An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Oglala Sioux artist Colleen Cutschall (alias Sister Wolf) designed this dramatic sculpture for the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Photo by Hansjorn via Wikipedia.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument offers a prime example of re-imaging in NPS context. Custer’s Last Stand occurred at this place, but so did the last stand of the Plains Indians. In 1991, a landmark redesignation acknowledged that the battlefield has a duel identity. More recently, an Indian Memorial has helped to re-image the place as hallowed ground for Indians as well as whites.

Re-imaging, a concept very familiar to celebrities, politicians, and tourism promoters, is a tool that can be used to change the basic way the public perceives or thinks about a person, place, or activity. It is usually intended to trade an unfavorable image for a better one, but is also highly useful for replacing an inaccurate or misleading image with something lots closer to the truth.

Suppose that a national park were in need of re-imaging. How would you go about it? Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument offers an excellent case study.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument preserves and interprets the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place near Crow Agency, Montana, on June 25, 1876. In the best known battle of the Indian Wars, a combined force of several thousand Indians Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians soundly defeated a 7th Cavalry force commanded by George Armstrong Custer, annihilating the legendary commander and five whole companies of his troops. For details about the pre-1940 management history of the battlefield and associated cemetery, see this site.

The NPS acquired the battlefield and cemetery by transfer from the War Department on July 1, 1940. On March 22, 1946, the park was redesignated Custer Battlefield National Monument. Thus, as the park entered the post WW II era, it remained essentially a shrine to General George Armstrong Custer and the more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel who died with him. Seen from this perspective, the park commemorated an event in which U.S. Cavalry troopers (the good guys) were pitted in a heroic struggle against impossible odds (the bad guys being a horde of savages bent on satisfying their blood lust).

It took decades, but Native Americans eventually got across the point that conceptualizing the Battle of the Little Bighorn as Custer’s Last Stand – a heroic fight against impossible odds – was a very one-sided view of history. What really happened at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 – just days before the celebration of our nation’s Centennial – was a tragedy of much more complicated dimensions. Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse, and their followers were attacked on their own turf and fought to protect their women and children. More than this, they fought to defend their very way of life. Five entire companies of the Seventh Cavalry’s finest were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn because it was their duty to fight, and because their commander was a vainglorious fool who thought he was invincible.

Legislation signed into law by George H. W. Bush on December 10, 1991, redesignated the park Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Removing Custer’s name from the park’s designation was a hugely important step in the re-imaging process. It signaled that Custer’s death should not be considered the most important thing that happened at the Little Bighorn. More importantly, it signaled that visitors should be told the Indian side of the story. The legislation that changed the name of the park also specified that an Indian Memorial should be built near Last Stand Hill.

Smaller markers to fallen warriors have also been installed. On Memorial Day, 1999, two speckled red granite markers were added to the battlefield where Native American warriors fell. By December 2006, there were ten warrior markers, including seven on the Custer Battlefield and three at the Reno-Benteen Defense Site. While these were welcome additions to the park, they did not satisfy the need for a prominent thematic symbol. Towards that end, an Indian Memorial was planned and a design competition was held in 1996.

The winning design (see accompanying photo) was selected in 1997 from among 500 entries. On Veterans Day, November 11, 1999, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Advisory Committee and the NPS jointly sponsored groundbreaking ceremonies that kicked off a fundraising campaign for constructing an Indian Memorial that would honor all Native Americans who fought at what the Indians called the “Battle of the Greasy Grass [Creek]”

The Indian Memorial is now ensconced on the battlefield near Last Stand Hill. This is how the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield organization describes the remarkable sculpture and its setting:

The Indian Memorial will surprise you. ….. If you didn't know it, you wouldn't know it's there. From the visitor center it appears to be a mound, slightly lifted above the ground. There is already prairie grass sprouting from the outside walls blending it beautifully within its environment.

You cross the street from Last Stand Hill and the first thing you come to is the wayside for Wooden Leg Hill and the Unknown Warrior marker on a distant ridge. Wooden Leg witnessed the death of an unknown warrior wearing a warbonnet when he was shot through the head.

From there you turn northwest and pass by the Horse Cemetery with the new marble marker including a 7th Cavalry Horse drawn by Park Historian, John Doerner. There is a wayside exhibit explaining the archeological dig that was conducted there. From there you follow the sidewalk to where it forks going east and west. The proper way to enter the Memorial is from the east entrance and exit from the west. As you approach the memorial it begins to swallow you into its power. It becomes taller and more mysterious. As you approach the east entrance of the Memorial you can see just above the mound the very tops of the Spirit Warriors….

When you enter the Memorial, you enter another world -- somber, deep, retrospective, and sacred. The Memorial is in the shape of a perfect circle. In the center is a circle of red dirt. Around it is a circled stone walkway. On the inner walls sit panels for each tribe that fought in the battle (Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara). Each tribe lists their dead and there are some pictographs.

You are immediately taken by the Spirit Warriors standing high above you to the north. The area is wide open so the Montana prairie shines through. If you turn around from the Spirit Warriors you look through a gap in the mound called the Weeping Wall. It is here that water continually trickles down into a pool representing tears for the fallen warriors and soldiers. And, centered perfectly within the Weeping Wall can be seen the 7th Cavalry Monument. This Spirit Gate welcomes the fallen soldiers to enter the Memorial and join the fallen warriors in friendship; “peace through unity.” Its symbolism is powerful in so many ways to say the least.

It is peaceful in this place, within this circle……

Comments

Recently visited this National Memorial Park. It certainly is a beautiful place -- very peaceful -- very reflective spot. And as we entered the Indian Memorial, we were very aware that we were in a special place -- what a wonderful way to remember all that happened that day at Little Big Horn.

Also enjoyed the wonderful wild flowers.