Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
by maria weidich | photos by nathan satran
As a fairly new Montana resident, I admit my knowledge of Montana state history is lacking. Volunteering with the Mountain Mamas, an organization committed to protecting our air, water, climate, and public lands for future generations, I took my family to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to start remedying that. The big sky and waving greasy grass on Memorial Day weekend intertwined the stories of Indigenous people and the conflicts of manifest destiny into my newest history lesson.
Sure, I had heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but it wasn’t until visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield that I now understood - it was only one version of events. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was originally named Custer Battlefield National Monument. And it wasn’t until 1991 that it was renamed to more accurately represent who was involved in the battle and where it took place - near the banks of the Little Bighorn River on present-day Crow Agency.
On Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, my family of four piled in the car to see the area for ourselves. It was an easy, hour-long drive from our home in Billings, even with two toddlers in tow.
We opted to drive past the Visitor’s Center that greeted us at the entrance and instead took the 4.5-mile road tour that connects the Custer Battlefield to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. Stopping at interpretive signs and scanning the QR codes to hear the audio tour along the way, we enjoyed our private, self-paced tour with lots of time for walking, exploring, and imagining.
As my 3-year-old occupied herself with the discovery of pill bugs and my 1-year-old content in her backpack, it felt natural to do a full 360 and imagine the scene over those two June days in 1876. Gravestones of Indigenous people and U.S. soldiers are scattered across the hillsides recalling the sheer volume of battle and lives lost over protection and expansion.
Perhaps the most beautiful monument is the newly created Indian Memorial, completed in 2013. The memorial’s theme, “Peace Through Unity,” features circular granite panels engraved with text and graphics representing all the Native American tribes who took part in, as they call it, the Battle of Greasy Grass. Most prominent is the massive bronze sculpture of three warriors from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes riding into battle as a woman hands one of them a shield.
Earlier this year, we marked the 116th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, which enables cultural and historical sites like the Little Bighorn to become national monuments - places where our nation’s full history can be revealed, revered, and in many cases, mourned. Because of our experience at Little Bighorn National Monument, my kiddos are getting an early start on the brave sacrifices Indigenous people made and the complicated history that makes up these United States.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was first set aside to memorialize the U.S. soldiers who died in battle. It took the U.S. over a century to properly acknowledge both sides of this gruesome battle and the fact that it wasn’t just the loss of Custer and his men but the skilled battling and coalition of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe.
I’m grateful our national monuments are working to tell these important stories and that my children will grow up learning it wasn’t just a place where 260 U.S. Cavalry and George Custer are laid to rest. But it is also where thousands of Cheyenne and Lakota successfully defended their land and ways of life.
As a mom of two littles who have their share of sibling spats, I am reminded that there are always two sides to every story. And it’s important to hear them both.
Deep Ravine Trail: An easy ½-mile round-trip trail within the grounds. Interpretive signs are along the way. Suitable even for the tiniest hikers.
Custer National Cemetery: This is one of 155 national cemeteries in the United States and lies within the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument grounds. It serves as a place of rest for nearly 5,000 known and unknown U.S. soldiers killed in action or veterans of the U.S. military.
Custer Battlefield Trading Post & Cafe: You can’t miss the brightly colored tipis as you make your way to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument entrance. They have an excellent book selection and Native American-made artwork, jewelry, and more.
Stay + Explore
If you’ve got a bit more time, maybe even a weekend, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area spans over two states and is worth the drive. Boat on Bighorn Lake, camp or hike in Bighorn Canyon, or check out the Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center.
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