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The Moon When Chokecherries Are Ripe

June 25, 1876:

“The time was early in the Moon When the Chokecherries Are Ripe, with days hot enough for boys to swim in the melted snow water of the Greasy Grass. Hunting parties were coming and going in the direction of the Bighorns, where they had found a few buffalo as well as antelope. The women were digging wild turnips out in the prairies. Every night one or more of the tribal circles held dances, and some nights the chiefs met in councils. ‘The chiefs of the different tribes met together as equals,’ Wooden Leg said. ‘There was only one who was considered as being above all the others. This was Sitting Bull. He was recognized as the one old man chief of all the camps combined.’

“… The news of Custer’s approach came to the Indians in various ways: ” ‘I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips,’ said Red Horse, one of the Sioux Council chiefs. ‘Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw the soldiers were charging the camp.’ …

“… Meanwhile Pte-San-Waste-Win and the other women had been anxiously watching the Long Hair’s soldiers across the river. ‘I could hear the music of the bugle and could see the column of soldiers turn to the left to march down to the river where the attack was to be made. … Soon I saw a number of Cheyennes ride into the river, then some young men of my band, then others, until there were hundreds of warriors in the river and running up into the ravine. When some hundreds had passed the river and gone into the ravine, the others who were left, still a very great number, moved back from the river and waited for the attack. And I knew that the fighting men of the Sioux, many hundreds in number, were hidden in the ravine behind the hill upon which Long Hair was marching, and he would be attacked from both sides.’

“Kill Eagle, a Blackfoot Sioux chief, later said that the movement of Indians toward Custer’s column was “like a hurricane … like bees swarming out of a hive.’ “

–Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”

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June 25, 1876

General Custer: Should I go down there, or withdraw? Well? What’s your answer, muleskinner?

Jack Crabbe: General, you go down there. …

Custer: You’re saying, go into the coulee …?

Crabbe: Yes, sir.

Custer: There are no Indians there, I suppose?

Crabbe: I didn’t say that. There are thousands of Indians down there, and when they get done with you, there won’t be nothin’ left but a greasy spot.

–“Little Big Man” (1970)

Back in 1989 or so, my dad and I drove from Chicago out to the Little Bighorn battlefield. Interstate 90 runs within sight of the place, but we had taken a two-lane road, U.S. 212, up from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, northwest of Rapid City. We figured it would be a more interesting trip, and that route also passes close to Rosebud Creek, the site of a battle between U.S. troops and Indian warriors that took place about a week before the Little Bighorn. As I remember it, we drove around on a gravel road for an hour or so before concluding we had no idea where the Rosebud site might be.

Arriving at the Little Bighorn site on 212 is dramatic. You’re crossing a series of low, rolling hills and rather suddenly catch sight of pastures and planted fields in a relatively broad valley; the river is down there, and so is the Interstate. Crow Agency, Hardin and Billings lie to the north and west; to the south and east are Garryowen (named after the Custer’s regimental song), Lodge Grass and Sheridan, Wyoming. It is not heavily populated country.

Instead of driving down into the valley, you turn into the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There’s a rather spare visitor’s center and museum there (remember: information current as of first year of first Bush administration; as for today, I note that the National Park Service’s virtually useless Little Bighorn site includes two live webcams). What I’m sure makes the strongest impression on everyone who visits are the white marble slabs, like headstones, that mark the spot where each member of Custer’s force were believed to have fallen. If you know just the outline of the story, the landscape and those markers tell the rest pretty compellingly. (According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the white markers have been supplemented by red granite ones denoting where Indian warriors fell during the battle.)

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