The Columbia River from Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island

The Columbia River from Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island
The Columbia River from Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Custer for Buffalo and Buffalo for Custer”

August 1

day 13_045DSC_0045 This was the refrain I kept repeating as we traveled toward the Wyoming town of Buffalo after leaving Custer State Park in South Dakota (where we saw all the buffalo/bison). The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (site of the infamous Custer’s Last Stand) is just a short 110 miles north of our base camp in Buffalo and we knew it was something we wanted to see. 

Map Buffalo to Little Bighorn 110 miles When we woke in the morning, the skies were even smokier than the night before, and the beautiful views of the Bighorns still eluded me. 

On this day we traveled I-90 north through a dreary murky world, trying to get an idea of what the surrounding landscape  might have looked like on a clear day. There isn’t a lot to see along this stretch of I-90 without the views of the beautiful mountains and broad vistas.  Instead I kept checking the iPhone for InciWeb reports of the fires, reading that smoky skies north of Buffalo from the Rosebud Complex firesthe worst fire was actually just a few miles north of us, right near our destination.  I could see road closures, and hoped that at least the interstate was still open.

New name in 1991 Arriving at our turn up the hill toward the monument, we were worried when we saw the “road closed ahead” barriers, but thankfully it was just the road past the monument, and  not ours.

The more amazing thing about the day, however, was that as we neared the source of the fires, the smoke thinned and thinned and eventually was completely gone except for the big, dark plume at the fire just northeast of us near Rosebud. To the east, south, and west, the Montana skies opened up in all their Big Sky glory, filled with wild clouds flying to the southeast and brilliant sunshine. Sometimes I think it is more than just luck that follows us around on these roads.

day 13_032DSC_0032that red portion was the "unceded land" left for the Sioux to hunt buffalo since they were already decimated in their reservation east of the Black Hills Often, when traveling in this part of the world, as when working in the wilderness in the past, I find myself slipping back into thoughts of what it must have been like to be an Indian living here before the white man arrived.  I look toward the skyline and imagine being on a horse overlooking a ravine or follow an old track with images of a heavily laden travois trailing behind me. Somehow this morning, as we drove north through small valleys along rivers lined with cottonwoods, I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be a young boy of 18, from somewhere in Illinois, riding along these meandering streams in hostile country, scared and trying to hide it, wondering what in the world his commander must be thinking.

I grew up with Cowboys and Indians, with the Indians most often being the “bad guys”.  I lived through the awakening of our culture to the true atrocities of what was done to our native people, day 13_024DSC_0024highlighted again on this trip as we visited Wounded Knee. I read the book as so many others did, and turned with so many to the belief that we were the “bad guys”.  But somehow on this smoky morning, I felt sadness for those young boys who followed their leaders into the wild west and tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them.  Maybe it is because I have had two of my own young boy grandsons led into war, two boys who tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them and suffer the sad consequences.  Of course, that is another story.

markers for Indians who fell at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Imagine my surprise to find out that at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, the story of the clash of both these cultures would be presented with such insight and authenticity.  No one was the “bad guy”. Well, almost no one.  I can’t help looking at photos of Colonel George Armstrong Custer and thinking, “That man was crazy.  He looks crazy!” 

Little Bighorn is a special place.  The history has been well documented, the story studied and written from so many angles, you can find it anywhere.  However, the actuality of walking this sacred ground is something that can’t be written about very well.  It is a gut reaction, and no matter what your personal slant on this part of history, you will be moved if you have a soul.

day 13_010DSC_0010 The four of us wandered through the incredibly well done Visitor Center, and landed in a small theater to watch an Oscar-worthy documentary about the battle, the players, the strategy, and the politics.  Yeah, it even made me cry. The movie used animated arrows to describe the movement of both sides toward the fated conflict, and the soft voices of Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow told the story of what this battle meant to them.  Then a small quiet voice of a young solder talked about how it felt to be in this place on the fated day.  It sounded just like that 18 year old boy I imagined wandering on his horse along the cottonwood lined streams.

We then took our time to walk through the museum and I was mesmerized by the famous photo of Sitting Bull, a life sized reproduction.  Can you see brilliance and intelligence and compassion and resolution in a simple old black and white photo?  I did!  Can you see crazy insanity in a photo of a man?  Looking at Custer’s photo, I wondered what made him tick, as many other historians have wondered and researched as well.

the original marker with the names of the white soldiers who died The book and gift shop was a treasure of history, with sections devoted to each part of the conflict and its as yet unresolved problems.  What still stays with me is the way that the entire story was presented so beautifully, so fully, and with so much cooperation between once warring tribes and the invading white men.  I bought a shiny new copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and a small slim volume documenting the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”.  It is irrelevant, or almost irrelevant that my great-great grandmother was Cherokee, but I still wanted that book.  A tiny part of the few family roots that I can actually track go back to the hardwood forests of the Carolinas when the Cherokee were still there.

at the Little Bighorn Battlefield After being thoroughly moved by the stories, the exhibits, the movie, the photos, we wandered off to drive the five mile narrow road that follows the famous ridge above the Little Bighorn River.  We saw the markers that were placed after the battle, another story worth seeking out.  We saw Custer’s marker, and pictured him behind the six horses that he killed in a futile attempt to make some kind of barrier between him and Death. We saw the new markers for where the Indians fell as well, testament to the fact that this place is sacred to the tribes as well as the white man. 

What struck me most of all was the understanding that the Indians won this battle, but it was the marker of the end for them.  Here they lost the war.  There was such a huge outpouring of outrage at the time that congress enacted all sorts of programs to once and for all eradicate the “bad guys” from the rich west they wanted to exploit.  Manifest Destiny and all that.  It was a day for contemplation as well.  I stood on those golden hills with that gorgeous Montana sky above me and wondered just what our country would have looked like if Manifest Destiny had failed. What it would look like today if we stayed where we belonged, but then how far east would that line go? The thirteen colonies?  Ohio? Or maybe the Mississippi River?  What kind of country would we have been in the world if we had treated our native people with true respect?  the Bighorn Mountains are waiting for us

Time travel isn’t possible, you can’t go back and change anything, and even if you could, what kind of other messes would arise if you did?

It has taken me a month to write about this place.  At the moment, it is 5 in the morning on September 10th in Rocky Point.  Little Bighorn affected me profoundly in ways that have been meandering around in my soul for awhile now, and I wasn’t sure I could even come close to conveying what it was like to be there in any kind of way that mattered.  You can view it as simply history, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit the lovely center, or you can stand there and feel the place.  However it strikes you, it is a place not to be missed.


  1. you conveyed it very well, as always, have a way with words!!

  2. Now you've done! After reading your thoughtful message I must go back to Montana and do what we bypassed the last time we passed through. Add another stop to that very long list of places we need to spend time at.

  3. Very nice post. I can see your visit to the area meant a lot to you.

  4. It was a long time goal for me to visit that battlefield. I will always remember that visit. Thanks for a great reminder:)

  5. I can't imagine that any thoughtful visitor would be unmoved when visiting the battlefield. I felt just like you did - excellent interpretive displays, wonderful ranger talks, intelligent presentation. An excellent place to contemplate the role of "might" in the history of nations. Lots of "might", not so much "right" in this era of US expansion.

  6. Very well done! We have passed by this area before, and not stopped as we scurried to the mountains. The next time we will stop. Thank you.

  7. You are right, it is a very moving place to visit, I was there four years ago and felt touched by the struggle. There were no markers then to where the Indian braves fell, I have to go back and revisit the park now to get a new perspctive on the battle, and the cost, to both sides.

    Very well written piece! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  8. Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful review of a place we have on our bucket list...
    Karen and Steve
    (Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard

  9. I agree, Little Bighorn is a special place. It was one of the main things I wanted to see back on a trip out that way in 92. The drive along that ridge with stops to look at markers was a very moving experience & I will never forget the few hours I spent there. Just something special about that whole area I couldn't quite explain. Almost overwhelming in it's silent sadness................

  10. Thank you for sharing your story. Your heartfelt words show how much this area affected you. I particularly appreciate them because I'm going there myself in the next two weeks. Am also going to Custer, AND staying in Buffalo! Great minds must think alike. Any recommendations on a campground in Buffalo? Thanks again. Deanna

    1. PetDoc, your profile has now way that I can respond to you and I don't imagine you will check back here, but just in case...We stayed at the Deer Creek Campground. A lovely little place, more quiet and farther from the highway than the other well recommended spot, Indian Creek Campground. We really liked it. Photos will be going up shortly, but maybe not in time for you to check back.

  11. Beautifully written. I remember thinking 'crazy looking guy' when I first saw a photo of Custer, and that was proven when I visited LBB. It was a solo trip for me as I had flown back in 1992 to join some friends who were at a conference. While they did their "business", I went to explore LBB. There wasn't much of a visitor center then, but the Ranger's presentation was very insightful. I look forward to going back when our travels take us West.

  12. Lovely post - thanks for sharing.

  13. Sue, this is just an amazing post. I can feel your feelings here and know that I share them every one. I would love to have shared this experience with you. We are clearly on the same wave length about this entire part of our country's history and the what if questions.

    Thank you SO much for such a moving post on this important place.


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