The woman who ran the campground was a coal miner. She and her husband both were. There are a lot of coal miners around Gillette. Low-sulfur, I think, is what she called the mines, since “those don’t need special scrubbers.” Because of the Clean Air Act, all coal-producing plants and most of the electrical power plants in the area that are powered by coal must use these special scrubbers, but if your coal has low enough sulfur levels, you don’t need the scrubbers. Oil is very big here, too, nearly as big as in Texas, she told me. “Though here, the egos aren’t quite as large.”
Politically they’re very conservative but somewhat cynical, as it is widely understood that you can get whatever you want politically by buying it, and many politicians won’t do anything for you without a campaign contribution. A city council member (and campaign worker for a mayoral candidate) in Gillette out-and-out told her that if she wanted something changed she should make a contribution to the candidate’s campaign—the council member said she was sure he’d be elected because she had gotten a vast number of senior citizens registered and would personally be driving them to the polls on election day.
Gillette, Buffalo, Sheridan: wonderful, wide-open Wyoming vistas, with lots of cowboys, and oil rigs, and coal mines, and hunters. The hunters, actually, have descended upon the area just this weekend, packing into the hotels and motels and campgrounds for the opening of antelope season. Motel signs are offering them special discounts; the 7-Eleven is giving them a free bag of ice with purchase. (The hunters, not the antelopes.)
I plan to go west on I-90, which swings north into Montana and continues west through Billings and on to Bozeman and Helena. To my left are little mounds that rise unexpectedly from this very gently rolling place: small, sudden, peaky hills—small breasts with nipples everywhere you look: nipple, nipple, nipple, nipple, nipple. Which of course reminds me that Grand Tetons (the mountain range south of Yellowstone here in Wyoming) is French for “Big Tits.” Really.
The landscape turns brown, grassless, rocky, dry, and rugged. I keep smelling skunk. There are some serious mountains rising up ahead. The atlas tells me these are the Bighorn Mountains. And the river that winds through them is the Little Bighorn. Yes, that Little Bighorn.
The foothills, very close now, are red or reddish brown. The hills behind them are higher: sandy gray, with dark, almost black, trees. Behind them, another line of dark hills, higher still, almost mountains. Then the mountains, slate-colored with patches of snow high up. Tall, but not yet astounding.
I’m running into more traffic now, which catches me by surprise even though it’s an interstate—not because it’s unusual in the least, but because I have so quickly gotten used to being alone on the road. It’s been such a pleasant experience, and now I have to Deal With Others.
I cross into Montana. Or, more precisely, I enter the Crow Nation, since they are in fact a sovereign government within the United States. The first thing I see is a feather: a large cloud hanging low in an otherwise clear sky in the precise shape of a feather, a huge eagle’s feather. It hung over the reservation like a talisman.
The next thing I see is a sign—a large marker, the kind that marks the graves of very important people. It reads, “This area was occupied by troops A, B, D, G, H, K, and M, 7th U.S. Cavalry, and the Pack Train, when they were besieged by the Sioux Indians, July 25 and 26, 1876.” The sign says nothing about the troops’ right to be there, of course.
And the third thing I see is a sign that reads, “Jesus is Lord on the Crow Reservation.” A faint rainbow is painted on the sign, and it’s weathered, as if it were a relic of the ’60s or ’70s.
These three images—a somewhat mystic eagle feather, the site of Custer’s Last Stand, and the proclamation of Christian faith—felt like they were a powerful (if tragic) encapsulation of history.
The reservation covers some 3,500 square miles, and is the fifth largest rez in the country, with a population of around 7,000 (out of 10,000 total on the Crow Nation membership rolls). I’m here in the town of Crow Agency, which is the seat of government.
The marker I mentioned is part of a monument to George Armstrong Custer’s arrogance. Four hundred years of strife between European Americans and Native Americans culminated on this ground. In 1881, a memorial was erected on Last Stand Hill, over the mass grave of the Seventh Cavalry soldiers, U.S. Indian Scouts, and other personnel killed in battle. But there was no memorial for the dead Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Headstones marked where each U.S. soldier fell, but for over a century there was not a single marker for those they had slain.
Frustrated by this seeming lack of concern, actor and activist Russell Means led a contingent to the battlefield on June 25, 1988, and placed a makeshift plaque on the mass grave to represent a memorial to the Indian warriors.
Most of the warriors slain at Little Bighorn were “buried” in the Native American tradition, in tipis or tree-scaffolds nearby in the Little Bighorn Valley. The story of the battle was earnestly and persistently chronicled by whites, for whites. The story from the Native American perspective was largely told through the oral tradition. They called it the Battle of the Greasy Grass: so much blood was spilled that the fields became slippery.
Douglas Spotted Eagle, an award-winning musician, wrote that Greasy Grass was
a battle that forever defined indigenous relations with the white-dominated government….Viewed as a slaughter to a kill by those ignorant of history, this remarkable show of unification, strength, and passion for self-preservation on the part of the Lakota stands as a testament to the abilities of Native people everywhere.
It’s not taught in the schools that the battle came about as a result of gold being found in the Black Hills. It’s not taught that it was started over a Mormon who was angered by one of his cattle being killed for food by the starving people. It’s not taught that the battle came about as a result of an attack by the military at Wolf Creek. It’s not even taught that the strategy used by the Lakota…was emulated, and still is copied by the United States Armored Cav even to this very day.
Instead, the government chooses to ignore those who suffered for so long under the hands of the government that they were forced to fight or die. Instead, our children are taught to honor George A. Custer, a man who was intent on wiping out all Indian people in ‘one great Indian war.’ Though Custer’s family and selective historians attempt to paint Custer as a fair and decent man, he was quoted in the Sioux Falls Independent as saying, ‘It (the great Indian war) would settle the Indian question beyond the tomfoolery of Quakers and sentimentalists who don’t seem to know that every Indian everywhere is simply a brute. You can’t civilize an Indian any more than you can teach a rooster to lay goose eggs.’
Over 100 people died fighting for their lands, culture, and survival on that day in what became Montana. Remembered only by their descendants, it’s time for history to reclaim them.
In 1991 Congress changed the name from the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and ordered the construction of an Indian Memorial. It took twelve years. The memorials to U.S. troops have now been supplemented by markers honoring the Indians who fought there, including Crazy Horse. The warrior markers dot the ravines and hillsides like the white marble markers representing where soldiers fell. Today the Indian Memorial recalls Greasy Grass with poignant symbolism and quiet reflection.
But what of life on the rez today? Apparently many Crow are turning to Christian fundamentalism as a way to cope with the poverty, alcoholism, and other socioeconomic problems that face the people. According to Timothy P. McCleary,
From the 1970s to the 1990s the Crow Indians of southwestern Montana experienced a sudden and rapid conversion to a variant of fundamentalist Christianity known as independent Pentecostalism….Crow followers of Pentecostalism have become influential in tribal politics; in fact, they have come to dominate reservation politics. The involvement of Crow Pentecostals in tribal politics has magnified the socio-political factioning of the Crow people…[and] caused a change in the social structure of the Crow tribe….As of 1992, every community on the Crow reservation had at least one Pentecostal church.
The March 2004 issue of Charisma, a monthly magazine aimed at Pentecostals and charismatics, featured an article called “Welcome to Lame Deer” which described “how the gospel is making a difference” on the Crow reservation. In the article, one minister says of the people, “They’ve always seen into the spirit world. They just need to know Jesus.”
There are Catholics and Baptists on the Crow reservation as well. But there is also a resurgence in more traditional spiritual paths with names like “Crow Way,” “Sundance,” and “Tobacco Society.”
And in the Bighorn Mountains, on the top of Medicine Mountain, is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, a solar calendar built by the people who lived here around 800 years ago (the star alignments are most accurate for about 1200 C.E.). It’s a circular arrangement of stones measuring 80 feet across, with 28 rows of stones radiating from a central cairn to an encircling stone rim. The central cairn is about 12 feet in diameter and 2 feet high. Placed around the periphery of the wheel are five smaller stone circles. Its 28 “spokes” may symbolize the days in a lunar month.
This remains a sacred site. Numerous contemporary ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering sites, sweat lodges, altars, and vision quest shelters can be found nearby. Indeed, it is from this particular structure that we derive the term “medicine wheel,” and it is one of the most important and well preserved ancient Native American sacred site complexes in North America.
OK, one more newsy bit before we leave the Crow reservation. Popular writer Brooke Medicine Eagle, who claims to be a traditional Crow medicine woman and affiliated with the Crow as a “spiritual teacher,” has been denounced by the Crow Nation for misrepresenting and abusing the spiritual traditions of the Crow. Born Brooke Edwards, she operates “spirituality camps” in Montana, charging as much as $1,500 per person for the privilege of putting up a tent on her ranch for two weeks. (Assuming that at least twenty people participate in each session, she takes in at least $30,000 every two weeks, all summer long.)
According to John Pretty On Top, traditional Crow sun dance chief and the officially designated Cultural Director and Speaker for the Crow Tribe, she’s certainly not a recognized medicine woman. “Ms. ‘Medicine Eagle’ is a profound embarrassment to traditional Crow People. The book she published is so far away from Crow spirituality that she’s not recognized anywhere in our traditional ways.” Mr. Pretty On Top has expressed concern for the harm to the reputation of legitimate Crow spirituality that inevitably follows from the prosperous charlatanism of imposters like Brooke Medicine Eagle, and he urges non-Indians not to support her, financially or otherwise.
The feather is still lingering in the sky as I get back in my car. I say a silent prayer for both the dead and the living, and head west toward some desperately beautiful mountains in the distance.
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Adam Byrn Tritt has written a heartbreaking and powerful poem on the loss of cultural identity called “Powwow Suite.” I’m at a loss for words every time I read it, and in light of today’s post, it’s particularly relevant. Please don’t miss it.
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Next episode: Bozeman and Beyond