The Little Big Horn, Montana

Before Boris got to drive the coach into Montana we stopped at Buffalo Bill’s old haunt, the Sheridan Inn in the little town of the same name. This carefully preserved piece of the Old West showcases the original wooden bar from which the former Indian freedom fighter managed his steadily growing business interests and polished up his legend. It is said that whenever he was in town the streets outside were full of sharpshooters and trick horseback riders looking to be recruited into his travelling circus. It certainly had the look of an early Western movie although the long mirror behind the bar was suspiciously un-foxed for one of that age.

Altogether less authentic, however, were the glowing nylon colours of the Native American children getting ready for a dancing display on the lawn outside. Proud parents and grandparents were happy to chat to me and completely relaxed about photographs (I asked first of course). They mainly came from Lakota and Cheyanne communities and the signs saying “Miss Indian America” must have been left over from another event as whatever was taking place it didn’t seem to be a beauty pageant. When I asked I was told it was a “pow wow” and that there would be dancing and get-togethers throughout the afternoon.

I was invited over to meet the two VIPs sitting under a huge orange beach umbrella: a father and son sweltering in full buckskin and beads during the midday sun. I just don’t know how they were going to perform their warrior dances in that heat but they were happy to point out all the replica materials used in their clothing and accessories; plastic porcupine quills, fake fur and little make-up mirrors sewn onto their tunics. When they stood up for a photograph a group of brightly attired little children ran over to be included.

The whole atmosphere couldn’t have contrasted more with the reserve and dignity that I have experienced in the Pueblos of the South West but, for sheer exuberance and the sight of a living tradition finding its place in the modern world, I was completely won over. The Indian artefact shops in Rapid City charge thousands of dollars for authentic artisanal war bonnets and bead encrusted cradleboards to be bought by wealthy visitors from out of state and hung on the walls of their million dollar, ranch style homes. In the meantime the true inheritors of the Native American way of life make do with dressmaking remnants, glitter and scraps of coloured paper. It was a wonderful sight.

From here we headed off to the Little Big Horn River and the famous battlefield situated in Apsaalooke Indian territory over the state line in Montana. This confrontation between General Custer and the massed Indian warriors of the local tribes in 1876 was much more of a pivotal moment in American history than I had previously understood. It was the last victory of the Native American against the European immigrants and brought about a swift and bloody retribution from which the Indians never recovered. I’ll have to admit to a limited interest in the detailed descriptions of troop movements, attack and counter attack and the final showdown at Last Stand Hill but our guide was an excellent speaker who clearly had his American audience in the palm of his hand.

I’m not sure I believed him when he said that this was the most written about battle of all time (Somme? Agincourt? Gaugamela?), however, it really is the only one where the location of each participant’s final moment is precisely marked. The hillsides are dotted with white granite markers for each of the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who died here and this came about by some very unusual circumstances. When the relief columns arrived after the battle they set about burying their dead in shallow graves exactly where they fell. Each was marked with a tepee pole into which was inserted a cartridge case containing a slip of paper with the name of the deceased. By the time the military authorities were ready for formal re-burial a couple of years later, such was the infamy of these events back East that an extremely detailed commemoration was deemed appropriate.

The Indians had swiftly removed their dead after the battle but a century later there were sufficient orally transmitted accounts for the placement of red granite markers to show where their warriors had fallen. Also fascinating to hear was some of the reasoning behind the glorification of such a reckless and foolhardy military leader as George Armstrong Custer (actually a Lieutenant Colonel rather than a General). Military protocol demanded that no brother officer criticise another officer while his wife was still alive and this particular officer’s wife lived for another 57 years by which time pretty well everyone who had known him was dead.

I’ve not been keeping up with events at home but one of my travel companions told me today that Her Majesty has asked Theresa May to form a government. This means that her rival for the leadership, Mommy Andrea, must have been induced to stand down. I for one shall be glad to see the back of someone given to such Palin-esque statements as “I believe that being a mother makes me better qualified to be Prime Minister”, a candidate whose religious convictions seem to have more to do with courting the anti-Gay vote than the life she lead before entering politics.

Please don’t think I’m a great supporter of Mrs May though. The fact that she is probably one of the least incompetent politicians around today should not blind us to that fact that she has long advocated the United Kingdom’s exemption from the European Court of Human Rights. This does not bode particularly well for civil liberties so let us hope that the anonymous guys with the curly moustaches continue to keep watch.

Categories: North America


  • Chris says:

    I think you’d better look and see what Andrea has been up to since she was made Secretary for the Environmental & Rural affairs. She seems to have suggested that men should not be employed in childcare as they might be paedophiles.

  • nicola says:

    She may have come out of nowhere but she is quickly proving herself to be a deeply unpleasant person. Hopefully her next piece of ineptitude will be her undoing. But still, if the Bullingdon Buffoon can be Foreign Secretary………..? Who knows?

    It all reminds me of that ancient joke:

    “why is the Tory Party like a tub of Cornish Cream?”

    “because it’s rich and thick and full of clots.”

  • Mike Head (Elisabeth's neighbor) says:

    I haven’t been on the Little Big Horn tour, tho we did visit the battlefield with our children on a Yellowstone trip, back in the ’90’s. I’d say the most written about and studied battle here in this country is the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. I’m sure that other battles from the past, around the world have been studied in much more detail – e.g. Battle of Waterloo. I did enjoy your post, especially the short side trip into current British politics. Hope your UP trip is enjoyable. Iron from the Lake Superior region, coal from Pennsylvania & W. Virginia, plus all the water transport in the great lakes set the stage for the Midwest becoming the heartland of iron & steel, then auto, production.

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