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Little Bighorn Extends Honors to Indians

On the 127th anniversary of Custer's defeat and death, the park will dedicate a memorial to the tribes who fought him.

June 22, 2003|Becky Bohrer | Associated Press Writer

LITTLE BIGHORN BAT-TLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT, Mont — LITTLE BIGHORN BAT-TLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT, Mont. -- The words were angry, ugly. But to Tim Lame Woman, they were truth, and they begged to be spoken whenever he passed the grassy battlefield where Lt. Col. George Custer became a legend.

On a June day in 1988, Lame Woman marched with other members of the American Indian Movement to the monument to the 7th Cavalry atop Last Stand Hill. They placed at its base a crudely engraved plaque honoring the "Indian patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. Cavalry in order to save our women and children from mass murder."

"To me, that was a continued insult, to see Custer idolized and his monument," Lame Woman recalled from his home on the nearby Northern Cheyenne reservation. "We wanted America to recognize our contributions. But nothing was up there, and it hurt."

This Wednesday, the 127th anniversary of Custer's defeat, formal recognition is coming to the Indian warriors who prevailed that hot June day in 1876.

Sacred Symbol

The granite obelisk and white headstones of the cavalry dead now share the battlefield with a sunken stone circle -- a sacred symbol to many tribes -- and an open-air space for tribal ceremonies.

Walls feature "interpretive panels" explaining the roles of the tribes that took part in the battle. Striking wiry sculptures of three warriors on horseback and a woman on foot beside them stand guard.

Dedication of the new monument is a proud moment for Ernie LaPointe, who claims the Sioux leader Sitting Bull as his great-grandfather.

"To me," he said, "it's a long overdue memorial to the victors."

For most Indians, it is an honor.

Some even consider it an apology of sorts for white man's treatment of Indians during early settlement of the West. Others say it simply provides an important historical balance to the 400,000 tourists who visit each year.

But even among Indian tribes, there is not complete satisfaction in the memorial's design -- particularly its inclusion of the Arikara and Crow, who scouted for Custer and were enemies of the Sioux, Arapahoe and Cheyenne.

Battlefield Supt. Darrell Cook said he expected disagreement, even though tribal representatives helped pick out the design. The memorial, like any art, is subjective, he said.

William C. Hair, a Northern Arapahoe, said the memorial is difficult to interpret and doesn't reflect "the Indian society of yesterday, today and probably tomorrow." Still, he said, he's happy that there's finally something recognizing the Indians' role.

"This memorial here is the closest acknowledgment or apology that we'll get from the people of the United States through their government for the atrocities and treatment of the Indians in the early settlement of the American West," he said.

On June 25, 1876, Custer attacked an Indian village along the Little Bighorn River, apparently miscalculating the resistance that he and his men with the 7th Cavalry would encounter.

By some estimates, as many as 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors fought back.

About 260 men, including Custer and Indian scouts with the cavalry, were killed in the battle. The Indians are estimated to have lost fewer than 100.

Within months of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the military renewed its campaign against the Indians and began forcing them onto reservations.

In 1881, the U.S. government built a granite obelisk to honor the military dead.

Barbara Sutteer, who was named superintendent of the battlefield only a year after the 1988 AIM march there, recalls the firestorm that the march set off. It prompted the National Park Service to begin considering the idea of a memorial for the Indians.

In 1991, Congress authorized a memorial to the battle's "Indian participants," in a bill that also changed the battlefield's name from Custer Battlefield National Monument. But it was not until 10 years later that lawmakers finally approved the $2.3 million needed to build the memorial.

"People say it was just done because it was politically correct, but I don't think so," Sutteer said. "It goes back to timing and thinking at the time and the people wanted to see something done."

John Doerner, the battlefield's chief historian, said the Indian memorial is more than just a monument to their participation.

"We often think of it as Custer's last stand. But how many of us think of it as Sitting Bull's last stand or the Indians' last stand?" Doerner said. "Custer gained an immortality in death that he probably wouldn't have gained in life, if he lived. The irony is, Sitting Bull's people won the battle but they lost the war."

Turning Point

Clifford Long Sioux said he hopes that the memorial will mark a turning point in relationships both among tribes and between Indians and whites.

"It's time for healing and this is part of the healing process, by finally honoring the Indians," he said. "Some people still have somewhat resentful feelings and are angry. Why? We need to start a reconciliation."

Lame Woman said he plans to walk to the ridge top again on Wednesday -- this time, he says, out of reverence, not frustration.

"On Memorial Day, you can take flowers to a loved one's grave to remember them. There's something there," he said.

"We finally have something, a place for our children to go and see, and it's long overdue."

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