In 2014, after many years of procrastination, I finally journeyed to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. I went there for the annual re-enactment, held on the anniversary of the battle. The re-enactment is great fun, and well worth the drive. The white re-enactors seem to take it a bit more serious than the local Indians (Crows, who actually scouted for Custer, not the Sioux and Cheyenne who wiped him out). But then, after all, they lost. I purposely arrived a day before the re-enactment, to have time to walk the battlefield, to satisfy long-held curiosity, to cherish or demolish long-held beliefs.
Long before there was a world-class shopping center on the banks of Cherry Creek in Denver, there was a rather rundown little neighborhood saloon called The Old Pioneer. Wasn’t much of a place, as I remember, just a single low-ceilinged room with a mirrored bar along one wall and a line of high-backed wooden booths on the other. My dad and uncles usually spent Sunday afternoons there, getting used to thin American beer served cold (something they seemed to manage okay), grumbling or laughing about the previous Saturday’s too-slow horses at Centennial, or too-clumsy greyhounds at Mile High Kennel Club.
For me, those afternoons tended to drag, drinking Duffy’s root beer out of a shot glass and pretending it was whiskey (good habits are best instilled when young). “Drinking the heart out of the afternoon”–to quote James Crumley–I whiled away the hours studying a large colorful print of “Custer’s Last Stand”, one of thousands that graced the walls of saloons all across America courtesy of Anheuser-Busch. My opinion, it’s their second-best marketing gimmick ever, right behind those marvelous Clydesdales that draw me like a magnet whenever they appear at the State Fair.
For a beer ad it’s pretty graphic. Dead soldiers, dead Indians and dead horses litter the field. Some of the dead troopers have been stripped (with scraps of Army blue shielding sensitive eyes), and there’s quite a bit of scalping going on. One scalpee even looks disconcertingly alive. Custer, of course, is center stage, standing with pistol and saber amid a fog of dust and gunsmoke, the American flag and 7th Cavalry guidon still fluttering bravely, not yet carried off by victorious Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.
To paraphrase Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, that was the start of my Indian Fighter Stage–a stage that, thankfully, is continuing into old age.
I have no idea how many books have been written about Custer and the Little Bighorn. Somewhere in the thousands, probably. I’ve read quite a few of them over the years, and it’s always fascinating separating fact from fiction–especially when so much of the fiction is so damned entertaining. Hollywood, naturally, has contributed its fair share, and then some. They Died With Their Boots On is utter fiction, but manages a hilarious Oh Shit! moment when Errol Flynn’s Custer, charging across an open field, catches sight of the Indians and hauls his horse to a stiff-legged skidding stop. Little Big Man is entertaining, but its Vietnam-era treatment of Custer borders on libel. Custer Of The West is probably the worst of the lot, with Robert Shaw literally riding around in circles.
Then there is Son Of The Morning Star, a TV mini-series adapted from Evan Connell’s book (which is one of the better Custer books). If you can get past 3 hours or so of George and Libby’s high-school romance, the last hour is the most accurate depiction of the battle on film. You just have to bite your tongue at the ridiculous shoulder-length blond fright wig sported by David Strathairn as Captain Benteen (who in real life had white hair worn longish, but not that long, and certainly not with bangs).
In 1976 a group was organizing a 40-mile horseback ride for the battle’s 100th anniversary. For some reason I had a wild hair I might like to go along on the trip, and said so out loud. My nearest-and-dearest managed to keep a straight face, reminding me the last (and only) time I had been on horseback (summer camp, about the same time I had first admired the Budweiser poster) had turned into a one-man cavalry charge when the brute I was riding had grown lonely for his stablemates.
So it was 38 years before I finally made it to Little Bighorn. And it was everything I had expected; everything I had imagined for year after year.
The Little Bighorn winds along one side of the valley floor, and it’s easy to imagine the Indian camp circles of long ago, shaded by the cottonwoods lining its banks The pony herds were on the low hills to the west, but I-90 runs below them now, its four lanes passing over the very spot where Major Reno’s charge was stopped. There’s a small museum there today, with a gas station/convenience store, all calling itself the town of Garryowen, Montana–named for the 7th Cavalry’s theme song. Some years back the whole “town” was listed for sale (In High Country News, I think). Naturally another wild hair popped into my mind, and just as naturally my nearest-and-dearest–well, you know …
The bluffs above the river are not as tall as I had long imagined. It’s easy to see how Reno had a hot time of it on his hillside. About five miles further along the low bluffs is Last Stand Hill, with its little cluster of markers behind a wrought iron fence, and the obelisk monument to the 7th. The slope down to the river is long and gradual, but it seems to me a horse could have made the distance in a very few minutes. There are other markers scattered along this same slope and on the smallish nearby hills where various troops of the 7th made their own final stands. In recent years the Park Service has erected red granite markers to honor Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who fell “to defend their way of life”. Besides those individual markers, a very artistic Indian memorial has been constructed on the back side of Last Stand Hill. It is just a few yards away from a much smaller, and usually overlooked, memorial to the horses that died that day.
Standing on that hill, a hot June afternoon that must have been almost identical to the day 138 years earlier, it was easy to let my imagination fly. I could hear the buzzing of insects and the soft murmur of a light breeze in the tall grass–none of which I would have been aware of on the real day, when the air was thick with dust and gunsmoke, the shrill cry of eagle-bone whistles, the crash of guns, the cries of men and horses on both sides…
So very much like–and so different from–the movies, the books, my early imaginings. So very much like–and so different from–a beer advertisement hanging on a saloon wall.