Billings, Montana to Miles City, via the Little Bighorn National Park

First, a tourae commentary: it seems that the moderate priced motel chains have, in some cities, settled together in pods, like tourist ghettos. These places are beside Interstate Highways, although weirdly difficult to navigate around, and have grass that looks artificial, flowers that seem plastic, and furnishings that make me wince.  They are the latest thing in motel fashion, and totally without life, containing nothing real but the humans (like us) trying to make our way to a reasonable stopping place. It’s clear to Jer and me that the Best Westerns which haven’t gone upscale  are far more charming than those ghettoized and pricier monstrosities that we found in Clarkston, Washington, Missoula, Montana and Billings.

Enough kvetching. We are bad consumers, accepting stupid lodgings because we are brain-dead by 4 PM and would accept anything that promised a place to stop. And it is the height of summer travel, so I suppose we should be happy to have a place to stay. Tonight we are in Miles City, where the BW is on the main drag with the Ace Hardware and the Dairy Queen, modest in scope and a trifle shabby, close to a real restaurant run by real people who make cinnamon bread fresh every morning and serve it up to every customer in the evening.

But what we really did today was to tour the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park. We hadn’t planned on doing so, but when I saw it was within reach of our day’s travel, I knew we had to go. Years ago I taught Plains Indian Lit and have always loved the Great Plains landscape. So I was prepared for the experience.

What I was not prepared for was how moved I would be by being in the spot of this battle. I wept, more than once, as we listened to the tales and read the narratives.

The Little Bighorn, a river and surrounding rangeland, is where Custer met his demise, with 40-some other soldiers, on Last Stand Hill. Custer’s body was disinterred and sent back east, but most of his soldiers remain, under the monument.

Markers for ordinary soldiers dot the rest of park landscape as well. The dead soldiers not with Custer were buried by their comrades a few days after the battle, and the burial spots were marked with teepee-shaped sticks. Later, granite markers replaced the sticks; some of the bodies were removed, but many remained in the range land:

For well over a century, this was “Custer’s Last Stand”. However, the park service since 1991 has deliberately incorporated various Indian viewpoints as well as those of the ordinary soldiers. Recently, markers for the fallen Indians have been added to the American soldier markers photographed above. The landscape is pocked with these white granite stones.

An Indian memorial, the counterpart to the tall stone on Custer’s hill, has been dug into a hill across the road from the 7th Cavalry memorial. This more recent memorial mimics the National Vietnam Memorial style, being impressed into the land, enclosed, with names and descriptions of the various bands and tribes, along with the names of their leaders and heroes, inscribed on walls within.

I found the juxtaposition of the two monuments both ironic and emotionally overwhelming: the phallic hilltop “celebration” of the lost battle and the humble cave like memorial to the “winners” of the battle was telling. As the Park Service points out, the battle was lost by the “Americans”, but it was an event that gave the federal authorities the excuse they needed to wring money out of the Congress so the military could deal with the Indian “problem” once and for all. The country was in a terrible depression; monetarily it was on the gold standard so it needed the gold in the Black Hills (the sacred place for the Sioux, promised them in treaty, and then invaded by gold seekers); and the east was being flooded by European immigrants who needed to be sent west, giving the country a safety valve for “excess” population. The Indians had to be restricted to tiny reservations, deprived of the buffalo and land that fed them, and turned into poor imitations of eastern ideas about how life should be lived.  The victory at Little Bighorn impacted the Nez Perce in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho two years later, because the Nez Perce could no longer resist the military might that took away their treaty lands. The military  persecuted them relentlessly, driving them from the Oregon and Idaho territory through Yellowstone and north until Chief Joseph, 40 miles from haven in Canada, declared “I will fight no more forever.”

The Indian memorial at the Little Bighorn Battlefield astonished me with its calls for reconciliation, with quotes that show forgiveness of the whites for their actions, and request peace and unity for the nation. This is all the greater a surprise because the Indians were fighting for land that was legally theirs; the whites were encroachers, conquerors, bent on taking what they didn’t even know very well.

What I could see alongside the battle narrative was that the Indians knew the landscape and used it to their advantage; and they knew it in more than military ways. They understood it intimately, living with the land and its bounty in a way that the anglos, sent west out of desperation or by greed, did not.

And so it was the landscape that brought me most fully to tears, I think. We are traveling “home” to a landscape I grew up with, at the battlefield we were surrounded by the range land I grew to love in my early twenties, and today I was viewing the wide spaces that I have felt happiest painting in my later years. I wept, not just for the fallen warriors on both sides, but for my own life, built on their bodies, just as every American’s life comes out of these terrible events that make up our histories.

The visitor center is located next to a national cemetery, where soldiers and their families from many wars have been buried; we saw at least one marker with a date of 1961. More bodies from which our comforts come grounded in the landscape in which I feel I can breathe most deeply.

It’s a large cemetery, overlooking a large landscape. We felt small indeed.

And then we climbed back into the car and drove past the hills and gulches of the range land to the flatlands of eastern Montana, where we are spending the night in our dowdy and pleasant Best Western motel, having gorged on baked potatoes and steak (me) and spaghetti (Jer) and home-made cinnamon bread (both of us). Tomorrow it’s badlands and dinosaur fossils as well as grasslands at the Teddy Roosevelt National Park. –June

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5 Responses to Billings, Montana to Miles City, via the Little Bighorn National Park

  1. Sally says:

    Your description and pictures evoke vivid memories of my visit there when I was 10 years old. In those days the presentation was triumphalist, but I recall walking the hills with my father, who gave me a more nuanced perspective. The landscape also serves to mute triumphalism — it speaks of something eternal that European settlers rarely understood.


    • juneu says:

      Thanks, Sally. The John Day fossil Beds (National Monument) in eastern Oregon, exposes the time line in which humans are such a speck — the landscape isn’t clothed like the high plains are, in grass and sage, so it’s impossible to avoid knowledge of our smallness. And that sense, of both the poignancy of so many deaths, and that death is a part of life, a part of rock and grasslands and hills and erosions, sticks with me. This is country where I can breathe, although I’m sitting in front of old worndown mountains which breathe their own green gold light. Land! It keeps us humble and human.


  2. I too had a memorable experience at Little Big Horn National Park. This was back in the 1960’s when my mom’s sister offered to drive us on a vacation from Idaho back to South Dakota with many sightseeing sidetrips. This was one of them, and my aunt had driven through the night to get us there. We arrived just at dawn, and as we slowly circled the site, the odd headstone would appear in the headlights, and then groups of them as it got lighter. You could so readily see the chaos and panic of the soldiers by the spacing of the headstones. The experience raised the hair on the back of my neck and I felt the need to look over my shoulder so strong did it seem that Indians could suddenly appear and attack. It was as close as I could come I suppose to an inkling of how those army soldiers might have felt.

    More recently, on the drive out here to Rochester, we stopped for lunch at this little town near the battlefield. As we pulled off the freeway there was a sign announcing Custer Battle re-enactment this way. Oh, how interesting, and then oh wait – that didn’t end well for the white man. Unbeknownst to me, we were on the Indian reservation and definitely in the minority. We quickly ate our lunch and left, an educational role reversal, an uncomfortable moment of insight.

    Enjoyed your update of the area.


  3. Lia says:

    thank you for the moving post, June. I have never been to Little Bighorn, but your story makes me feel I now know something about it, and it makes me want to visit. Send my regards to the fossils and the badlands today.


  4. Olga says:

    We really do not know how lucky we are – and we regularly need to be reminded. Thank you for your moving post.

    I’m enjoying the surreal episode of stitching to finish a couple of quilts, watching the Olympic Games and GB going mad over them, and also virtually accompanying you across the wide blue yonder!


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