On the one hand, it is hallowed ground; hundreds of veterans from all of the nation’s wars are buried in the national cemetery here. And 250 soldiers gave their lives here in service of their country.
But it’s the reason they gave their lives that gives me pause. The Battle of the Little Bighorn — “Custer’s Last Stand” — was a pivotal point in the centuries-old system of genocide inflicted on one people by another. The blood spilled here is a dark red stain on our history books. Those books too often gloss over the fact that from the beginnings of European colonization, every single treaty with the native people of this continent was ignored. Every single promise the White Man made was broken.
At Little Bighorn, people who had been pushed out of their homes, chased out of their lands, and herded into reservations, said, “Enough!” They banded together and achieved total victory in this famous battle. But, as they say, in winning the battle, they lost the war. U.S. policy became one of single purpose: wipe out the Red Man.
The soldiers of the 7th Cavalry became martyrs to that cause. At the battlefield, a huge monolithic memorial lists their names. Headstones mark the exact spot where every man fell. For many years, the site was called the Custer Battlefield, ignoring the “other side.”
Only 20 to 50 Native Americans died at Little Bighorn; that’s how big the victory was. But until recently, their voices had not been heard. There is now a second memorial, built as a sacred circle, telling their side of the story. Native art and quotes are carved into the stone. The most poignant section depicts an 1869 peace-pipe ceremony between Custer and Stone Forehead, Keeper of the Sacred Arrows.
Custer is quoted as saying, “I will never harm the Cheyennes again. I will never point my gun at a Cheyenne again. I will never kill another Cheyenne.”
Stone Forehead is quoted as saying, “If you break your promise, you and your soldiers will go to dust like this. [The ceremony included the pouring of the pipe’s ashes on Custer’s boot heel.] If you are acting treacherously toward us, sometime you and your whole command will be killed.”
The battle on June 25, 1876, would seem to have fulfilled that prophecy.
It’s likely that there were some soldiers who were not hell-bent on killing Indians; they were just following orders, serving their country. So they cannot be condemned for giving the ultimate sacrifice. Whatever their motives, we do know what the Cheyenne were fighting for, as the two headstones below say:
A CHEYENNE WARRIOR
FELL HERE ON
JUNE 25, 1876,
WAY OF LIFE