On anniversary of Custer's defeat, bloodless battles continue

June 23, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CUSTER BATTLEFIELD, Mont. -- The wind washes the prairie grass with a gentle shush, as though to silence the truth of this place.

For 115 years, the caution has been mostly honored. A perjurious history remade the attacker into the martyr, the defender of innocents into the savage, the fool into the hero.

Slowly, this is changing. Other voices -- Indian voices -- are demanding a more honest account. They are demanding their place in the memory of this blood-steeped battlefield.

The anniversary this Tuesday of "Custer's Last Stand" may be the last at a national monument bearing his name. The House of Representatives this week is expected to approve legislation changing the name, at the request of Indians, from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn.

The legislation also would create a monument to the Indians, to stand on equal footing with the stubby granite pillar for the cavalrymen that overlooks the forlorn knoll where 225 of the soldiers died.

Overseeing these changes will be Barbara Booher, daughter of a Cheyenne and Northern Ute, and the first Indian superintendent here.

"The time has come for justice. Truth. Honesty. This is a small part of that," said Tony Prairie Bear, a tribal councilman of the Cheyenne tribe that still lives nearby.


"Something in the noise startled me. I found myself wide awake, sitting up and listening. A great commotion was going on among the camps. We heard shooting . . . Women were screaming and men were letting out war cries: 'Soldiers are here! Young men, go out and fight them!" -- Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, in his 1930 memoirs, told to Thomas B. Marquis.


The legend of this battle has always been weighted with something more than facts, some unspoken passions about a white hero facing the red-skinned hordes. Those unsettled by that image helped make a blundering defeat into a noble cause.

Gen. George A. Custer had ardent defenders, and has them still. He was a popular and --ing Civil War hero, "a General Schwartzkopf of his day," said Dennis Farioli, a member of the Little Big Horn Association, a group of Custer enthusiasts.

Custer also had a flair for self-promotion and boldness. It saved him from dismissal for his other excesses, including having several deserters shot in 1867. He was given another chance in the Indian Wars.

A day after the nation's centennial, a telegraph message flashed news back from the Dakota Territories that General Custer and all his men had been killed June 25, 1876.

The public was shocked. It demanded an end to the Indian threat.

Since then, helped by fiction and Hollywood, Custer became a symbol of the bravery of those who "won the West." The battlefield with his name was made a national monument.

To change the name now is "revisionist history," complains Bill Wells, a member of the pro-Custer association.

"The simple fact is [the Indians] were the enemy of the federal government. The battlefield was named and the monument placed there to honor the soldiers who died under the flag of the United States," Mr. Wells said.

"To spend time and money and aggravate the hell out of everybody by putting $2 million in a piece of granite for an Indian monument to compete with the 7th Cavalry [monument] is a waste."

Many American Indians disagree.

"Symbols are very important," said Janine Windy Boy, president of the Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Mont. "There are so few symbols in the country representing something of respect to the Indian people."


The air was so full of dust I could not see where to go. Many hundreds of Indians on horseback were --ing to and fro in front of a body of soldiers. The soldiers were on the level valley ground and were shooting with rifles. Not many bullets were being sent back at them, but thousands of arrows were falling among them." -- Wooden Leg.


The ironies of the place abound. Little Bighorn was the greatest victory that the Indians had over the cavalry. Yet it became a shrine for whites. The place was named for the loser. Tourists came to the museum to ogle the cavalry weapons and old blue uniforms and the diaries of the white men.

The Indians seemed almost an afterthought, a necessary prop ** for the battle. White markers were planted all over the rough field, solemnly marking where each soldier fell.

One single plaque, 6-by-18 inches, mentioned an Indian victim -- Lame White Man.

"For all these many years, the monument has vastly overweighted the representation of Custer and his men," Ms. Windy Boy said. She lays that to the National Park Service managers. "It's been a nest of anti-

Indian folks," she said.

Even the tourists' route to the battlefield is one of bitter ironies.

The road passes through the Crow Reservation, one of several large lots to which the Indians who sought their freedom have been consigned.

The Crow fought with Custer to try to regain their land from the Sioux and Cheyenne. All now have reservations, each a pocket of poverty and stagnation.

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