As a child, I was steeped in the righteousness of Manifest Destiny. I learned that George Custer and the men of the 7th Calvary were heroes, opening the western territory to development, defending the settlers, and bringing civilization and Christianity to the Indians. What could possibly be wrong with that? Dee Brown's book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, helped me understand Indian Policy for the land and resource grab it was. The genocide our ancestors committed against our Native peoples was the ultimate ending for anyone who stood in the way of this progress. The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho families - men, women, and children - gathered at Little Big Horn creek were all thought to be hostile by the US government, and the general population, because they refused to sign a "new" treaty ceding the Black Hills to the whites and would not re-locate onto reservations. On June 25, 1876, Custer and his 7th Calvary troopers attacked what was thought to be the largest native encampment anyone had ever seen, 8,000 people with over 2,000 warriors. The Indians, of course, won that battle, but soon lost the war and their centuries-old way of life.
The Little Big Horn Battlefield Monument has long honored and mythologized the fallen soldiers, their bold, dashing commander, and even their horses. Monuments, plaques, the cemetery, individual markers where the soldiers died began to be erected immediately after the battle. It all speaks to the soldier's heroism and the sanctity of their cause. In the last twenty-five years, the Monument has become more inclusive of Native American points-of-view and begun to relate the legitimacy of the Native defense of their homeland and their way of life. A few markers representing the spots where individual warriors fell during the fighting have been added recently. And in 1991, the US government authorized an Indian Memorial at the sight and commissioned a sculpture by Native artist, Colleen Cutschall. Inside the visitor center, a film gives a generally fair assessment of the time period, the battle itself, and the aftermath.
As I was leaving the film, I overheard a middle-aged white woman remark, "I don't understand why they would want to live like that anyway."
This Crow Indian man was a scout for the 7th Cavalry. It is easy to ask, "How could he fight for the white man against other Indians?" Even his English name speaks to the tone of his relationship. Yet, from the point of view of the Crow people, the Europeans had already won the war, and the west, and it was better to assimilate than fight a losing battle. Also, the Crow and the Sioux had been arch enemies for centuries. Joining the US Army not only assured the Crow better treatment from the whites, but also offered the opportunity to kill their traditional nemesis.
What to say about this place? Anything I say is quite easy and almost trite from the safety of 140 years and the security of my mountain land that was once part of the Cherokee nation before the Trail of Tears fixed that. I'm skeptical. But many brave men on both sides died here. I try to put myself in the place of one of the many recent European immigrants who fought and died on this hill, perhaps one of the Italians who arrived thirty-five years earlier than my grandfather. What was that man thinking as he faced thousands of determined, angry, and very hostile Indians defending their families and land? I wonder if he understood in his heart why he was going to die that day? Why in that place, far away from his home, fighting a people he knew nothing about, was he going to die a very violent death? Did he see he was just a very small piece in a much larger cultural struggle? I wonder if he saw the irony in all of it, but especially in his journey? Arriving from the Old Country as one of the oppressed, only to go to work for the oppressor in the New World, and this is what it got him.
If nothing else, as the soldiers were being overwhelmed, I'm sure he was saying, Oh Shit! I should have stayed home.