At Custer's last stand, a first stand for Indians
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For Poor Bear, seeing the memorial through to completion is part of a promise he made to his father, Enos Poor Bear Sr., and Northern Cheyenne elder Austin Two Moons. Both men, active in a high-plains movement to revive Indian traditions, selected the site where the memorial now stands. Both died before ground was broken for the memorial.Skip to next paragraph
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The multifaceted shrine is a project that began during the administration of the first President Bush and then, following years of failed efforts to win federal funding, finally moved forward under the current Bush presidency.
"It's hard to overestimate the monument's significance," says Mr. Reece. "This is a big, big thing for our country."
Wednesday's dedication will bring together an unusual group of proponents, among them activists with the American Indian Movement, political conservatives and liberals, Indian elders who can speak little English, and Custer buffs.
Yet the memorial hasn't come without controversy. One focal point, which has left Indians divided, is the artistic reference to tribes fighting at Little Bighorn, including the Crows and Arikaras who served as scouts for Custer.
Other critics have argued that native Americans are owed no special recognition for annihilating part of the 7th Cavalry. Although Indians may have prevailed at the battle of Little Bighorn, critics contend, they lost the war.
"There are [white] people out there, luckily small in number, who don't want this to happen," Reece acknowledges.
During much of the 20th century, the lion's share of public education at the battlefield focused on the movements of the cavalry, treating Indians as nearly invisible. Indeed, with no significant markers to call their own, many Indians have felt oddly out of place, even here. The worst indignity, they say, was having to pray all these years in the shadows of shrines erected to Custer and his men.
Yet, slowly, public attitudes about how history should be presented here have evolved. In 1991, the name was changed from "Custer Battlefield" to the more neutral Little Bighorn Battlefield. Also, in addition to the white headstones marking where soldiers fell, a smattering of red granite headstones have appeared to commemorate specific warriors who died. Now native Americans have their own dedicated piece of hallowed ground.
In the end, Mr. La Pointe says what matters is not the memorial's physical trappings but the fact that it exists at all. He interprets the memorial's construction as an admission from Washington that the treatment of native peoples has never been adequately addressed.
Moreover, he hopes the memorial provides an impetus to resolve a number of issues, including grievances relating to tribal sovereignty, compensation for broken treaties, and meaningful federal investment on reservations.
For Mr. Cook, the superintendent of the site, the battleground holds special significance, too. He is a relative of Dewey Beard, the last surviving participant in the Little Bighorn clash as well as a survivor of the US Army's slaughter of unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Beard died in 1955, but Cook, who has spent 33 years with the Park Service, remembers talking as a child with Beard. "People have been saying that this event closes the circle. No, it doesn't," he says. "Installing a memorial was a big step but there is a lot more to do. We need to bring more balance to the larger story."