Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king from before the time of Christ, is widely credited with coining the phrase winning the battle but losing the war, but it could’ve been written to describe the Battle of Little Big Horn and the tragedy that ensued. A few years after enjoying their most celebrated victory, most of the prominent Native leaders and warriors who’d taken part in the battle would either be killed or forced to surrender. The Black Hills, which the Natives had fought to keep sacred, were lost in concessions, just to keep from starving. The Indian Wars were drawing to a close.
It is hard to say exactly what happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand, since every soldier under Custer’s command, more than two hundred men, were killed that day, apparently in about the same amount of time it takes a hungry man to eat his lunch. The goal was to drive the Sioux and Cheyenne back onto their reservations. The number of warriors who were off the reservations at the time to join in the summer buffalo hunt, was greatly underestimated.
Sitting Bull had recently had a vision about soldiers falling like grasshoppers that had fired up the tribes. What was expected to be a one-way fight turned into a brutal rout. No one from Custer’s unit lived to tell the tale, but evidence suggests that they had panicked and broken formation, turning the battle into a buffalo run.
I was glad they accepted my National Park Pass at the gate, since it was twenty-five dollars to get in. The first thing I did was to stroll out to the National Cemetery, reserved for military veterans from both the Indian and later wars. Identical white headstones mark the graves.
From there I went over to the Visitor Center, COVID mask in place. At least they were open. Upon entering, there were pictures of Sitting Bull and Ulysses S. Grant, standing side by side. An effort was made to take a nuanced approach and tell both sides of the story. Next was a mannequin in a glass case, a soldier from the Seventh Calvary, with saddlebags, rifle, and cowboy hat. Beside him, in a separate case, was an Indian warrior, with feathered headdress and bow and arrow. A gallery of calvary fighters included Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, Major Marcus Reno, and Captain Frederick Benteen. An adjacent one featured Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Gall, Two Moons, and Red Horse.
There were only a few other visitors in the park at the time and my idea was to get out on the tour road ahead of them. I hurried off and reached the monument first, but then couldn’t find parking, so left the car at the side of the road. On it are inscribed some of the names of the 220 soldiers, scouts, and civilians, who died and were buried in the area. Cloth prayer flags hung from the branches of a nearby tree. At the Indian Memorial I got a look at the wire sculpture of three braves riding off into battle. Then there are overviews of the spots where the units of Reno and Benteen got pinned down yet managed to stave off total annihilation.
By now it was mid-morning. I wanted to drive back to the Crow reservation then go visit that of the Northern Cheyenne. At the Apsaalooke Veterans Park, I got out and took a picture of a statue called The Mystic Warrior. Beyond that was a sign claiming Jesus Christ as the Lord of the Crow Nation. Traveling a little further I came across a country church, overshadowed by a sign for the Apsaalooke Nights Casino.
To get to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, I needed to take the 212 about an hour east, but then I got caught up in roadwork for thirteen miles, and for a long time just sat there. The reservation is 690 square miles and has 6,000 tribespeople living on it. It was created after two chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, fled the reservation they’d been confined to in Oklahoma. After splitting up, the party that followed Dull Knife was nearly wiped out in the Fort Robinson Massacre. Little Wolf managed to make it to Fort Keough in Montana and began acting as a scout for the army. Dull Knife eventually made his way there and the reservation was established in 1884.
I drove into the headquarters at Lame Deer and had a look around. It looked a little rougher than some of the other reservations I’d visited. A giant wooden tipi was collapsing on the outskirts of town. I passed a store called Custer’s Last Camp, then the Chief Little Wolf Capitol Building. Up on a hill there was a water tower with a depiction of a maiden, beneath an umbrella, walking a dog. One wall was full of graffiti and murals, a strong statement from the Northern Cheyenne Nation. On one half was a buffalo and screaming eagle, with skulls and a conked-out dragon. The other half was made of black warriors, like something from a nightmare, fashioned out of the night, their hair pulled back, feathers stuck into it, one with a buffalo head, their quivers full of arrows, coming to claim what is rightfully theirs.
To be a Civil War veteran or immigrant who signed up for the U.S. Calvary at the time, thinking about three square meals a day and a little money in your pocket, only to find yourself waking up to that, one bright summer day, would be to know the true meaning of hell on earth, running through fields of chaos and terror, watching your friends being butchered, praying for the cry of a bugle, which meant relief was on its way, but then finally cut down, falling to your knees, leaving just a final scream. It was time to get going, while the going was still good.