The grassy hills and valleys of southern Montana stretch to the horizon. Atop the knoll where General George Custer made his famous last stand, I can see for miles in every direction and imagine the U.S. Calvary troops snaking around the perimeter of a flat riverbed where a large Lakota nation settlement was on alert for a possible attack.
The rows of rectangular grave markers testify to the failed offensive by Custer’s calvary.
The U.S. leaders badly underestimated the size and strength of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters they would face on the Little Bighorn river and the attackers were out maneuvered and nearly annihilated over two days of fighting.
The Native American warriors fought fiercely to defend their way of life. which was threatened by settlers. In a short-lived attempt to end hostilities eight years earlier, the U.S. had signed a treaty that gave the Sioux Nation exclusive access to the Black Hills to the east of Little Bighorn. But when gold was discovered in 1874, miners rushed into the Black Hills and General Custer lead an expedition against the Sioux.
The battle at Little Bighorn two years later proved to be the Sioux’s last triumph in the war.
As a child, I learned about General Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn against the warring Sioux tribes. Scant, if any, attention was paid to the broken treaties that fueled the hostilities. After his death, Custer’s widow published accounts of her husband’s heroics and the site became Custer National cemetery a decade later. In 1946, the National Park Service renamed it Custer Battlefield National Monument.
For 25 years, the site attracted visitors to the cemetery where more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers who served throughout the region are buried. Then, in 1972, Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began protests to demand recognition of the Sioux who had fallen there. Debate raged for nearly two decades until Congress voted to rename the monument and create a memorial to the Native Americans who fought and died in the battle.
The memorial was conceived to express the theme of “peace through unity” and to provide a place where Native Americans can celebrate and honor the memory of their relatives. The design was chosen to express the spirit of the Plains and other Native Americans who played a decisive role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and to rectify the historic imbalance of the Native American role and sacrifice.
The memorial was only partially completed when it opened in 2003. It took another decade for the 17 Native American tribes tied to the site’s history to develop the text and images that would be inscribed on the interior granite walls. Today, the memorial honors the Native American ancestors who took their own stand in 1876.
Walking through the memorial, I was struck by its beauty: The warriors on horses galloping against the great blue sky and the smooth granite walls carved with stories that told of the celebration of victory.
Rarely have I been in at a war memorial that succeeded in honoring both sides of a battle and I saw hope for this nation to overcome its deep divisions. The memorial has achieved its goal to honor those who suffered and died in conflict and to help heal the wounds first opened nearly 150 years ago.