A friend called Sunday afternoon, while I was crossing Montana on the way to the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation. He recommended I should make a 100 mile detour to Little Big Horn Battlefield, because it was the 141st anniversary of the death of Gen. George Custer.
I arrived at Crow Agency, Montana and found a re-enactment of the battle, from the Native American perspective, was scheduled for 1 pm. It was 5 pm, and the grounds were empty. I went back to the tribal-owned café for dinner, and think about where to spend the night. Three ladies sat at a table near me, and we struck up a conversation about the re-enactment. One of them owned the ranch on the Little Big Horn River, where it had taken place. She invited me to camp where about 75 re-enactors were still cleaning up, and spending the night. I could stay with them.
This is the first version of the Confederate States of America flag. It was later changed. I don’t know if it was a political statement or just part of an authentic 7th Cavalryman’s kit. The re-enactor was an authentic knowledgeable guy. Interesting that Custer was in the Union Army, but this battle was fought June 25, 1876– well after the Civil War ended. At that time, posting on the empty, cold, and dry Montana hills during the Indian War, was the worst assignment a soldier could get. So the US Cavalry there was mostly foreign immigrants and disaffected ex Confederates– so they flew the first rebel flag.
5-star interesting man. Born in Israel. Moved to US as a young boy, but didn’t feel welcome or comfortable with white US culture. Ran into a Lakota Sioux Chief in Los Angles, whose son had just died after struggling with alcoholism. He told the chief he would like to be his son, and was then raised in LA as a Lakota Sioux. At 18, still an Israeli citizen, he had to return to Israel to serve in he Army. It was a terrible experience, and he returned to the US with severe PTSD. The Sioux community welcomed him back, and took care of him as a wounded warrior. He completely identifies with the Lakota community and shares their rich spiritual life, — he’s also a successful electrician in LA. But his passion is reenactments. Spellbinding fellow.
Another LA resident, this man is a Lakota Sioux community leader. In the summer he leads reenactments. In the winter, he is a school security officer in East LA. He’s an expert in Sioux culture and history. Film and TV casting agents in LA call him when they need Native background players, and he brings trained people of all ages with their costumes, gear, and stage training in 19th century warfare, including shooting, riding, and safe hand-to-hand combat. He urged me to come back next year and spend a week with them. They were welcoming, warm, but firm and professional. What amazing people, and what hell the white people put them through. How well they treated a stranger like me.
Custer’s last stand, at the Battle of Little Big Horn is a famous moment in US history. It was part of The Indian Wars, 1610 to 1924–310 years. In school, I learned that Indians were treated fairly by benevolent ‘pioneers’- Thanksgiving and all. On the other hand because they were ‘uncivilized savages, attacking white settler families’, whose only fault was they were taking the Indians’ land, they had to be put on reservations.
The U.S. Calvary School was formed by modern US Army Cavalry veterans to instruct re-enactors in the methods of 19th century 7th Cavalry. They use authentic gear and uniforms, and teach theatrical combat and horsemanship skills to intensely interested individuals– men and women. The school participates in re-enactments across the U.S. They have appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Interesting dudes. Most are serious historians and live to display and discuss their work, uniforms, arms, horses and camping gear. They act out their aggression in a safe, entertaining, and profound past time.
Touring Indian reservations from Eastern NC to the Pacific coast, seeing and reading their side of the story over many years, I’ve decided that all I’d learned about Native Americans in school had been a lie—to make white people look good, and excuse their own violent conquest of the Native population.
This was the campsite where re-enactors- both Natives and Calvary set up their period tents, slept, ate, dressed, took care of their horses,gear, and tack, and prepped for their battle re-enactment.
During the Indian wars, the US government spent the equivalent of many billions of dollars, removing millions of Indians from the rich hunting and farming lands, which they had occupied for 10,000 years. To do this, the government used broken promises, theft, and mass murder. It was violent conquest and genocide. Nothing to be proud of or patriotic about.
This is a combined group of Indian and Cavalry re-enactors. I sat with them for 3 hours keeping warm by the fire in the Montana night chill. We discussed Custer, Indianative/white relations, history, horses, arms and stage fighting. They were pros, and preferred trained re-enactors. Though their knives and spears were rubber, and the guns shot blanks, an untrained person could be dangerous. In this reenactment, one Indian was accidentally shot point blank by a volunteer, and got a pretty bad powder wound in the chest. Injuries abound when over-enthusiastic volunteers lose their heads in the heat of the ‘battle’. These guys were pros, and had an aura of confidence and dedication you rarely see these days.
This young man was a Montana rancher who loved working as a Cavalry reenactor. I’d never seen a person so at home with a horse. He didn’t use a bridle or saddle, could stand on the horse’s back and ride sideways or backwards and turn on a dime. He seemed to direct the horse with invisible instructions. I asked if my flash bothered his horse. “Naw.” When he heard the men sitting by the campfire grumbling about the need for more wood, he quietly guided his horse over to the trees, pull down dried branches and tossed them to the fire. He was pretty quiet, but always listening and figuring a way to be a part of the campfire group. A real cowboy– in his element– no smart phone, no video games. All natural in a natural place.
Reenactors make their own clothes, tents, sometime shoes, etc.
Washing in the Little Big Horn River. The Indians were camped above the river, which helped defend from the cavalry.
This young lady had been working with the Calvary School for years. She was a school teacher, but in summer worked reenactments. She was passionate about horses and everything about them– cleaned all the tack and organized it lovingly in crates to be ready for the next battle.
They were an amazing group: US Calvary re-enactors and Sioux re-enactors. Serious living historians. I introduced myself, and was welcome to hang, shared buffalo jerky, and their other foods on a bench around a campfire where two battle foes got along in a way that would have pleased Jesus Christ himself.
It was an incredible experience, and one I’ll return to next July—at their invitation. It deserves a book, but for now, here is a gallery to help tell the story.