The Montana morning promises heat. An American flag hangs at half-mast. Crickets drone. One hundred twenty years ago today, on a June afternoon also said to be hot, George Armstrong Custer and his men lay dying on this hillside overlooking the Little Bighorn River.
He troubles us, George Armstrong Custer does - he refuses to remain at rest. Today, June 25, much of southeastern Montana is marking the anniversary of the fatal battle. Here at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, a color guard from American Legion Crow Post 135 has fired its rifles, and the Arikara, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, and Sioux tribes are preparing a pipe ceremony and prayer for peace. But peace is not easily found.
"Except for the Civil War sites, this is the most difficult site in the national-park system to interpret," Gerard Baker, the monument's superintendent, tells me. Baker is a Mandan Hidatsa, the second Native American to hold the superintendent's post here. "We are not in the position to say what is good or bad. We just try to say what happened."
You know the story. In 1876, George Armstrong Custer - handsome, self-promoting - led five companies of the Seventh Cavalry in pursuit of Sioux and Cheyenne who had fled their reservation. At dawn on June 25, Custer's Indian scouts sighted an encampment along the Little Bighorn River. He split his troops into three battalions, and advanced. And then, quickly - the height of the battle lasting less than 30 minutes - Custer and his men were slaughtered. Some 225 soldiers were killed, and perhaps 50 Cheyenne and Sioux.
I board the bus that runs through the battlefield. Our guide is Georgette Hogan, a Bryn Mawr College graduate and a member of the Crow tribe, whose reservation now surrounds the monument. Americans are fascinated by the battle, she says, "because it's such a strong representation of the clash of cultures."
Not merely a clash of Anglos and Native Americans. Crow Indians served as Custer's scouts. According to one Crow tour guide, Crows still experience hostility from Cheyenne and Sioux. "They say, 'Oh those Crows, they were with Custer.' But lots of other tribes were scouts. The Cheyenne were scouts for the Nez Perce campaign."
Up in Hardin, about 20 miles north of the battlefield, lives Howard Boggess, a descendant of one of Custer's scouts. His great-grandmother was Woman Who Walked into the Clouds. Her brother was Curly, the scout who according to some accounts survived by hiding in tall grass as men died around him. "He lived with the battle the rest of his life," Boggess tells me. "My mother said that every morning, Curly would get up early and ride the battlefield and sing chants for the people who died. …