The Little Bighorn National Monument has gone through several transformations over the last century and a quarter, due largely to shifts in the public perception of the issues surrounding it. Monuments are not simply created to commemorate a given conflict, or even the men who died in that conflict. Monuments commemorate, instead, the narrative or the clash of narratives that resulted in such a conflict and necessitated those deaths. In the case of Little Bighorn, the competing narratives are the westward expansion of the United States and the Indian struggle to preserve their way of life. The history of the monument begins on the day that these two narratives intersected near the Little Bighorn River: June 25, 1876.
Custer’s action at the Little Bighorn was meant to be the opening salvo in a renewed conflict between the Army and the Sioux, and it was a premature salvo at that. Exposed and outnumbered, Custer’s detachment was destroyed, and the detachments of his subordinates Reno and Benteen escaped only in some disorder. The engagement itself was a clear victory for the Indians; it soon became a rallying cry, however, for the ultimately successful effort of the U.S. Army to put an end to mobile Indian power bases. Henceforth, the reservation system would be the only governing body for Indians who chose to remain separate from white society.
To be sure, there were ulterior motives on both sides; many whites had wanted an opportunity to renegotiate the previous treaty after gold was found in Indian land, while many Indian warriors had taken advantage of the treaty themselves by living on reservation land during the winter and resuming the life of free hunters (and warriors) during the summer. In the main, however, white society saw the conflict as the result of their natural effort to extend civilization into the wilderness, even as the Indians bitterly resented the systematic effort to change their way of life. These two narratives have seen some modification in the ensuing 125 years, but the outlines remain even today.
The narrative of American Manifest Destiny has always had a vaguely messianic character, and so it is unsurprising that Custer himself would be perceived as a martyr. The site drew tourist traffic as soon as the area became safe for visitors. In this early period it was under the protection and oversight of the Army itself, which constructed Fort Custer nearby in 1877. That same year marked the first effort to comb through the human remains, specifically to identify officers, where possible, and to remove their remains for burial elsewhere. Custer’s remains, or at least, those identified as his, were among those removed; his final resting place is at West Point.
1879 saw a more extensive reburial program, as the site was dedicated as a national cemetery. Human remains were buried more securely, while horse remains were separated from human remains. A wooden memorial was constructed, but two years later a granite obelisk took its place upon the hill, and the bodies were again reburied, this time in a common grave around the monument. The locations of the original burials were still marked, however. In 1890, the wooden markers were replaced with marble stones that still mark the place today where each soldier ostensibly fell. This statement is qualified because eyewitness testimony suggests that some bodies may have been moved, while the number of stones (249 when erected, 242 remaining today) exceeds the number of soldiers believed to be killed in the battle (210). (Barnard, pages 9-10.)
As a national cemetery the site soon grew with fresh burials unrelated to the battle. Fort Custer was closed and the site was operated by the War Department from 1893 to 1940. Over time its administrators learned that it drew far more visitors as the site of Custer’s final battle than it did as a national cemetery.
1926 marked the 50th anniversary of the battle, and it was observed with much pomp and ceremony. By this time the narrative of westward expansion had become just one more episode in the broader narrative of the creation of a great nation, and one telling sign of this view was the arrival of the contemporary 7th Cavalry from its post in Texas. An even more telling sign of this view was a significant Indian presence at the ceremony, including White Bull, the nephew of Sitting Bull. The ceremony included a token gesture of reconciliation between White Bull and Brigadier General Godfrey.
In 1940, the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery was transferred to the National Park Service; in 1946 the park service acknowledged the fact that its primary function was to deal with the battlefield, changing its name to the Custer Battlefield National Monument.
Cultural change in the 1960s, and the growth of a movement to reflect American Indian interests diminished the centennial observance in 1976. In part there was fear of unrest, but it is also worth noting that Custer’s own image was undergoing reappraisal. It had become clear that the battlefield remained an important symbol to both narratives; the fact that the dominant narrative had changed to one that was somewhat more inclusive all but ensured that some manner of compromise would eventually result.
In 1988 a group of activists laid a monument to the Indians who fought at the Little Bighorn. This action was illegal, and the crude plaque was removed (but preserved), but it sparked the park service on to design an official response that would respectfully reflect the Indian side of the battle without detracting from the memorial to the soldiers who died there. Debate over such a change went on in Congress, but in 1991, after several years of sometimes acrimonious argument, the site was again renamed, this time as Little Bighorn National Monument. Years in the planning, the Indian Memorial was finally dedicated in 2003, appropriately enough on June 25.
Officially, there is no longer an effort to advance either narrative, but rather, to acknowledge that the two narratives exist, that they came into bloody conflict in 1876, and that they shape the interpretations of that conflict even today. Individual visitors can come to their own conclusions; the role of the park staff is to inform those conclusions with the facts. In recent decades, changes in technology and in archaeological procedures have permitted new insights from the battlefield itself, and archaeological work has been conducted at the National Monument in 1984 to 1985, again in 1989, and then also in 1994. The facts are what they are; the degree to which the facts are known, and the ways that these facts are evaluated, change over time.
Barnard, Sandy. Digging into Custer’s Last Stand. AST Press, 2003
Utley, Robert M. Little Bighorn Battlefield. National Park Service, 1994
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