Little Bighorn, Mont. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Mont. Lt. Col George A. Custer died spectacularly here 127 years ago today, but for decades the colorful officer dominated the way the Battle of the Little Bighorn was retold.
Now, the five Indian tribes that took part in that day's fighting are finally getting what they feel is their due: a memorial honoring their role in the battle and recognition of their defense of their homes.
The $2.3 million Indian Memorial, the product of an often-contentious, 13-year process, will be dedicated today as traditionally clothed Indian horsemen ride once more over the battlefield.
"To Native Americans this memorial is the first time in the history of the United States of America that aboriginal people are being recognized through governmental processes," said William C. Hair, a Northern Arapaho. "This is the closest we'll ever come to acknowledgment from the government of the atrocities we have suffered."
Getting ready for the day's festivities, many visitors have pitched tepees in the meadows along the Little Bighorn River, near where about 7,000 Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies were camped. Park superintendent Darrell Cook, himself a Sioux, said he was prepared for one of the largest events ever at the battlefield.
The battle is part of a larger campaign by the 7th Cavalry and other Army units meant to force the Sioux to accept placement on a reservation. Things didn't work out that way, at least not just then.
The 7th had about 600 men in the area, but Custer badly underestimating the enemy divided his men into three groups. When those with Custer were beset by a huge force, they were killed to the last man. The two other groups were pinned down on a hill several miles away; help arrived the next day and many were saved.
The Cheyenne and their allies took their dead the number is uncertain and scattered. Within two years, most of the Indians had been moved to reservations.
The post-battle focus on Custer came in large part because Anglo Americans had a hard time empathizing with what many at the time regarded as a treacherous and ruthless foe.
Until 1991, the battle spot was officially the Custer Battlefield National Monument. Gleaming white tombstones mark where each soldier fell, and a 12-foot granite obelisk covers a mass grave on Last Stand Hill, where it is visible for miles on the mostly treeless rolling plains.
But of the Indian victors Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and war chief Gall there was hardly a clue. Beginning in the 1970s, the American Indian Movement and others began protesting the exclusion, occasionally threatening to destroy the obelisk.
The first President Bush signed legislation in 1991 to rename the battlefield Little Bighorn and calling for an Indian Memorial. But the law appropriated no money.
Some of Custer's many ardent students didn't want the memorial, or didn't want it on Last Stand Hill. Tribes often argue among themselves about the proper way to remember their warriors, and fund-raising lagged.
Two Philadelphians, the husband-and-wife team of John Collins and Alison J. Towers, won the design competition in 1997. There was a groundbreaking in 1999, but little real movement until President George W. Bush signed an appropriation last year. That led to the construction of the earthen and rock circular memorial, about 60 yards from the obelisk on the hill.
The interior of the memorial contains information on the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho who fought Custer, as well as the Crow and Arikara who scouted for him. There is a narrow opening on the side facing the obelisk, which Collins has called a "weeping wound" that symbolically invites the slain soldiers in.
"I was trying to start a dialogue between the two monuments," Collins said. "I was trying to come up with a design that fits the landscape without overpowering it."