I wish I knew why late 1800s US history demands my full attention and interest—there’s something about this time period that has a hold on me. Thousands of thoughts and vivid images flooded my mind as I smashed the gas pedal on my van heading northwest. It wasn’t even a week since I had gotten back to the Black Hills of South Dakota from a work trip to Tennessee. But, here I was, loaded up and crushing miles again. I had considered skipping this trip, but something pulled me in. Before I knew it, I was throwing a few things in the Battle Van, loading the dogs, and heading to Garryowen, Montana, to check out the reenactment of the Battle of The Little Big Horn.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn was a gruesome day in history—part of the Great Sioux war of 1876 as Lakota and Cheyenne were fighting against the United States for ownership over the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills became an essential source to the Lakota for lodge poles, plant resources, and small game.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 secured a portion of the Lakota territory as the Great Sioux Reservation. This included the western one-half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills region, and a large “unceded territory” in Wyoming and Montana, the Powder River Country, as Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds. On both the reservation and the unceded territory, white men were forbidden to trespass, except for officials of the U.S. government. In 1874, the government dispatched the Custer Expedition to examine the Black Hills. Confirming gold discovery, the government was now interested in purchasing that land back from the Indians.
After failed negotiations to purchase back the land, the government was concerned about launching a war against the Lakota without provocation. Indian agents in the region were instructed to notify all Lakota and Sioux to return to the reservations by January 31, 1876, or face potential military action. This was the beginning of the wars to come.
As I passed open prairies, I jammed out to my favorite songs and enjoined the AC in the van. I thought about the soldiers who in 1876 rode horses and marched miles in the sweltering heat. Passing through small towns on reservations, I thought about all the different tribes who escaped hunger and starvation by fleeing the reservations and joining camps with other tribes in 1876. As I fed fresh pieces of chicken to my dogs, I thought about the horses and mules who also faced starvation because there was no grass left to eat. Wow, things sure have changed in 146 years.
I’ve read about the Battle of Little Big Horn. I’ve also watched documentaries about it and knew it was a desperate, grueling fight full of savage violence, unlike other battles of that era. That’s what has always piqued my interest in it. My father once told me that there is no animal worse than mankind. This was proof of his statement.
As I pulled my van into the grounds to watch the 146th anniversary of the battle, I felt positive energy right away. The Seventh Cavalry and Indian warriors were donning attire and readying horses to face off against each other. The Reenactment celebrates the anniversary of the infamous battle between Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, his Seventh Cavalry troops, Indian Warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and numerous others who gathered from nearly a dozen Indian tribes.
Today was a day to honor the brave men and women on both sides of the conflict who lived and died during that apocalyptic chaos. The Reenactment started with a goose-bump version of a Native song followed by the National Anthem. Custer and his men carry the American flag in formation past the crowd while the warriors ride quickly past on horseback. Everybody in attendance knows the cavalry and Indians are riding to their death, and that might be why some find this extremely emotional as the flag goes slowly past.
I was surprised that a few reenactors are direct descendants of people who participated in the battle as warriors or Crow scouts who rode with Custer. A direct great-great-great-grandson played Major Marcus Reno, who led the attack across the Little Big Horn River. This battle is known as Custer’s Last Stand, as he is outnumbered and faces his death, overpowered by warriors ready to fight for their land and freedom.
Warriors and cavalry faced each other in a swirl of horses, dust, and gunfire. Horses stampede through the river, and I heard screams and warrior calls, but they quickly stopped. The battle was over and all I saw was bodies lying in the field. I tried to imagine being there back in time with the sound of the silence after the battle cries stop. My senses were overwhelmed. The ringing in my ears from gunshots blended with the stench of death and gunpowder. I can’t shake these vivid thoughts and visuals that keep rushing into my head.
All I can come up with is I’m thankful to be born during the 20th century, to be able to look at the people around me and share a smile rather than being sworn enemies. Everyone in attendance knows this reenactment is just a show, but I think we all walked away feeling like we’re now a part of it like we somehow lived through it—as odd as that sounds.
The Jim Real Bird family organized this event in remembrance of the day’s nature, history, human spirit, division, and unity. This was the 30th year they have been honoring the sacred battlegrounds. During the reenactment, much more of this time in history is told; it does not just focus on the Little Big Horn Battle. They do a fantastic job telling the story of historically significant moments that helped lead up to this particular moment. I was happy to speak with people in the audience who have been coming for years to watch. Some were happy to be bringing grandchildren who want to understand the history and learn from it. It made me glad to see people still respect our history and want the next generation to understand it.
For me, the best part of the reenactment was the spirit of those involved, the “characters.” I watched those that played members of the 7th calvary and Indian Warriors greet each other, shake hands, and share stories about the performance they had just taken part in. There were big smiles, lots of congratulations, and excitement. This is humanity at its best. Perhaps the best possible outcome from that horrific battle in history. If only all wars could end like this reenactment.