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Custer’s last stand

June 26, 2008

Yesterday was a holiday in Indian Country.  Chief Dull Knife College and the tribal offices were closed in remembrance of the 132nd anniversary of the defeat of Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Big Horn, where I attended a sunrise ceremony led by Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho men.  The ceremony was open to the public and there were a surprising number of Americans, tourists and otherwise, in attendance for a 5am function.

Following the ceremony, I received a guided tour of the battlegrounds from the Chief Dull Knife College president, who had invited me to accompany him for the commemoration.  It was an honor to walk with him along the paths winding their way through the beautiful landscape, with grass-covered hills and ridges rolling gently to the east and farms and ranches stretching out to the west. 

The site is not just of historical importance to the Plains tribes, as it is to other Americans.  It is still a contested battleground between present-day tribes that harbor strong feelings of group pride.  The Crow, who were not in attendance at the ceremony but within whose reservation the battlefield lies, were scouts for the U.S. Army when it was on the warpath against the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho, who were enemies of the Crow.  Resentful sentiments still linger between the tribes to this day.

In the Northeastern United States, American Indian life and culture seems very much like a thing of the past, but out here in southeastern Montana, it is very much a part of life for all people, whether Indian or white.  You can’t drive far without passing through a reservation, or seeing a kitsch Indian tourist stop along the side of the road.  Cheyenne and Crow members are a significant part of the population in many cities, towns, schools, and offices. 

As in the past, however, their culture and way of life is still very much under siege, and they must fight daily battles to protect their land and heritage.

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