Custer relics are part of the large collection.

The June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn shocked a nation, and almost immediately the survivors (perhaps only one from Custer’s immediate command, see related story, P. 40) wanted another look at the site, while people from coast to coast were curious enough to want to visit. A national cemetery was established there in 1879, with the site under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Two years later a 36,000-pound granite obelisk was erected beside a mass grave of 7th Cavalry soldiers. In 1886 battle veteran Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Gall led a tour of the battlefield.

In 1925 Nellie Beaverheart asked that the War Department put up a marker where her father, Cheyenne Chief Lame White Man (Ve’ hoEnohenehe), fell in battle. Her request was ignored. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the National Park Service, which now had jurisdiction, actually erected the wooden marker. For many years, the site was known as the Custer Battlefield, until the name was changed to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991 during the reign of Barbara Sutteer, the first American Indian (and first woman) superintendent there. On June 25, 2003, the Indian Memorial, west of the 7th Cavalry Memorial, was dedicated, in honor of all the tribes in the battle. Ledger art of the battle is featured on the interior walls of the circular earthen and sandstone memorial, and nearby is an impressive iron Spirit Warriors sculpture of three horsemen preparing for battle and an Indian woman handing a shield to one of them.

Visitors—some 400,000 per year—might be drawn to the site because of the memorials, annual reenactments or the chance to walk part of the battlefield, but the visitors center museum, under the care of Superintendent Darrel Cook, chief historian John Doerner and curator Sharon Small, also has much to offer. The facility, says Ken Woody, chief of interpretation, “memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the northern Plains Indians to preserve their way of life.” Doerner and volunteer Gary Gilbert have digitized the 1876 7th Cavalry muster rolls, 1876 Sioux war roster, warriors at the Little Bighorn list and atlas of frontier military posts in 1876; the documents are now online for researchers at www.friends littlebighorn.com. The museum collection has nearly 25,000 items, including a good share of valuable Custer relics (West Point coat, buckskins, traveling bag, saber, underclothes, etc.), some of which came from George’s widow, Elizabeth (or “Libbie”). Indian headdresses and other clothing—some of which belonged to the native scouts who were on the soldiers’ side—are on display, along with firearms used by both sides in the battle.

“You can feel the spirits of those that died here,” says Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of Lakota leader Sitting Bull. “The 7th Cavalry, the Indians, they’re here together now. To me, this monument is an honor to all the fallen warriors…this is all hallowed ground.” Superintendent Cook points out that no person saw the whole battle. “Even if you were there you could only see what was in front of you,” he adds. “It is a mystery what exactly happened, which is intriguing. Everybody knows the end result, but what really happened…that’s why people come here.”

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, about 65 miles east of Billings, Mont., is open daily (8 a.m. to 9 p.m.) from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in spring and fall, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in winter. Access to the research library and collection is by appointment only. The visitors center/museum is closed Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving. For more information, call 406-638-2224 or visit www.nps.gov/libi.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here