The Little Bighorn

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This week a bill designed to erect a memorial to the Indians and rename Custer Battlefield as Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is breezing through the House of Representatives. Many of the men at Little Big Men Pizza have no problem with the monument idea, as long as it’s kept a respectful distance from Custer’s. But the name change really gets their goat.

“It’s the worst kind of revisionism,” huffs one man with chin whiskers. “It’s just going to stir things up.”

A fierce, mustachioed man suggests that if they renamed the Custer Battlefield, they might as well rename Pearl Harbor after the Japanese. I can’t make head or tails of this argument, and walk away buffaloed. Isn’t Little Bighorn, like Pearl Harbor, merely a place-name, and an Anglicized one at that? (The Sioux called the area Greasy Grass.) And though the Sioux were occupying Crow territory in 1876, wasn’t the sneak attacker at the Battle of the Little Bighorn the 7th Cavalry?

Proponents of the name change point out that battlefields shouldn’t be named after participants, not to mention losers. Opponents counter that there has been a tradition in the West of naming battlefields after participants—even after outright fools like Capt. William J. Fetterman, who in 1866 led eighty-one troopers into a fatal and obvious trap sprung by the Sioux and their allies. But this merely begs the question; it’s precisely this tradition of white precedence that galls many Native Americans who are reluctant to visit the site of their greatest victory under Ouster’s hated brand name.

A Native American named Barbara Booher is superintendent of the national park, and though she affects an official opacity about the name change, she is nonetheless darkly suspected by some buffs of pushing a revisionist agenda.

“It’s all very PC, you understand,” sneers a man with a walrus mustache.

As the pitchers of beer pile up on the tables at Little Big Men Pizza, the name change drops from conversation, and the jokes begin to fly: “Custer got Siouxed”; “Is it true blonds have more fun?”; “Custer wore an Arrow shirt.” And then there is the one about the Custer buff who dies and goes to heaven, and the first thing he does is look up General Custer.

“General! At last!” the buff calls out. “What happened to you at the Last Stand?”

“Damned if I know,” says Custer. “They shot me at the ford.”

I drive about six miles west of Hardin to attend the Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment, staged courtesy of the Hardin Chamber of Commerce on a flat field facing a small ridge on the Crow Agency.

The buffs I spot in the bleachers seem a little embarrassed to find themselves here, sucking Sno-Kones and waiting for the rumpus to begin. They wave to the reenactors who have come here from all over the country to impersonate Custer and his troopers, and they elbow each other at various inauthenticities: the Hollywood yellow bandannas and pants stripes on the troopers’ pants legs as they ride out of an ersatz Fort Apache constructed from cedar fence materials, the saddles lumping up under the Indians’ blankets as Crow reenactors gallop from a collection of tepees set picturesquely against a backdrop of recreational vehicles.

The narration, as delivered through loudspeakers by Crow elders and an excitable local anchorperson, is longiloquent—“Listen! The tall grass to the east is pushed back by the footsteps and the rims of the tall wheels determined to move. Westward ho!”—and various movie soundtracks give some of the proceedings a curiously Hawaiian flavor. Lewis and Clark carry around a canoe, a smiling missionary strolls forth for a moment, a wagon train is attacked, and there are powwows marked by the longest handsigned orations in the history of Western pageantry.

But when the Last Stand portion begins, the buffs lean as far forward as the small, impatient boys who sit among them, happily jumping to the intermittent crack of carbine fire, nodding sharply at the call of a bugle, immersing themselves in the dust and smoke that sweep across the bleachers as the troopers retreat toward the distant ridge.

We glimpse the fight in a sequence of eerie tableaux. An abandoned cavalry horse calmly grazes in the midst of battle. A brave with a club chases down a dismounted trooper. (“Oo,” says a Crow woman beside me, “Roger rides nice.“) A squaw de-pantses a fallen soldier splashed with ketchup.

 
 

After the last trooper falls, we all are invited to sing the national anthem, and then everybody pours out of the stands to get autographs. The Custer impersonator, Steve Alexander, a powerplant worker from Monroe, Michigan, is surrounded by fans and comports himself as the general with almost papal gravity.

“Hey,” he tells a passing Crow, “you guys were looking good out there.”