Each June, the town of Hardin, Montana stages a re-enactment of what’s also known as Custer’s Last Stand but we’ve heard that the nearby hamlet of Garryowen at Crow Agency also hosts one and the chance to witness the re-enactment surrounded by the hilltops, ravines and plains where these historic battle skirmishes took place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I don’t speak Crow but I do speak Accessories. Fortunately, Loretta Real Bird speaks both and when we meet on her Crow Reservation land where the re-enactment is about to take place, her first question is “where did you buy your beaded bracelets?” Happily I could tell her it was from nearby Billings before we take our seats on the site of the original Sioux Indian encampment that Lt. Colonel George Custer had in his murderous sights.
Native Americans described this meadow, slick and lush from spring rains, as ‘greasy grass’ and the Bighorn River glistens opalescent blue beneath a cloudless sky. It’s hot, much as it was on June 25, 1876 when the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians combined to win the moral-boosting Battle of the Little Bighorn in a war they were destined to lose.
Realbird Re-enactment linkConcealed in tall grass, the contingent of Seventh Cavalry is adjusting saddles and fixing blue coats and hats. Suddenly there’s a whoop as young ‘braves’, clad in breechcloths and riding bareback, their ponies painted ready for battle, gallop past at full stretch. We’re seated on rough bleachers where a tepee village of 6,000 Indians including 2,000 warriors had once camped. Angry at broken promises by the US Government and the excessive destruction of buffalo, an animal central to their spiritual being and physical sustenance, the crises point came when the wagons of the new settlers cut wide rutted trails through Government-granted Indian lands into the sacred Black Hills in search of gold.
Refusing to forsake their traditional way of life, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Blackfoot Sioux and Northern Cheyenne united to join the great leader Sitting Bull and the fearless warrior Crazy Horse who were camped in the valley of the Little Bighorn river. With battle lines drawn, history is re-enacted from both sides but the Indian oral history of the battle, recited as it was originally told by Pat Spotted Wolf, is particularly poignant.
A lone Indian sitting astride his pony on a distant bluff is silently watching the Captain as he takes his troops through their paces. “Columns of two at the trot” : “Columns of four at the gallop”. The plan is to present a compact unit rather than one that can easily be picked off by the Indians’ strategy of pursuit and surprise.
Riding their Spanish mustangs across the plains, the Indians regarded themselves as living free with nature’s bounty, part of the natural order of life, and with nostrils flaring, the war ponies are raring to go. Now here come the cavalry, guns blazing, readying to attack the camp that stretches almost 5kms along the Little Bighorn River but this time, Custer’s troops faced a fearless united Indian nation and warriors rush like “wine through the village when they see them” and are ready. The Indians tell that Custer tried to cross Little Bighorn river but was killed early and never made it to the valley for battle. At Deep Coulee ravine, Custer’s two companies retreat and skirmishes with warriors ensue on a high ridge where retreating soldiers are relentlessly pursued.
“The Indians rode in many small parties streaming northeast up the ravine towards the troops” said White Bull, Minneconjou Lakota. Custer and his men never saw the sun set that day.
“The smoke was like a great cloud and everywhere they went, the dust rose like smoke. We circled all around them…..circling like water around a stone,” said the North Cheyenne Two Moons who was watching from Calhoun Hill. As the re-enactment climaxes, Indian warriors surround the crest of the fabled Last Stand Hill where it’s reported Custer and around 41 of his men shot their horses for breastwork, fighting to the last man standing. Then suddenly, it’s over and as they did in 1876, the braves ride their horses into Little Bighorn River to wash away the paint and blood of battle. Later, we encounter Loretta Real Bird again who asks us what we think of the re-enactment.
“It’s one of the most memorable events we’ve ever witnessed but when the Indians and the Cavalry assemble at the beginning, why are the Indians in the second row?” we ask. “After all, this was a monumental victory for American Indians, you should be the stars.” Bemused by this, Loretta simply replies that it’s always been done this way but she likes the idea and will take it to the next tribal council meeting. Custer’s death was reported by Curly, one of his Crow scouts whose cabin we’d visited at Cody a few days earlier. It’s a neat twist of fate that the Crow, who weren’t participants in the battle, now proudly host this epic re-enactment on their Agency land. It may be known today as Custer’s Last Stand but ultimately it represents the last stand for a way of life and the last hurrah for the Indians’ ancient traditions versus new beginnings for westward settlers.
Spellbinding – The re-enactments of the Battle of the Little Bighorn take place in Hardin and Garryowen, Montana usually on the third weekend of June. For details go to www.custerlaststand.org. or call 406 638 2079 for the Garryowen event. Each August, Crow Agency and Rodeo aka The Tepee Capitol of the World is one of the largest gatherings of the year of the Apsaalooke Nation when cultural activities take place over days of celebration. Backgrounding – Pay a $10 entrance fee to Little Bighorn Battlefield and follow the stories and skirmishes of this legendary battle. www.nps.gov/libi/planyourvisit/hours.htm
Overnighting – Stay at the beautifully re-designed Northern Hotel, 19 North Broadway, Billings www.northernhotel.comBewitching – Shop for authentic beaded jewellery, turquoise and fine buckskins at the amazing Native American Nations store, 207 North Broadway, Billings T 406 254 1019
For more visit www.visitmt.com
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