June 25, 2001, Peter Harriman, Argus Leader. Pictures: Custer Clan
MONTANA - On hills fading from green to tan under a hot, white June sun, icons of history from the 7th Cavalry and the Lakota and Cheyenne nations race again toward battle on sorrel, bay and pinto ponies loping head up, ears forward against a background of blue Montana sky.
One-hundred-twenty-five years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull fight again for the future of this dusty piece of America framed by the dark Big Horn Mountains in the distant horizon.
They do so these days under the auspices of the Hardin Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, and the Real Bird family of nearby Garryowen, Mont. Both annually put on Western re-enactments that culminate in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
This time, though, the romance of the troopers' and Indians' quest and their fidelity to their cause is stressed.
As hundreds of pink-skinned tour-ists look on from bleachers, steps are taken to make sure the colorfully painted warriors and the blue-coated troopers are all heroes. History re-enacted is history transformed by contemporary values.
Both re-enactments on the weekend before the battle anniversary employ casts upward of 100 people, from the area and from around the world.
Following performances at both pageants, members of the local Crow Tribe, who reprise the roles of Cheyennes and Lakota, and riders from re-enactment groups such as the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, performing as the doomed 7th Cavalry, mingle with the crowd of several hundred who come to see a Real Bird re-enactment and the nearly 1,000 at a Hardin show.
But such casual friendliness is not typical of this place, contends Kennard Real Bird, one of the founders of his family's re-enactment.
"The citizens of Hardin continue to be racist toward Indian people," he says. He says his family's re-enactment continually struggles against this.
Other Indians, however, qualify Real Bird's assertion of racism.
Arlow Stray Calf-Dawes of Garryowen has performed in the Hardin re-enactment, was its Indian cast coordinator, and now is a narrator and publicist for that show.
"We have our mini incidents," he says of life in Big Horn County. "But this community has healed and come a long way from that attitude."
Big Horn County is 59 percent American Indian. All three county commissioners, the county attorney, the clerk and deputy clerk and the sheriff are Indians. A voting- rights lawsuit in the 1980s that carved the county into districts allowed Indian candidates to prevail in commissioner elections, says John Doyle of Crow Agency, who has been a county commissioner since 1986. That gave the county a comfort level with Indians as administrators and allowed them to win at large races such as sheriff and attorney, Doyle says.
"In 1986, when I was first elected, there was a lot of distrust," he says. Doyle acknowledges racism was at one time prevalent in Big Horn County, and with some individuals it persists today.
"That's always the fact. We can let it drag us down and hinder us, or we can go around it, go over the top of it, do what we need to do to put it aside."
Indian Health Service subsidizes the county ambulance, Doyle says, and the Crow Tribe gives the county an annual $200,000 solid-waste subsidy.
"Those benefits are sometimes undervalued by people," he says. "We live in a really delicately balanced system here. The more we cooperate, the better it is for everybody."
Decades to remember
Various groups have conducted Battle of the Little Bighorn re-enactments through the years, beginning a decade after the battle. In 1964, Hardin and the Crow Tribe combined on a re-enactment that ran until 1976, when criticism from American Indian Movement leaders and burnout among community organizers put it into hiatus. It was revived in 1990 and, several years later, the Real Birds, who had participated in the 1964-era shows, started their own re-enactment on 80 acres of family land at Medicine Tail Coulee, where a portion of the actual battle was fought.
"The star is this land here," Henry Real Bird says of his family's re-enactment. He's the president of Little Big Horn College, and he helped write the Real Bird re-enactment script and helps direct the production.
Bill Rini, a high school history teacher from New York, plays Capt. Myles Keogh in the Real Bird show. He agrees with Real Bird about the allure of this site.
"There's a lot of mystical things that take place here that people don't explain very well, but they feel."
Mark Larson of Monroe Mich., Custer's hometown, is the sound and music coordinator for the Real Bird production. He nods toward sweating, hollow-eyed troopers on horses still velvety damp from splashing across the Little Big Horn River under the fierce Montana sun.
"All these guys find a spiritual draw to it," he says of the battlefield. "A lot of them feel they've been here before. They are recycling that moment in time."
Real Bird themes
Larson, the sound coordinator, has joined a personal vision of international harmony with the Real Bird re-enactment. That formed the theme of this year's presentation, "To Heal All Nations."
Such spirit set a delightfully loopy tone for the opening of the Real Bird re-enactment June 22. While waiting for the show to begin, Richard Real Bird, a narrator, convened a Custer look-alike contest. He had the crowd choose among eight contestants, including a teen-age boy, three bald men, and a woman.
"I've got to think it was the hair," Pam Trumble of Louisville, Ky., laughed. She was in Montana for a family reunion, planned around the re-enactment.
Ten minutes before the show, Real Bird was soliciting audience volunteers for the roles of Jesuit missionary Pierre De Smet and mountain man John Colter.
"Here's your robe," he told his missionary. "Go with Lewis and Clark here," he said referring to the costumed man representing both explorers, "and he'll set you up."
The low key, family-backyard-production atmosphere lasted until a pair of bareback riders on ponies suddenly raced across the dusty turf before the grandstand, one striking at the other with a coup stick, to illustrate the greatest war feat for Northern Plains warriors.
This opened the re-enactment. Once under way, it proceeded primarily as a series of images of Indian life tied to philosophy and lore.
Bareback wranglers gently hazed a group of mares and foals back and forth before the worn wooden grandstands.
"The horse is a gift of Water given to a woman when she fasted," Real Bird's amplified voice carried over the scene. "The horse has a soul. Be good to them, and never strike their face, and they will be good to you."
The coming of white settlers was depicted as a clear threat to this life. Settlement and mining forced the Lakota West.
"They invaded the Powder River and the Big Horn Country. There was more inter-tribal warfare, all because of the gold nugget the Light Eyes searched for in the Black Hills," Real Bird intoned.
Blood in the hills
As the story built toward the Little Bighorn battle, the characteristics of this site came fully into play.
A thin dark line of troopers snaked its way down Medicine Tail Coulee in the distance, as it must have really done 125 years ago. Mounted Indians and troopers raced at full gallop through the river shoals. The sere air was punctuated by war cries, the report of black powder firearms, bugle calls, and the recorded strains of the 7th Cavalry's unit song, "Garryowen."
At the end, the lone survivor, Keogh's horse Comanche, stood quietly amid a scattering of prone blue-uniformed bodies.
It was a great victory, Real Bird told the audience. But as the impetus for the United States to intensify its efforts to subdue Northern Plains Indians, it signaled "a new way of life."
Al Sargent and Ray Newell remember the winter Tuesday morning in 1990 when Hardin's Custer re-enactment came back to life. They were sitting in Newell's Radio Shack store contemplating civic projects when Sargent suggested they revive the re-enactment. The two walked across the street to a Chamber of Commerce meeting and presented the idea. The chamber president asked Sargent "Do you want to do it?"
Sargent is shuffling stiffly this summer after recent back surgery, but he seemed to be everywhere in the days before the Custer festivities began here. He also has the gumption to get up at 3:30 a.m. to do interviews for the re-enactment for a New York drive-time radio show.
"Well," he snorts about that long ago chamber president's challenge, "I was the wrong guy to say that to."
For his part, Newell spent the rest of that winter welding and erecting bleachers on the bare ground of a natural amphitheater on Crow reservation land about six miles west of Hardin. He worked somewhat in the manner of Tom Sawyer painting a fence.
"The first couple of weeks were slow," he remembers. Once the bleachers started going up, however, "hell, I had more people than you could shake a stick at," he says.
Kennard Real Bird complains his family must produce its re-enactment without any government grant funding. Sargent and Newell say Hardin similarly has to fund its re-enactment. But as a production of the Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, it can draw on a much wider array of chamber members for donations and volunteer help than can the Real Bird family. Since 1990, Sargent estimates Hardin has spent about $300,000 promoting the show. He says he's convinced it will begin turning profits for the chamber within two years.
In 1994, the Hardin re-enactment spawned the 1876 Grand Ball. Participants in period dress dance to music from the Victorian era on the grounds of the Big Horn County Museum. The ball spun off from the chamber after several years and is now a nonprofit corporation. Beth Ann Stenerson and Cathy Stenerson of Hardin are its driving force. They say the ball nearly breaks even with entrance fees but relies on the remains of a $2,500 grant from Interstate Bank three years ago to balance the books.
"It brings in a different crowd than the re-enactment buffs," Beth Ann Stenerson says. "That was all men. This has more of a feminine side."
People from as far away as England, Scotland and France travel to Montana specifically for this dance, and tourists line the board walks of the museum grounds to watch the grand procession.
Among them this year was Nellie Bad Bear, of Crow Agency, who was watching with her daughter and three grandchildren. "It's the first time I've seen this. I've wanted to come out here before, but I never have. It's cool," she says. "I'd like to bring a bunch of Indians in here. That would be a real surprise for those white people," she adds, laughing.
The ball, replete with men in period cavalry and civilian dress and buckskins, and ladies with ringlet coifs and colorful billowing dresses, is an amalgam of Halloween, prom night, and a bride's maid's convention. But it has a winsome, nostalgic charm, heightened by the presence of Tony Austin, a Vancouver, British Columbia, actor who would be killed daily for the remainder of the week as the Hardin re-enactment's Custer.
He lent a gracious tone to the proceedings when he opened the ball. "I would like to dedicate this evening to the officers and men of the 7th Cavalry," he said. "To their noble allies the Crow and Arikara, and to their noble foes, the great people of the Cheyenne and Lakota nations. These people fought and died for what they truly believed in, and we should never forget their sacrifice."