They fought to defend their way of life . . . June 1876. Just a few days short of the first centennial of the United States. It took several days for the news to spread to the east coast. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (Bvt. Major General) and many of his 7th Cavalry had been annihilated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. George Custer – the ‘poster boy’ of the US Army, hero of the Civil War, renowned Indian fighter – defeated? How had this come about? Who should be the scapegoats, if any?

The Great Plains Indian Wars of the 1860s and 70s (and beyond) were, to a certain extent, a consequence of Custer’s own ego and sense of destiny. He had led an expedition into the Black Hills and discovered gold, which led to a massive influx of miners and settlers in contravention of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

From: against Custer on that fateful June day were the combined forces of the Sioux nation – Lakota, Oglala, Minniconjou, and Hunkpapa, as well as Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Arapaho and other allies.

And chief among the Indian war leaders were Hunkpapa holy man, Sitting Bull, and Oglala war leader Crazy Horse (for whom there is no known image).

We visited the battlefield site on 6 June this year. We had set out from Sheridan further south in northeast Wyoming in driving rain, low clouds hugging to tops of the undulating hills that characterize the Great Plains in these parts. The day certainly did not promise much. But our expected route (I90) took us right past the battlefield, and being an aficionado of all things ‘western’, I included this in our itinerary when planning our vacation trip earlier in the year.

By the time we reached Garryowen, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp south of the battlefield, the rain had dropped in intensity, but it was still rather dank and dismal, and there was quite a breeze. Would the clouds ever lift so we could actually make an appreciation of this famous landscape?

Well luck was with us, mostly. For about half an hour the clouds did lift, and we were able to walk around Last Stand Hill, view the various memorials, and take in the harshness and emotive quality of this site. You can’t fail to be moved by all the markers – white for soldiers, brown for Indian warriors – that are dotted all over the battlefield site, but obviously with a concentration at Last Stand Hill.

A panorama of the battlefield site from Sitting Bull’s camp on the left (near present-day Garryowen) to Last Stand Hill on the right, marked by the memorial.

Some years after the battle, the bodies of the soldiers were exhumed and placed together in a mass grave, over which was erected a plinth. The marker stones indicate where all combatants fell. There is even a horse cemetery.

For me however, and much more emotive is the fairly recently constructed Native American memorial. It is beautiful in its simplicity. After all, they died just for trying to defend their way of life. It’s therefore ironic that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse met ignominious deaths some years later not on the battlefield, but while essentially in ‘custody’ at the hands of their own peoples.

Since visiting the Little Bighorn I’ve read two books that have made quite an impression upon me, and certainly provide better balanced accounts of the Indian wars. I can recommend Stephen E. Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer that was first published in 1975. And during my recent trip to the Philippines, I saw a copy of a book I knew of but had never read. As an indictment of the perfidy of the late 19th century United States government and its various agencies and Army, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Indian Wars from a Native American perspective.

Another fascinating account, Nothing Like It in the World (also by Stephen Ambrose) describes the construction of the transcontinental railway beginning in the 1860s, and also contributing to the tensions and hostilities between US and Native American nations.

Presidential faces in the sky

Crossing the Great Plains east to west, and west of the Badlands, you become aware of a dark line on the horizon. Is that an approaching storm? It could well be. But as you get closer you realize it’s an isolated range of hills, rising about 4,000 feet above the surrounding plains. These are the Black Hills of South Dakota, which have their maximum elevation in Harney Peak (7,244 feet). Sacred to many of the Native American tribes of the Great Plains – principal among which were the Sioux – their sanctity was violated when the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie (which had ‘supposedly guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota and other tribes) was broken following by the discovery of gold (ironically by General George Armstrong Custer). The United States government was unable (or incapable) of preventing the invasion of the Black Hills by miners. Conflict between the settlers and the Native Americans was inevitable.

For many – certainly on this side of the Atlantic – their first introduction to the Black Hills must have come from the 1953 movie Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok. Certainly it was a highly sanitized (and fantasized) interpretation of events around that time. But who can forget this particular song? Released as a Doris Day solo, I certainly remember it very well from my childhood right through the 1950s.

Mount Rushmore
We were heading for Rapid City and the Black Hills with one particular destination in mind: Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t normally visit an attraction like Mount Rushmore. Like many others I’d seen my first images of this iconic location in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I guess I thought the whole experience would be rather kitschy – and my fears were not allayed as we drove from Rapid City to Keystone in the heart of the Black Hills, and on to Mount Rushmore, just a mile or so beyond. Either side of the highway were various tourist attractions that I would never visit in a month of Sundays. Just not to my taste.

But how wrong I was about Mount Rushmore. In fact it was almost an emotional experience. The day was superb; hardly a cloud in the sky, and we joined several thousand more tourists (many from Asia) to marvel at the wonder of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and how the faces of four famous presidents Washington (#1), Jefferson (#3), Roosevelt (#26), and Lincoln (#16) came to be carved into the side of a mountain. And why these four presidents were chosen from all the possible candidates. Although I guess the contributions of some presidents to the development and well-being of the United States are best forgotten.

There is so much more written about Mount Rushmore in the link provided above – and more than I can eloquently draft; other details are provided by the National Park Service.

I was overwhelmed by Mount Rushmore – no doubt the beautiful day helped. But I was also inspired, not only about the people who had the foresight to create this national memorial, but also that the choice of these four presidents encapsulates the history of their diverse nation. So let me tell some of my Mount Rushmore story through the images I captured that June day.

The Black Hills and Custer State Park
Traveling south from Mount Rushmore, and passing through several tunnels just wide enough for a SUV but no bigger, there is an opportunity of experiencing the beauty of the Black Hills – and appreciate why Native Americans held this place to be so special. In Custer State Park there is a healthy herd of about 1,300 bison, some of which we came across. A hugely damaging fire in 1990 opened up much rangeland, but even so, there is a bison round-up each September to manage the herd, and sell several hundred animals and keep the herd at a level which the park can sustain.

Taking a roundabout route back to Rapid City, we enjoyed the Needles Highway between Custer State Park and Hill City, and traveling north, we then took the back highway Sheridan Lake Road into Rapid City for our second night there. We didn’t visit the half-finished Crazy Horse Memorial, however. It was rather out of our way, but also it seemed to me to be a rather more exploitative and touristic attraction. There’s actually no known image/photo of Crazy Horse – one of the most important Indian leaders who played a pivotal role in the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, and who perhaps deserves a more fitting memorial in any case.