is surprisingly quiet, especially when an Indian takes a hatchet to an infantryman so close to the front row.
We know they are just re-enactors, but like any good actors, they've suckered us in. The weight of history is heavier than even the corn dogs and funnel cakes in our stomachs.
We think about staying for the 5 p.m. show. Even Lee Greenwood is starting to sound pretty good. But we'll need time to find our way back to Hardin, down that dusty road and across the historic landscape. The street dance starts at 8:30.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.