Friday, August 2, 2013
ON HALLOWED GROUND: THE LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD
impressions of a trip through our northern plains
…second in a series…
America’s northern plains is a limitless steppe, nothing but rolling hills and knee-high grasses for as far as one might be able to see. The Sioux saw something here. The Americans didn’t, but it didn’t matter. Monroe’s Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, although gauntlet laid down to prevent other European powers from colonizing North America, presumed for us right to lands across the continent regardless of who might already be there.
Rolling out of Billings, Montana, I was eager to check a location off my bucket list: that of the Battlefield along the Little Big Horn. Clipping along I-90 at posted speed, it was difficult to see what all the ruckus might be about. Then we arrived.
Idling up a rise off US 212, we entered, parked the bikes and began to explore. With each step, something grew. I think it was reverence. Stones mark the location where soldiers fell.
Stones mark the locations where some of the Indians fell.
A cavalry soldier’s mount may be his most trusted friend. A stone memorialized the horses as well.
Decades ago, I bought a copy of Dee (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) Brown’s book, The Fetterman Massacre. (University of Nebraska Press, 1962.) This historian outlines the missteps and terrible fate of an over-zealous junior officer stationed at Fort Phil Kearney. “The Fetterman Massacre,” Brown writes, “was the second battle in American history from which came no survivors.”
We’d rocketed past Fort Phil Kearney this trip, neglecting to stop.
John Byrne Cooke – son of Masterpiece Theatre long-time host Alistair Cooke – composed a brilliant trilogy of historical fiction called The Snowblind Moon, (Tor, 1984) chronicling the ten years between Fetterman and that which hallowed the ground upon which we were about to tread. (My copy was autographed by the author as we enjoyed a burger on the Fourth of July a couple of decades back.)
At the Battlefield bookshop, I picked up a copy of Crazy Horse, a Life, a biography by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Larry (Lonesome Dove) McMurtry. (Penguin, 1999.) There’s something that a novelist brings to history that, in turns, brings history to life.
Sitting Bull suggested that white man simply wanted to exploit the resources of the Lakota. President Grant said that our efforts were intended to civilize and Christianize the Indians. And it is said that those victorious write the history.
As we approach a century and a half since the events on the high plains took place, perhaps there is small solace in the fact that our more recent literature reflects not only the actions of those fulfilling Monroe’s vision, but also the bravery, courage, character and loss of those whom we overwhelmed. Therein lies the lesson.
Among the best things about the road are those from which we learn: those flashes of truth that change our viewpoint, broaden our perspective and enrich us.
Coupling solemn walks along hallowed paths with the literature that recounts the events of the past make a ride through seemingly forgettable prairie meaningful and rich.
Church of the Open Road Press