Wednesday, September 3

Custer's last stand

Today was the first of two “repositioning” days we’ve scheduled on our road trip. These are days devoted to relocating between the three major regions we’re visiting; the Black Hills of South Dakota, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. Each involves driving up to 450kms in a single day. Today we drove from Buffalo, Wyoming to Red Lodge, Montana; a journey of 350kms.

Our route took us past Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This wind-swept expanse of grassy knolls and gentle ravines was the site of General Custer’s last stand. It was here in the Summer of 1876 that more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel of the US 7th Calvary were defeated in battle by several thousand North American Indians.

The battle of Little Bighorn was the last great victory of the Northern Plains Indians fighting to preserve their ancestral, nomadic way of life. Its origins trace back to the persistent violation of “native title” treaties signed between the Indians and European settlers in the mid-1880s. At the time large tracts of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana were set aside as Indian territory. The Government promised to protect the native population from “all depredations by people of the United States.”

However, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1868, and shortly after in valleys north of Yellowstone, saw thousands of men, women and children descend upon the region within months. The migrants cared little for the Indian way of life. They had little or no regard for the sanctity of native hunting grounds; indiscriminatingly slaughtering buffalo and desecrating ceremonial sites.

Initially the US Army attempted to keep the arriving masses away. It then tried to buy the Black Hills. The Lakota Indians refused to sell one of their most sacred locations. The local tribes began raiding settlements and attacking travelers on wagon trails passing through their land. In December 1875, the Government ordered the tribes to return to reservations it had established by treaty. Those who refused were declared “hostile.” This declaration set the scene for the battle that subsequently unfolded.

General Custer met his untimely death on a small grassy knoll on June 25 1876. The place where he and his men fell has been immortalized by white marble markers. More than 265 of these marble headstones are scattered across the area, including several dozen concentrated on Last Stand Hill. In typical colonial fashion, the hill’s crest is dominated by a large marble cairn. Custer was originally buried here. However his remains were subsequently exhumed and reburied at the West Point military academy a decade later.

On the hill’s western slope a graceful Indian Memorial commemorates the tribes that fought and those that died. The circular memorial was completed in 2013. It’s dominated by an arresting wireframe sculpture of warriors galloping into battle. An arc of marble walls encloses the memorial, each telling the story of an Indian tribe involved in the battle. Nearby, a handful of red granite markers note places where Indian warriors fell in death. The Park Service began erecting these markers in 1999, more than 120 years after the “European” marble headstones.

Garry and I spent more than hour wandering the battlefield; visiting Last Stand Hill, touring the local interpretative centre and watching an excellent documentary film about the battle and its origins. The entire set up is incredibly well done and made for a refreshing break on our journey toward Yellowstone.

Tomorrow we’ll travel into the National Park itself via the rugged Beartooth Highway. They say this road is one of the most scenic routes in all of North America. Watch this space!

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