printer friendlyDYING WITH CUSTER

Every June, the battle of the Little Bighorn takes over one corner of the Old West

© TONY PERROTTET

“Who wants to see Custer get killed?” the MC cheerily asked the thousand-strong crowd gathered on a dusty plain just outside Hardin, Montana.

“Y-e-e-e-s!” went up the roar from the bleachers, as a string of bluecoat cavalrymen rode out waving from a reconstructed wooden fort, behind the Stars and Stripes. Out in the wings, a string of Indians in war-paint were impatiently waiting on horseback, ready to recreate the Battle of Little Bighorn—especially its cinematic climax, Custer’s Last Stand, an event that had occurred 128 years earlier, to the day. On that suffocatingly hot June 25th, 1876, the ‘boy general’ George Armstrong Custer led his 209 men to attack an Indian camp by the Little Bighorn River, only to discover that he had charged the biggest concentration of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho in Western history; the Indians overwhelmed the cavalrymen “like a river flowing around a stone” (as one chief poetically remembered), with every last man of Custer’s command wiped out. It was the biggest victory of Indian forces in the entire history of the Old West—and a stunning shock for the United States, the 9/11 of America’s Gilded Age.

Today, for Indians and whites alike, the emotional focus for all these memories has become the June 25th anniversary, when for three days this serene countryside erupts into a Western extravaganza of celebrations, religious services, academic symposia and general whooping it up. It’s a sprawling, raucous event, which combines ‘Little Bighorn Days,’ put on by primarily white-owned businesses in Hardin, with ‘Crow Native Days,’ a rodeo and fair held on the Crow reservation (upon whose land the battlefield lies), and the participation of four other Indian nations, involving a powwow, buffalo feasts and a Northern Cheyenne peace pipe ceremony. And there is not one but two historical reenactments of the battle, held by rival groups—which means you can meet two Custers, two Crazy Horses and two Sitting Bulls walking about the vicinity. The result is a unique mix of the light-hearted and the deadly serious, the tragic and the kitsch.

Now, as my first show for the weekend geared up on a steaming hot afternoon—the parades of bluecoats and Indians evoking the inevitable echoes of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show—I found myself sitting next to Joy Austin, wife of Custer #1, Tony Austin. I asked how she felt about watching her husband die three times a day. “It’s OK,” she sighed, fanning herself with a program. “The only place I get choked up is when he says goodbye to his wife Libby and rides off. You know she’ll never see him again.”

* * *

When I first arrived in Hardin, a lonely-looking, hard-bitten prairie town with a string of boarded-up bars, the town was gearing up for the anniversary that keeps its economy alive. Every hotel was sold out and reennactors wearing uniforms and war paint thronged the streets, chowing down on Indian tacos (fried bread, spiced meat, tomato, lettuce and cheese). The next morning was the day of the anniversary, so I got to the battlefield before sunrise. The Little Bighorn National Monument is a genuinely moving place: All across the bare Montana hills lay bone-white markers, each one showing where a soldier of the US Seventh Cavalry is thought to have fallen. The densest cluster is at Last Stand Hill, where forty-two bluecoats held out—and at their center, next to a small American flag, lies the memorial of their flamboyant, controversial leader.

But the main activity that morning was occurring about fifty meters beyond this Anglo-American sacred site, at a new Indian Memorial, dedicated to the five Native American groups involved in the battle (the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe on Sitting Bull’s side, plus the Crow and Arikara, who fought as guides for the US Cavalry). Unveiled in 2003, the memorial is a circular earth and stonework balustrade, with a weeping wall, interpretive panels and an elegant wire sculpture of Spirit Warriors riding out to defend the Indian Village from attack in 1876. In a spot thick with symbols, the memorial has been credited with making Native American groups feel welcome at the battlefield, which for many years had been run as a shrine to Manifest Destiny. Now, as the sun rose, seven Cheyenne elders in cowboy hats and dark glasses conducted a peace ceremony before a crowd of about fifty people. Donlin Many Bad Horses lit a wooden pipe and said: “When things were bad for us, we could not do this. There were times when we could not come in here to the battlefield. But now a door has opened to us. We can come in and worship and pray. I hope this opening will continue to grow.”

By noon, Little Bighorn was thronging with visitors, all passionate about 1876. The event was nothing if not gregarious. One minute I was talking to Ernie Lapointe, a great-grandson of Sitting Bull who wore a baseball cap identifying him as a Vietnam veteran. He told me that Sitting Bull had had a vision before the battle that “told him our warriors shouldn’t take the spoils of war, or injure the dead—but they did. That’s why we’re oppressed to this day—by the losers in the battle!” The next, I was being introduced to Lance Custer, the twenty-eight year old sixth generation family heir, descended from one of George’s brothers. Lance was visiting the site from his home in Kansas for the first time, and was a little surprised by his instant celebrity status amongst “Custer buffs.” Even while we were chatting on Last Stand Hill, an elderly man interrupted for an autograph, adding in awe: “He looks very much like the young Custer’s brother Tom, don’t you think? It’s uncanny…” (Lance smiled at him politely. Only a few feet away in the grass was Tom Custer’s headstone. He had been so badly mutilated after the battle that he could only be recognized by a tattoo on his arm.)

And every day I went to one of the reenactments, for a dose of blood and gunpowder.

* * *

One reenactment has been held on and off since the 1960s in the predominantly white town of Hardin, while the other is on the Crow Indian reservation—but it’s not a simple Anglo versus Indian version of events. The script for the “white” Hardin pageant was actually written by a Crow Indian, Joe Medicine Crow; although it was based on discussions with a Cheyenne veteran named Brave Bear, it has echoes of the 1940 Errol Flynn film classic They Died With Their Boots On, and is filled with messages of reconciliation. (“In this battle of the Little Bighorn, there were no victors… we red men and white men live in a united fortress of democracy, the United States of America.”)

The “Indian” reenactment, put on by the Real Bird family on the Crow reservation, also contains little that would offend an old school Custerphile, except for a caustic reference to the deaths of numerous Cheyenne women and children at the so-called “battle” of the Washita in 1868. When it was first staged in the early 1990s, the Real Bird script delved into fantasy, with Custer being killed by Jesse James or surviving the battle to marry an Indian girl. But these days, the show sticks close to the historical record—and has proven a huge hit with serious white re-enactors, who travel from all over America for the chance to participate, at their own expense, on the battlefield itself. What’s more, the Real Birds lure a large number of Indian horsemen to the event, creating a scene that is both spectacular and dangerous.

“I’m going to fight here every year until I’m too old to do it,” said one cavalry

man, Jason Heitland, as we wandered amongst replica military canvass tents by a shady creek. “You’re fighting on the actual battlefield! You sleep where the actual Indian camp was, where the Cheyenne dog soldiers slept. And the battle itself is totally un-scripted. You’ve got whooping Indians coming from all directions. It’s quite a thrill.”

“And the horses don’t know it’s fake,” added Niccolo Sgro, a coffee salesman from Michigan in his mid-thirties. “That’s why it’s so dangerous!”

Since Niccolo is Italian-born, he was playing the part of First Lieutenant Carol Camillo DeRudio. 42% of the Seventh Cavalry was actually foreign-born. (“Even then, the US army was the prototype for America’s multicultural society,” said the park historian, John Doerner). Curiously, Hardin’s Custer re-enactor, Tony Austin, was actually born in Brighton in the UK, although he became obsessed with Custer even before he emigrated to Canada at age thirteen; today, he lives in British Columbia, where he works as a postman, but still has his English accent. A fixture at the Hardin event, Tony also has an Old World sense of historical irony, musing at times on what the real George Custer would have made of today’s anniversary celebrations. But the Real Bird’s Custer, Steve Alexander, stays firmly in character. He is addressed as “the general” by his troops, as well as his co-workers in the land surveying office back home in Monroe, Michigan—where he and his wife have actually bought the Custer’s home from the 1860s, and are renovating it to its original period look. As one of his men respectfully put it, Alexander virtually “channels Custer.” “My bed is just like General Custer’s,” Steve told me. “So when I wake up, I am General Custer.”

Like the original Seventh Cavalry, many re-enactors had signed up for adventure. I met Angus McCrudden, a feisty English tourist from Portsmouth. Since one of the re-enactors had dropped out after being kicked by a horse, Angus was fulfilling his lifetime dream by stepping into the wounded man’s shoes, inheriting his uniform and sleeping in a teepee. Now he was going out for his first battle. “I’m chuffed to bits!” he declared.

The recruits were given a safety brief, and reminded to fire their guns upwards, since blanks could still blow a man’s fingers off at short range.

“OK!” said the Italian. “So now we go to give hell to those savages!”

Night life at this time was predictably bizarre. That Saturday, I joined the crowds at the Four Aces in Hardin. A hardscrabble bar that’s seen its fair share of cowboy brawls, it was as crowded than a New York nightclub. Still in their uniforms—but now splattered with fake blood—re-enactors rubbed shoulders with ranch hands from the Northern Cheyenne reservation, documentary TV producers and the odd college professor doing a semiotic study on the festivities.

Angus from Portsmouth, who had carried the guidon, or company flag, that day, was delirious. “It was brilliant!” he raved, about the experience of being killed with Custer. “This Indian bloke came up behind me, and said real polite: Is it all right if I take the flag? And I said, orright. And then he shot me and I lay down dead!”

“Tomorrow I’m getting a gun. I’m getting all tooled up!”

* * *

By Sunday night, after the last shot had been fired and the last memorial wreath laid, Hardin was a ghost town. In the Four Aces, a couple of ranch hands nursed their beers in silence, beside a silent juke box. Everyone had packed up their 4WDs and hit the highway, leaving “Custer country” to its memories for another year.

By now, it was a relief to see the battlefield return to its eerie serenity the next morning—just me, a couple of goats, and the ghosts. My mind was still crowded with blood-soaked images from the last few days, so the bare white markers scattered across the hillside now told a poignant story. Strolling across the sagebrush, you can follow exactly how the Seventh Cavalry fell apart, when ‘tactical disintegration’ had set in. I was left with a sense of tragedy for those on both sides—the cavalrymen, who were paid fifteen cents a day to risk their scalps in an alien land, and the Indian warriors, who were desperately trying to preserve their nomadic way of life, having refused to be herded onto a rump reservation by the US government. The park historian John Doerner had summed it up pithily: “This was Custer’s last stand, but it was also the last stand of the Indians. Within a year after the Little Bighorn, there wasn’t a truly free Indian left on the plains.”