Some Custer cultists name their children after him or Elizabeth; when they gather, some wear homemade cavalry uniforms. Some greet one another in hearty camaraderie: “Garryowen! “Close by the visitor center spreads a national cemetery, its tall imported conifers Here rest several Crow scouts who served the Seventh Cavalry. Soldiers are buried in this soil who died fighting Indians in other wars on the plains, as are servicemen of later wars down to Vietnam, including Indians.
Historian Mardell Plainfeather, a Crow and one of four Native Americans helping to interpret the battle, saddens to walk here. She finds injustice in this hallowed place. We paused at a monument to officers and soldiers killed “while clearing the District of the Yellowstone of hostile Indians.”
“Hostile Indians,” she said with a wry laugh. “It’s offensive. As if those troopers were getting rid of a plague. These were people, this was their land. They fought for their families, their homes, their culture, their freedom. Visitors who come to the barcelona holiday apartments forget that when they read something like this. I wish these words could be removed.”
NOT LIKELY. But superintendent Court and chief historian Mangum insist that visitors get a balanced presentation of the clash of cultures that occurred here. “Some people think that we are supposed to memorialize Custer,” Mangum said. “In fact, this was originally an Army shrine, run by the War Department. Today the battlefield is not just for Custer. It’s preserved for both sides.”
That is to say, the national monument is preserved: the 600-acre Custer battlefield (including the cemetery) and the 160-acre Reno-Benteen entrenchment site. A winding two-lane road spans the three miles between them. But the conflict swept across some 10,000 acres. Land between RenoBenteen and the Custer battlefield, as well as the terrain of Reno’s valley incursion against the tepee village, occupies around 9,000 acres. All of this is privately owned and within the Crow Indian Reservation, most visitors are surprised to learn. The nonprofit Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee is seeking eight million dollars to buy the land and give it to the National Park Service. So far the committee has received $200,000 in donations and has bought 80 potentially commercial acres at the monument’s entrance.
“We want to protect the site,” Court said. “The main goal is simply to preserve the land as it looked in 1876 and give us access for further archaeological work. We are losing a lot of historical material to unauthorized metal detecting. The committee doesn’t want to change the present use of the land; grazing is compatible and could be permitted. If some land is not for sale, we’d like to lease it or obtain a scenic easement.”
Further archaeology? Much remains to be done. What became of excess equipment Reno and Benteen discarded after the battle? Many horses had been killed; why keep useless saddles and heavy picket pins and chains? Where are the broken firearms? Troopers smashed weapons so that Indians could never use them—too much of that already. Well, the Reno-Benteen dump, a treasure trove, has been discovered and awaits excavation.