Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ranger Jim's Ramblings for July

I'm going to wander away from my usual topics for this month's posting. Instead, I'll be talking about my recent road trip to the convention of the other western writers' group that shall not be named, or more specifically, my visit to the Battle of the Little Bighorn battlefield, and the reenactment of the battle, put on every year over three days of the weekend in June closest to the 25th, the date of the actual fight. The reenactment is organized by the Real Bird family, members of the Crow tribe.

First, the battlefield. It covers a much larger area than I expected. I also visited on a gray, rainy day, which lent itself well to the location.Except for its size, it's pretty much what you've seen in photographs, the rolling hills, the monuments marking where fallen soldiers were found, and the large monument on the hill where Custer allegedly fell. I say allegedly with a reason, which I'll get to in a moment.

Sadly, even on a miserable day, the battlefield is really overrun with visitors. Unlike Gettysburg,  the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, and other battlefields I have visited, Little Big Horn did not have the atmosphere of dignity and respect I have felt at those locations. It seemed more like an exhibit at a theme park, which is too bad.

Now, the reenactment. As expected, the Indians have a different take on the battle than what most of us have learned in the history books. The program itself was kind of a Reader's Digest condensed version, most of it dealing with events that led up to Little Big Horn. The only part of the battle that was reenacted was Custer and his remaining men's final moments, told from how the Indians say the fight ended. Interestingly enough, the great-grandson of Major Reno was one of the reenactors playing a soldier this year, so he "died", unlike his great-grandfather.

According to the Indians, Custer never made it to the top of the hill where his supposed "last stand" took place. Instead, he was wounded and disabled on the bank of the river, where he was then speared through the heart, then his heart cut out. After that, a Sioux woman stabbed him in the ear with a knife, so he "could hear better in the next world." The Indians also claim, when survivors from the battle were interviewed by historians in 1908, their version of how Custer met his fate was dismissed because "it didn't fit the timeline." Of course by then, Custer's legend was already well fixed in place, mostly due to the efforts of his widow, Libby, who was determined to make him a hero, and to heck with facts.

Also, the reenactment was kind of like a Hollywood B movie western, where everyone just falls down dead, no bloodshed. According to Jim Real Bird, who I spoke with, they had to water down the reenactment because people thought it was too bloody. For example, in the past the used a pig's heart to simulate Custer's heart being cut out, but people complained. What did they think, that no blood was shed? So, they had to tone the reenactment down.

I leave it to you, the reader , to decide whose version of the events at the Little Bighorn are closer to the truth. Obviously, we'll never know.

Next month, Cody, Wyoming, and the Buffalo Bill Western Heritage Center.

Ranger Jim


  1. I went to the Battle of the Little Big Horn site on the 100th anniversary. Members of the American Indian Movement were there, but it was a quiet and peaceful commemorative event without a lot of people. I seem to recall that a few days later, a prairie fire burned off places that hadn't been explored for historical artifacts. So the fire was beneficial for historians, because they discovered new information about what happened there.

    Curiosity prompted me to do an Internet search about the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and I located this article. It sums up pretty much what I recalled.

    1. Another thing brought up at the reenactment was German immigrant farmers who bought the land simply ripped a lot of the markers out of the ground and tossed them in piles into the brush. This was before the land became a memorial, of course. Part of the battlefield is still privately owned. The narrator pointed out if Indians had ripped up the markers they probably would have been shot on sight.

  2. Thanks for the up-cose-and personal view, Jim. It's unfortunate the site lacked an "atmosphere of dignity and respect" or that the re-enactment was a disappointment.

  3. We were there on a regular day, nothing special going on, a few years ago. On that particular day it rivaled what I felt and saw on Civil War battlefields. Sometimes poorly done special events should be left out

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience. I've had many friends who are fascinated by and traveled the fields of battle. Each one has their own version of what they think happened. Doris