We missed it by one day. The Battle of Little Bighorn lasted for two days, from June 25 to June 26, 1876, but the reenactment only lasted for one day, June 25, 2017. Unfortunately, we arrived in Hardin, MT on June 26. Our neighbors–a retired couple from Illinois living aboard a 2004 Classic Airstream–witnessed the battle scene reenacted with the cooperation and support of Montana’s seven Nation Tribes and a team of 7th Calvary portrayers. Marty and Lil were overwhelmed by the presentation and all the dust. Of course, we would visit the National Monument, but it would seem anti-climatic compared to warplay.
The sky was dark, and rain was in the forecast. It had been two weeks since this area had seen rain, but for us, it’s been dry for five weeks through seven states, so the threat of rain was a welcome way to tame the dust.
The drive to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument through Crow Reservation was brief, but insightful. Scores of train cars topped with coal sat idly on the easterly tracks parallel to the the road, while the west side of the road revealed worn trailers and abandoned buildings littered with rusted car chassis. The metaphor was so apropos.
The Crow Nation sits atop one of the largest coal reserves in the country–an estimated 9 billion tons. Yet, according to a report written by PERC (Property and Environment Research Center),
The tribe’s 13,000 members have little to show for their massive energy reserves. Although half of the tribe’s revenue comes from coal, most of it remains underground. Where development does occur, the process is slow and cumbersome. Unemployment approaches 50 percent on the reservation, and tribal members suffer from high rates of homelessness, crime, and inadequate housing.
Nevertheless, a modern medical center and a requisite casino border the National Monument.
Once inside the Visitor Center’s auditorium, adorned by a 40-foot mural across the entrance,
a sobering 20-minute orientation film of the battle was introduced by a 65 year-old retired teacher-turned-ranger who asked a provocative question. “This is a very typical crowd who has come to pay their respects to the fallen on this battlefield–both warrior and soldier alike who had risked everything to preserve their way of life. This was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, that teaches us so much about our values and ourselves, but when I scan the crowd as I do today, I always ask myself, ‘Where are the young people, and how will we manage to archive this remembrance without them?'”
As we walked through the national cemetery,
and along the interpretive trail to Last Stand Hill,
the heavy sky befitted the solemness of the scenery.
The 5-mile drive between Custer Battlefield and Reno-Benteen Battlefield was a time for reflection about triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, heroism and humiliation. Yet, lighter moments came from a herd of horses who openly grazed by the road,
at times defying traffic by staring down cars from the pavement. And when the skies could no longer hold on, it started to rain.
We found shelter at a nearby Crow trading post where Leah and I enjoyed a Crow taco made of frybread. Delicious!
The rain abated by the time we finished our meal. Looking west, we saw blue sunny skies which gave us a green light to further explore our surroundings.
Less than one hour away via Fly Creek Road–a gravel pass connecting I-90 and I-94–we passed rolling ranches of grazing cattle and hay field harvests…
on our way to Pompeys Pillar National Monument,
a massive sandstone butte on the banks of the Yellowstone River. Regarded as holy ground by the Crow people, the rock also represents the only physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. William Clark engraved the wall amidst Indian pictographs on his return trip to St. Louis, and chronicled his 150-foot ascent to the top in his expedition journals.
Clark originally named the rock Pomp’s Tower, after a nickname he had given to Sacajawea’s infant son, whom she carried as she guided the famed expedition to the Pacific. It was later renamed Pompey’s Pillar, and dedicated as a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2001.
The hungry and persistent mosquitoes we experienced on the trails were worthy descendants of the “misquitor” that so bothered Clark that he couldn’t see to aim his rifle straight.
Our day of American history ended with another downpour on the drive back to Hardin. But we celebrated the brief moment the windshield was free of bugs, and the chassis was free of dust.