Travel Tales – AT LITTLE BIG HORN ON THE BATTLE’S 141ST ANNIVERSARY

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.

Old CSA flag

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, the US Cavalry on the frontier was mostly foreign immigrants and probably disaffected ex Confederates– so the 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, and took care of him as a wounded warrior. He completely identifies with the Lakota community and leads a rich spiritual life, — he’s also a successful electrician in LA. 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, 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 problem was they were taking the Indians’ land, they had to be put on reservations.

US Cavalry

The U.S. Calvary School was formed by 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 US. It has 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 and entertaining 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 best hunting and farming lands they had occupied for 10,000 years.  To do this, they used broken promises, theft, and mass murder.  It was genocide.

This is a combined group of Indian and Cavalry re-enactors. I sat with them for 3 hours keeping warm in the Montana night chill. We discussed Custer, Native/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 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’.

This young man was a Montana rancher who loved working as a Native 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. He seemed to direct the horse with invisible instructions. I asked if my flash bothered it. Naw. When he heard about the need for more campfire wood, he guide his horse in the to a tree, pull down dried branches and toss them to us. He was pretty quiet, but always listening and figuring a way to be a part of the campfire group. A real cowboy, or Indian– in his element– no smart phone, no video games.  All natural.

 

Reenactors make their own clothes, tents, sometime shoes, etc.

I arrived to find 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.

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.

 

 

 

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