Essay

What to see at Little Big Horn

By January 15, 2021 7 Comments
The hill where Custer died

“When you get to the Visitor’s Center, look for the blue dress–it belonged to Judy’s grandma,” she told me. “Judy” is her friend. I’d just met both at the mission school—middle-aged, Northern Cheyenne women. “Both our grandmas were there—both of them.” Sparkling eyes full of pride.

If you think a woman in her mid-forties with a grandma at Little Big Horn way back in 1876 is a stretch, consider a culture where words like cousin and grandmother fit lovingly, and loosely. Some part of her was at Custer’s ignominious “last stand,” that part sure as heck not on the General’s side. That’s what she was telling me. Proudly.

I had told her I was going up the road to the battlefield. “Look for the blue dress in the Visitor’s Center,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”

I did miss it. Covid had shut the place down; but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see two grandmas when I stood on the knoll where Custer was killed. All the way across the river there were hundreds of grandmas that day, I’m sure.

For Native people, Little Big Horn was a victory that insured defeat. For a country then celebrating a birthday, it was a defeat that insured victory.

Twenty years ago I stopped in late June. Lots of people were around, an anniversary, I think. I took a walk south of the Visitors Center on paths through gravestones, while behind me some Crow singers and drummers were playing. Even when I couldn’t see them, I could hear them.

Like millions of others who went west, my immigrant Dutch great-grandparents did too and ended up at Harrison, South Dakota, where some nights, I’m told, back then people could hear Yankton drums from miles away. Twenty years ago I stood on a battlefield sidewalk, imagining how a immigrant Calvinist family of Psalm singers would judge the high-pitched screeching that just wouldn’t have harmonized with Old Hundredth.

But two immensely proud Northern Cheyenne women had just told me how their own grandmas had been there, at a place they still call “Greasy Grass.” Imagine that. It was the end of a December day, the sun casting long shadows, while I swear that ghosts were rising from the hills, a hundred graves of white men and red.

Northern Cheyenne grave marker

When you’re alone, Little Big Horn is a vast cemetery. Stone markers stand upright over the ridges and through the valleys where the nameless fell. Two hundred of the 7th Calvary didn’t leave that wide open space; almost that many stones remember.

In 1876, I doubt any of my ancestors thought much about what happened there. They were barely American. When they left the Netherlands, they stayed north of the Mason-Dixon because they had no truck with slavery; but the cloistered living they chose likely meant they knew little of “Custer’s last stand.” Had they frequented taverns, they might have seen a painting; but all that hostile stuff was a world away.

Dozens of European immigrants were among the 7th Calvary dead, Euro-Americans who’d not ridden a horse or shot a rifle before they left Ft. Abraham Lincoln. But the day I stopped, I was blessed because I knew someone who had a link, some DNA, a voice crying out in and after the battle, singing a victory song maybe, or a lament for the dead. Gaul, after all, lost two wives and a child. And I’d met women whose grandmas were there. Actually there.

Native women followed up the warriors incredible victory by crossing the river, and, with their knives, creating so much horror that, two days later, the soldiers assigned to burial duty didn’t—couldn’t–forget.

Shooting pictures of grave stones can seem somehow insensitive, but I couldn’t help myself. They’re all over. Besides, it was holiday season; people weren’t wandering far from home. I was alone. Nobody’d see.

But in truth, I can’t imagine a better time to be there—late afternoon, winter solstice, long shadows, a light snow, and no one else anywhere on that monumental battlefield where a couple hundred grave stones, some in groups, some distressingly alone in that forever expanse, mark places where combatants never made it back up on their feet. Everywhere you look really, gravestones mark death.

There’s a measure of Native grief and remembrance too, sacred itself, so sacred that perhaps I shouldn’t have taken this picture. 

Native prayers at Greasy Grass

Out on the endless horizons of the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, you can’t help feel a level of awe that makes silence the only news worth telling. You are really not alone when surrounded by hundreds of those who were not.

It was perfectly quiet that late afternoon, just the creeping light wind in the grass. Still, I told myself that if I listened really closely, I could hear the Lakota drumming and singing.

Which is not to say that “Old Hundredth,” out there on that barren, snowy ground, wouldn’t have offered a place a soul like mine could abide.

Next time–and the blue dress.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

7 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Stark contrast to the “burial ground” of this country, due to Covid and violence experienced last week and dreaded in the week ahead. Thank you for the reminder of the cemetery I’ve walked and been awed by. The images endure. Thank you, always.

  • mstair says:

    Took me back to my visit there years ago…
    My take away, they should have never been there to get caught like that. T.J. Stiles ( Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America) says that Custer expected The Native Americans to flee when facing part of the Seventh Calvary. Without a massacre, it is a very quiet, peaceful place. Who wouldn’t defend it?

  • Pamela E. Adams says:

    Jim, This shows us another era of violence done by the white men of our country to Native Americans. Today the violence is to Black people whoever and wherever they are. This should be a sign to those in charge of the violence that Jesus wants something better from us. Our nation is involved with violence on our Capital so this violence is relevant to today. Let us follow the Savior of our lives with a peaceful attitude and actions.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Thanks, Jim. You’ve been evoking this land and this history so wonderfully well for so long. A devoted and needed voice.

    Jon Pott

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Evocative. Humbling. The Old Hundredth and Native cries. On the same land. Reconciliation? Acceptance of “the other?” Today? Here? Now?

  • James, thank you for this. I feel the pain of those women. My great, great, great, grandmother was forced marched from the Carolinas to Oklahoma complements of Andrew Jackson.

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