Beneath the clouds and brilliant blue of "big sky country," one stands in a valley on a mid-summer day. It is easy to be taken in by the beauty of the place, to listen to the wind and feel that it was this place that inspired the words "America the Beautiful." It is easy to look around and almost forget that the ground on which you stand once ran deep with rivers of blood or that you are standing in what is, in essence, a mass grave. The wind whispers in rhythmic chants as you cross from worn headstone to worn headstone, a breathy reminder of whose land this was and of how they loved it. Across the valley you can see moving shadows, women in buckskin, searching among the high grass for their fallen loved ones and crying out in anguish.
American history, like that of any country, is soaked in the blood of bitter battles between the oppressed and the oppressors. And while, in modern day, we chose to commemorate the events with monuments and parks, all one really needs to do to remember what happened is visit the sites. Such sacrifice and such pain do not occur without leaving scars on the land. Though the blood spilled on those battlefields has long since soaked into the earth and fed the plant life, it left its stain in the form of impressions and the souls that will never forget General George Custer or the natives that defended their way of life at Little Bighorn.
Since the white man came to the new world, America, he claimed the land for his own, pushing back those natives to whom the land had belonged for generations. With each advance of the Europeans, Native American lands shrank. By the 1800’s many of the once proud people were moved to reservations, breaking their nomadic spirits and trampling their religious beliefs. By the summer of 1876 there were many tribes who simply refused to be moved or contained any longer.
The government grew concerned with the actions of the Sioux and Cheyenne, who ignored their ultimatum and chose to continue their nomadic ways. General Philip Sheridan ordered three military operations to encircle the tribes to force them back to reservation lands. The Native tribes, however, banded together for protection. Sitting Bull, who held a position of stature within the tribes as their spiritual leader and statesman, engaged in a ritual called the "Sun Dance," in which intense pain through hanging a person from pierced flesh in their chests induces spiritual journeys and foresaw a great victory over the American soldiers.
One of the three regiments was led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who already had a reputation as a fierce warrior but was also something of a loose cannon. When he came across a village of Sioux some fifteen miles away from the reservation, he ignored orders to wait and attacked. He divided his troops into three groups and sent two to prevent the Natives from escaping. What he did not realize was that the village warriors outnumbered his troops by nearly three times. To make matters worse, his miscalculation was further amplified by the arrival of Oglala Sioux led by Crazy Horse. The Native Americans swept around Custer’s men, boxing them in, and then rained down upon them with gunfire and arrows.
Even in the face of such overwhelming odds, Custer did not surrender. He instead ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses to form a barricade. However, it did little good, as in less than an hour the battle was over, and Custer and his men lay cooling in pools of their own blood.
Following the battle the Native Americans stripped the bodies and mutilated the uniformed soldiers, as they believed that a mutilated man had little hope of reaching the afterlife. All of the dead were found naked and scalped, save one. Custer’s body was found cleaned and dressed in buckskin, giving birth to the legend that the Natives respected his fighting ability and so left him alone. In truth, Custer had been wearing the buckskin at the time of his death instead of a uniform, so it is more likely that the Natives believed him to be an innocent, rather than a soldier.
The dead were marked with simple gravestones, all white, where they fell. Custer, however, had a black stone placed upon his grave. Soon after, the union of the Sioux and Cheyenne fell apart as an outraged U.S. government sought retribution over their fallen Civil War hero. The boundaries of Native lands were redrawn, placing their sacred Black Hills outside the reservation and into land to be settled by whites. Within a year, the Native nation fell.
During the battle, 263 of Custer’s men died. The number of Native lives lost has never been accurately counted. However, to this day, there are reports that those who perished on this field never crossed over. Visitors and those that work at the historic park have seen what they describe as "Indian women" walking the battlefield, searching for dead loved ones. Many have reported seeing men in the old blue uniforms that marked them as U.S. Cavalrymen looking lost and forlorn at the sights where they fell.
Some paranormal researchers have taken EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) recordings and come away with ghostly voices of Natives chanting, men screaming, and even shots being fired. There are also voices of children that cry out in fear, proving that no one was immune to the wholesale slaughter that occurred on these grounds.
Anyone can visit the site, as it has become the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and is maintained by the National Park Service. In 1879, only three years after the battle, the land was designated a national cemetery. Two years later a memorial was erected, overlooking the mass grave of the 7th Cavalry soldiers. It wasn’t until 100 years later that the U.S. government accepted their responsibility and honored the Natives who perished for their beliefs by ordering the construction of the Indian Memorial. Today, the headstones of the fallen cavalrymen remain, stark white against the ground, save for one with a black face that marks the falling spot of Custer.
Most sightings occur on or near the anniversary of the battle, June 25 and 26. It is during those days that the restless souls of the slain are most reported to manifest themselves and when most visitors get a more intensely emotional visit than they’d bargained for.
See you in two weeks!