Travel Tales- EMPTY MONTANA
montana wilderness – indian paradise lost
Found on the way through the Crow Reservation (Hwy 212), this ruined ‘teepee’ must have once been a roadside attraction. But the Plains winds and neglect give it the aura of so many sadly deteriorating places in America.
After spending the night at Little Bighorn Battle Field with the Lakota and US Calvary re-enactors, I headed back to the Monument Headquarters for a Crow-native guided tour of the battle sites—told from the Native point of view. The guide was one of the tribal officers, who led the tours in a small bus as a community service.
This monument in Little Big Horn National Park, according to the small tag at the bottom, was erected before any thought was given to the rights of Native Americans. It said ‘hostile Indians’ was an inappropriate slur, but Montana statutes forbid any alteration to the public monuments, and so it stays. There’s still a strong anti-Native undertow throughout the West, I discovered many times.
It was a top-drawer tour. We stopped at several places on the ring road as the guide gave very detailed descriptions of the battle. This is a unique battle field, because after the battle, most of the Cavalry were buried in unmarked shallow graves where they fell. The graves were quickly hidden by dense grasses. A few years later, marble markers were set by the graves, but there were many doubts about the accuracy of their placements.
In 1984, a wild fire cleared the dried grasses across the entire battlefield. This allowed archeologists to thoroughly search for artifacts, and they created an accurate map of the battle. Seeing how groups of a dozen grave markers shrunk to pairs was testament to how the soldiers assembled for safety, but as groups were decimated, many fled, and were cut down—explaining the many single outlying graves.
The Plains Indian War was a fearful posting for experienced soldiers, because of the danger of ambush, insufficient food, scarce supplies, and inadequate arms. For example, while the Indians had acquired modern repeating rifles, the soldiers had only single-shot muskets.
Most of the soldiers were recent jobless immigrants from Europe, Britain and Ireland. They joined the cavalry to eat, not suspecting the horrors they would face, nor the irony that they had fled their homeland due to genocide carried out by the English on their native minority.
After the early-morning tour, I ate breakfast at the ‘Custer Battlefield Café’ in the nearby town of Crow Agency. It was part of the Crow Indian Reservation, and the restaurant/gift shop was tribe-owned.
Eric, a fellow traveler with his faithful dog, they were driving in an old Cadillac from New England to Southern California, to look for America.
I met another traveler, Eric, who was driving the back roads, just with his dog, from Connecticut to San Diego in a late model Cadillac. They pulled over whenever he was tired, and slept in the back seat.
Eric was a freelance campaign manager for Democrats across the country, and so depressed by the recent election loss by his people, that he hit the road, without a plan for the future, thinking that America was now doomed.
Eric insisted that on my way back, I should visit Wounded Knee, on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation—where he had just come from. It was one of the most emotional moments of his life.
The drive there, over the Blue Highways of Montana and South Dakota, was long and stunning in its remoteness. No exits, no towns, sometimes for stretches of 75+ miles.