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The Battle of the Little Bighorn and Our War Against the Wild

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Posted on Jun 27, 2012
Photo by Deanne Stillman

Indians on the battlefield honor a past anniversary of Little Bighorn.

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 3)

A few years ago, I visited the Little Bighorn battlefield. I was there to pay tribute to Comanche and the park’s little-known horse cemetery. Along with something else that unfolded at the same time, I found myself amid something so big and so mysterious and shattering that I don’t think I’ll ever recover. “On the way into the battlefield,” I recounted in “Mustang,” “there was a long line of Indians on war ponies. They were in breechcloths and some wore feathered war bonnets and were barefoot. They rode horseback, and their beautiful compact ponies were painted with symbols—one had red circles around the eyes and nostrils for vision and sense of smell; another had a pair of red thunder stripes on the forelegs to please the god of war …

“The Native American memorial—or circle of unity, as it’s called—was a large sunken circle with a weeping wall of stone ringing two-thirds of its circumference, lined with plaques honoring the Indians who fought Custer. Along an outer perimeter, there was an iron-cable sculpture of Indian warriors on galloping horses; you can look through it, across the battlefield and all the way to the horizon. A visitor had tied some ceremonial feathers to the sculpture, adding to the scarves and strings of beads and small American flags that rippled in the stiff prairie breeze. A cloud of dust rose from the south, and the Indians on their ponies raced across the field, shouting war cries. They had been traveling for ten days, leaving from reservations in South Dakota, making their way to the canyon where Crazy Horse had carved a petroglyph on his way to the battlefield, and then resuming their ceremonial ride.

“Just outside the circle, they stopped, forming a line of horses that separated now from then. As they stood in for their ancestors, a powwow circle came together inside the shrine, and Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen beat their drums and sang songs of war, and native warriors across several generations stepped into the circle and surrounded the men pounding their drums. There were veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, the Gulf War, all dressed in their army fatigues or Marine finest, and wearing war bonnets or feathers in their military caps—fighters all, men and women whose ancestors fought for the Horse Nations and who themselves fought in twentieth and twenty-first century wars for the nation that had conquered them.

“With the war ponies flanking the memorial circle, the sun rising higher in the east, and the powwow drummers and singers chanting for the ages, two Indians joined the circle, and the drums and singing stopped. One of them was Donnie Red Thunder, a former Navy SEAL and great-great-grandson of Crazy Horse. He had traveled the 365 miles from the Cheyenne River camp in South Dakota on horseback. ‘We’re the only country that can say they defeated the United States,’ he said, referring to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. ‘Indians.’ ”

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With the 136th anniversary of this battle just passed, let us pay tribute to the Native American soldiers who served their tribes that day, their country, after all. Like the T-shirt says—the one with Geronimo and three other armed warriors—they are the “original homeland security, fighting terrorism since 1492.” That’s a funny line but all too true; Native Americans join the armed forces in the highest per capita figures of all ethnic groups in this country, defending to the end the place where they were once wild and free, like the four-legged that carried them to their greatest glory. Yet our war against what’s wild continues. The animal tribes are purged, the land is shredded, rivers are sucked dry to make ice sculptures in Vegas. It’s the endgame of what that started many moons ago, and the pony claims are mounting.


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