On anniversary of Custer's defeat, bloodless battles continue


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.

That was Custer's job: to drive the Indians into reservations. The encampment he found on the meandering Little Bighorn River was of Sioux and Cheyenne who refused to sign the reservation treaties, and others who were disgusted at reservation life and left.

"It's like you took all the people in Baltimore and moved them out of the city and said, 'Now you are all farmers,' " said Lawrence Wetsit, tribal chairman at the Pine Ridge reservation in Montana, where many of the Sioux involved in the battle eventually went.

"What you had was a group of people who said, 'I can't be a farmer. I have to go back and do what my grandfather taught me to do.' "

Custer ran into an immense camp of about 10,000 Indians with more than 2,000 warriors.

Whether he carelessly misjudged the size of the camp, or recklessly attacked anyway, expecting them to flee, will be debated endlessly by battle buffs.

The cavalry attack caught the Indians by surprise after a night of celebration of the Sun Dance, a time of thankfulness for the new year. "It was like people being attacked as they come out of church on Easter Sunday," Mr. Wetsit said. They fought back.


"I often think that if I were an Indian, I would greatly prefer to cast lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation." -- Gen. George Custer, from his book "My Life on the Plains."


When Barbara Booher was appointed superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument in July 1989, one of her tasks was to straighten out the unbalanced picture.

She recalled her own wonderment as a schoolgirl, on a reservation in Utah, at hearing the Little Bighorn battle presented "as a cavalry story," she said. She said that she is surprised by the opposition to changing that.

"People idolize George Custer," she said. "They are pretty much hyped before they arrive here."

Last year, a quarter of a million people came to the national monument. This year, visitation already is up nearly 40 percent.

Ms. Booher has made gradual changes. She has hired more American Indians, she said; four of her Park Service permanent staff of 10 now are American Indians.

The display cases in the museum now offer nearly as many exhibits on Indians as on the cavalry. One wall is a striking collection of old photographs of Indian survivors of the battle, their creased and weathered faces a study of survival, and a huge portrait of Sitting Bull, the legendary chief.

The talk by Park Service interpreters on the strategies of the battle is followed by one on the Plains Indians.

She has made the changes while under fire. Her appointment was bitterly criticized, as though a spy had been let into the camp. The objections continue.

"She's incompetent, bless her," Mr. Wells said. He contends morale at the monument is low, letters and phone calls go unanswered, and management is poor. He believes she was a minority appointment made "just to please the Indians in the area."

But he adds: "She's a sweet lady . . . a pleasant and likable person."

Ms. Booher cautiously disengages from the fight. "They are entitled to their opinion," she said.


"Then Lame White Man called out: 'Come. We can kill all of them.' All around, the Indians began jumping up, running forward, dodging down . . . going toward the soldiers. Right away, all of the white men went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they turned their guns upon themselves. They killed themselves." -- Wooden Leg.

Jim Court does not see the need to rewrite history. He was superintendent of the monument from 1978 to 1986. He is critical Ms. Booher and some changes at the monument.

"You just can't change things because four or five people start hollering," he said.

Custer-bashing is no more accurate than lionization of the general, he said. Custer was not crazy or stupid in his attack, but made errors that are understandable given what he knew at the time, Mr. Court and others contend.

Beginning with the movie "Little Big Man," which portrayed him as a mad tyrant, Custer's reputation has had to shoulder unfair baggage, he said. Custer was a metaphor for Vietnam and the arrogance of white America during protests of the 1960s.

"I think there's a guilt complex in America," Mr. Court said. "I think for the last 20 years, there's been a tendency to want to find a scapegoat for all the problems we have on the Indian reservations. Custer is the most known."


"It appeared that all of the white men were dead. But one of them raised himself to a support on his left elbow . . . His expression was wild, as if his mind was all tangled up and he was wondering what was going on here. In his hand he held his six-shooter. But a Sioux warrior jumped forward, grabbed the six-shooter and [the soldier] was shot through the head. I think he must have been the last man killed in this great battle where not one of the enemy got away." -- Wooden Leg.


On a rainy May day two years ago, a Park Service volunteer poking around the Little Bighorn River was startled by a skull and two bones emerging from the steep bank.

The partial skeleton uncovered by erosion was a cavalryman in the unit of Maj. Marcus A. Reno. Nearly 40 were killed in a desperate race for a bluff across the river as they were overcome by Indian forces.

It could be any of several soldiers on the roster, although two women in Oklahoma saw a picture of a facial reconstruction from the skull and exclaimed it "looks just like our grandfather." Their kin's long-lost brother could have been Sgt. Edward Botzer, killed at Little Bighorn.

Today the remains of the unknown soldier will be laid to rest at Custer Battlefield National Monument with full military honors.

His attendants will be a forgiveness of history: a Cheyenne color guard will stand beside an honor guard from Fort Carson's 7th Cavalry, Custer's doomed regiment.

The Indian superintendent, Barbara Booher, said she "will be very proud to be involved. This man is entitled to the dignity of a proper burial, and proper recognition."

As are they all.

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