LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD - Ten years after the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was constructed, the final phase of the project is nearly complete.
Twelve temporary memorial plaques honoring warriors and scouts from tribes involved in the June 25, 1876, battle will be replaced later this year by permanent inscriptions on the granite panels, said monument Superintendent Denice Swanke.
The granite panels are 10 inches thick, 44 inches high and 78 to 91 inches wide. Each weighs about 3,000 pounds. They will be incised with text and graphics chosen by the tribes.
When the memorial was dedicated in 2003, colorful signage was installed commemorating the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who had allied in the summer of 1876 to form the largest Native army ever recorded on the Northern Plains. Panels also honored the Crow and Arikara scouts who served with the U.S. Army against their traditional, more powerful, enemy tribes.
“They were never intended to be permanent,” Swanke said of the plaques. “It took time to negotiate that among themselves.”
Most chose quotes from chiefs and warriors. Each tribe worked to identify those who fought and died so their names could be listed.
On the Cheyenne panel, the tribe has chosen to include the words of Wooden Leg to sum up its victory 137 years ago: “We had killed soldiers who came to kill us.”
Young Two Moon’s description of the day will also be included on the Cheyenne panel: “It was a hot, clear day and no wind. There was a great dust from the fighting, but no storms after the battle.”
The Crow panel will be a tribute to its scouts. Red Wing will be quoted saying, “A scout is like a lone wolf, that must be looking, looking, looking all the time.”
It will also include the English translation of White Man Runs Him’s honor song, praising him for scouting against the enemy Sioux.
A Sioux tribute quotes Ta Sunke Witko: “My lands are where my dead are buried.”
The most poignant tribu^pte of all may be the words of Bloody Knife, Custer’s favorite Arikara scout. On the morning of the battle, the scout prepared for his death. Some of his last words will be engraved on the Arikara panel: “I will not see you (sun) go down behind the mountains tonight … I am going home today, not the way we came, but in spirit, home to my people.”
His prophesy proved accurate. Bloody Knife was with Maj. Marcus Reno, whose three companies were ordered to attack Sitting Bull’s village at the head of the sprawling encampment along the Little Bighorn River. During the fighting the scout was shot through the head, his blood and brains splattering on the major’s face.
Reno eventually retreated to high bluffs across the river, where he and troopers under the command of Capt. Frederick Benteen battled for two days before relief arrived. By then, Custer and the companies under his command were wiped out.
Warriors were thick on the landscape that afternoon, including the site of the Indian Memorial, as the battle drew to a close on Last Stand Hill. A few years later, remains of the soldiers were removed from shallow graves and were buried under a massive white monument on the hill. Their names were engraved on the memorial shaft.
But recognition of the warriors who died there didn’t come until more than 100 years later when Congress on Dec. 10, 1991, authorized the Indian Memorial. A competition was held to select a design, and in 2002, construction began. It was dedicated June 25, 2003.
The design included two spirit gates to welcome the spirits of 7th Cavalry warriors into the memorial. From the gates, the 7th Cavalry monument is clearly visible.
Ed Charging Elk, 69, from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, has worked toward completion of the project for 27 years.
“I think it’s time for closure for racism,” he said on a blustery May day at the battlefield. “I think it’s time for closure of the Custer battle.”
The tribal elder and a friend had come to Montana in the days before Memorial Day to perform a pipe ceremony at both the Indian Memorial and the 7th Cavalry monument. He plans to be back for anniversary ceremonies on June 25.
Charging Elk hopes the spirits of the Indian warriors will join him in welcoming the 7th Cavalry dead through the monument’s spirit doors and into the sacred circle. All the dead, of every race, will be honored, he said.
He had much in common with the people he has helped to honor. Eighteen months in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief and gunner made him a warrior, too. On his own battlefields half a world away, Charging Elk represented both his people and the U.S. Army.
Losing his own father in World War II and his mother shortly after, Charging Elk was raised by his traditional grandparents. His grandfather told him stories his own father, Red Fish, had recounted about the Little Bighorn. Red Fish was a lieutenant to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Charging Elk said.
As traditional as she was, his grandmother — educated to the 11th grade in boarding schools — didn’t want Charging Elk to speak his native language or practice traditional spiritualism. She was afraid that if he was too Indian, he would be removed from her care and sent to the dreaded boarding schools, too.
So she encouraged him to get his high school diploma and a college degree. When that was all accomplished, his draft notice arrived.
“My grandfather always told me that if you want to lead people, you’ve got to go to war for them,” Charging Elk said.
But when the draft notice came, he was reluctant to let his grandson go. Charging Elk was the last of the family line.
After helicopter training in Texas, the young warrior was given two weeks at home before shipping to Southeast Asia.
“I woke up on the morning I was supposed to fly out of Rapid City and heard the weirdest sound in my life,” remembered. “I went outside. My grandmother was singing a death song around the cabin.”
Charging Elk reassured her that he would be coming home, then went back inside to eat the bacon and eggs she had fixed on her old wood stove.
He lived his life actively and well, helping to found the tribal university, planning the tribe’s casino, promoting human rights, sitting on the Rosebud Tribal Council and working toward an Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
But Vietnam had shaken his faith. Other tragedies moved him further away from Western religion. He’d been raised Catholic and when three sons died of natural causes within a nine-month period, they had church funerals.
“When I buried my youngest boy, I got within 10 feet of the church door and turned around,” he said. “I didn’t want to be Catholic anymore. Their spirituality wasn’t strong enough.”
He still prays and thanks the Great Spirit for each day he’s given, but has embraced the spiritualism of his ancestors.
Though all that came after, Vietnam continued to haunt him.
“I had killed a number of people, and when I came back, something bothered me for 35 years,” he said.
Five years ago, while on a spiritual quest, Charging Eagle had a dream. He saw a woman and three little boys walking toward him from a distance of about a mile. When they stood about five feet away, the woman spoke.
“If you had not killed my husband, my children would not be hungry,” she said.
Charging Elk and a friend went to a nearby store and bought food for the spirit children. They returned to the spot where the woman had stood.
She told him, “Now you have paid your debt and you can sleep better.”
He slept well from that day onward.