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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2

Essay

 

David Mogen  photo of David Mogen.

Circle in the Snow

David Mogen, a professor of English at Colorado State University, has published on frontier mythology, Native American literature and science fiction in numerous journals and anthologies.  He has also authored two books, Wilderness Visions and Ray Bradbury and co-edited The Frontier Experience and the American Dream and Frontier Gothic.

 

Crow Agency, Montana: Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1996

"There they are," someone breathed. As dawn broke the silhouettes of Lakota Sioux riders appeared along the far ridge, ceremonial lances and coup sticks highlighted against the breaking light. (Later I learned that the CBS news crew complained bitterly about losing the shot because Gerard Baker, the new Indian Superintendent at the Battlefield, wouldn’t allow pictures during the ceremonies.) The riders began to descend from the skyline in a wide circling maneuver, as the Sioux at the center of our gathering on Last Stand Hill began their part of the ceremony. Chanting to the heightened drums, they followed their medicine men down the sage-covered hillside north of the cavalry monument. Along with other observers I drifted downhill on the fringes of the ceremony, finally arriving at the barbed wire fence marking the National Park boundary at the foot of the hill.

I had arrived a bit late from Hardin, fifteen miles up I-25 from the battlefield, to join the group assembling in the early morning chill, sipping coffee from styrofoam cups as we watched the ceremonies begin. The program for the 120th Anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Little Bighorn said simply, "Pipe Ceremony at Dawn, 6:00 A. M.," followed by the "Attack at Dawn Ceremony" on Last Stand Hill, then by a "Victory March and Dance" and a "Buffalo Feed" at noon.

During the Crow and Arikara Scout ceremonies the day before I had met Chauncy Whitright, chairman of the Sioux Strongheart Society, who lives in Wolf Point, next to Frazer on the Fort Peck reservation where I had lived for several years as a kid. So I indulged the rare opportunity to chat about northeastern Montana memories to the slow rhythms of the ceremony. Barbara Sutteer, the first Indian superintendent of what was then still called Custer Battlefield, who had initiated many of the changes reflected in these 120th Anniversary ceremonies, shared some memories of her own. "Sometimes at something like this it’s best just to listen," she reflected, as we gazed at the light beginning to displace the grey on the skyline. "There are people here who know a lot."

By now the riders had begun circling up the hillside on the other side of the fence, approaching a pennant placed at the summit. The chanting crescendoed as they merged into a final convulsive swirl at the summit, turned to face the people—the pennant now held high in a leader’s extended arms—then descended at full gallop, sliding to a stop as they passed the coup sticks over barbed wire into the chanting crowd. Transfixed by the line of steaming horses now looming across the fence line in front of me, I could see that the riders leaping from their saddles included young boys and girls as well as elders. The energy of the charge resonated in the victory trills and the dust.

As the riders watched the conclusion of the ceremony from behind barbed wire, the Sioux on Park Service land slowly ascended back up Last Stand Hill. Chanting and praying, they circled the cavalry monument, rushing in three times in unison to count coup by touching their sticks on the obelisk before concluding the Attack at Dawn ceremony. After a moment of silent respect—except perhaps from a few grim-looking observers who never removed their cowboy hats—we began dispersing back down the hill to search for hot coffee and breakfast.

That evening I contemplated the program, realizing that the legendary story that I had set out to investigate was somehow being reenacted in the present. Seeking to understand more about what happened on June 25, 1876, I now was immersed in the Second Battle of Little Bighorn, 120 years later. During the ceremonies that morning the Park Service had opened a national competition to design a new Indian Memorial honoring the Indian warriors who fought in the battle, to be constructed near the old cavalry monument.

The official theme for the memorial, created by Indian elders, was "Peace Through Unity." But everyone involved knew that actually achieving peace would not be simple. My discussion at breakfast with Ben Moffett, Public Information Officer for the Park Service, had confirmed my intuition that the small disapproving group at the Attack at Dawn ceremony represented the intense dissent of others who protested by their absence, who regarded the new ceremonies and the plans for the new memorial as desecrations of American soldiers and American history. Protest was to be expected, a measure of the passions still aroused by the Last Stand story, but the debate had developed ominous overtones. Gerard Baker had received death threats.

"Peace Through Unity" seemed a hopelessly idealistic theme for a process so charged with conflict and hostility, as though the prospect of an Indian Memorial had given new form to angry spirits hovering around the battlefield. But that night, still energized by what seemed to me the healing spirit of the ceremonies, I wondered if those restless spirits could be given new life then finally laid to rest. Fascinated since my childhood in Eastern Montana by the power of the American frontier myth that surrounded us, I had decided to research the old story at the Little Bighorn precisely because it has endured as such a potent, ambiguous emblem of the Closing of the Frontier. But now I knew that the frontier had never really been closed, that the old story still had power both to wound and to heal. Whether or not the Indian Memorial can ultimately become a center of healing, one thing seemed clear: Crazy Horse and Custer still ride these hills.

 

Hardin, Montana and the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Jan. 4-5, 1997

The morning after New Year’s Day I received a phone call from Bill Macgregor, an ex-roommate in graduate school who now teaches at Montana Tech in Butte, asking if I wanted to meet at Little Bighorn Battlefield with the Indian Memorial design committee he had formed to complete our design proposal (one of over 500 that were ultimately submitted), which was due on January 13. Earlier that fall I had participated in the group’s initial meeting, but I hadn’t planned to return to Montana until next summer. But, as he always does, Bill made the trip sound enticing. "The architects call this kind of last-minute meeting a ‘charette,’" he explained. "It’s a tradition, a design thing. Everyone procrastinates until the last few days and then they go to the site and look at it in different light over a 24-hour period and brainstorm until the design is done."

A bit apprehensively, because the invitation sounded suspiciously like the beginning of various camping and fishing misadventures Bill and I had shared in the past, I decided to go. I would begin the New Year by driving 500 miles north across Wyoming and Montana in dead-winter, and a front was moving in over the weekend. I was behind in my course preparation for my new senior seminar on the Battle of Little Bighorn. But it would be one last adventure to close out my sabbatical, one more chance to return to my home state of Montana, one more chance to meet again with Dan Old Elk (Crow Sundance Chief and grandson of Custer’s scout, Curley) along with his daughter, Nita. It would undoubtedly be the only opportunity I would ever have to consult on a creative design project (which might help me to understand my wife Liz’s world of landscape architecture and design). And I could return once more to the battlefield itself and try to figure out why the story that happened there still seems to matter so much.

Which was the big question that framed our discussion during that first night of the charette in Hardin in the Far West restaurant (built to emulate the Far West steamship where Gibbon, Terry, and Custer met on the Yellowstone River some thirty miles away to plan the campaign that ended in disaster at the Little Bighorn). Bill introduced me to the designers from Butte—Dori, landscape architect and city planner, and Mark, architect and historical preservationist. Dan Old Elk was conducting a ceremony that night, so the rest of us began brainstorming in preparation for the final meeting at the Sagebrush Cafe the next morning. As we talked I realized that the chaotic process Bill had described was actually working. Discussion flowed from question to question, and designs emerged. As a purely verbal type accustomed to post-dinner profundities dissipating into thin air, I found the translation from conversation into sketches miraculous.

We started with some concepts that had developed in the initial meeting that fall in Butte between Dan Old Elk, Nita, Bill, and myself. The medicine wheel as a basic design principle. The pipe as a symbol of peace. (But whose style of pipe? Sioux? Crow? Cheyenne? Something generic?) Our theme could be "Know the power of peace," a phrase from Black Elk printed on the side of the Visitor’s Center at the Battlefield. The image could be "Assembling the Pipe"—a process, a dynamic sequence, not a static, fixed structure. Like the memorial space itself, which should be an active participatory space in which history can be recovered, but where new ceremonies and stories can also be created.

Why did the story of the battle matter so much then? Why does it matter so much now that legislation has been passed to build this new memorial to reshape the story? Why have we all driven here in 1997 in mid-winter, through these windswept broken hills of what the tribes called the "Greasy Grass" country, to eat prime rib in this bizarre replica of a nineteenth century steamship and attempt to complete the story of what happened in 1876? How can this memorial represent the experience of the resisting tribes, their greatest triumph of the Indian wars, and still express the official theme, defined by Indian elders, of "Peace Through Unity"? How can it also honor the Crow and Arikara scouts who rode and died with the cavalry? An absurd theme to commemorate a bloody battle, or the most appropriate tribute to it?

As we talked, the designers sketched. The pipe extending over the medicine wheel. A tepee. A giant tepee covering the memorial site. Inside a space which visitors enter, a ceremonial space when desired, where Indian people tell their stories as they choose, in buffalo robe murals, in storytelling and dance, through speakers and dramatic presentations. Now, what if we drop the tepee into the earth? From the surface you see the tip of the tepee and the lodgepoles. You enter through a tunnel from the existing cavalry monument, down into the display space inside the tepee and the earth. You descend into the Indian past, the world that Custer rode in to conquer.

With Dan and Nita Old Elk’s input next morning at the Sagebrush Cafe, the interior becomes more detailed. You look up to see peace pipes from all the tribes suspended in the light descending from the smokehole, and above that the circle in the sky formed by the lodgepoles. Then you emerge from the earth to see the medicine wheel design at the surface, with the top of the tepee emerging in the center. From the past to the present, where sacred ceremonies still take place. You look at the circle of the lodgepoles against the sky, with leather straps dancing in the wind, and realize that the circle extends into the inconceivable future, the new millennium about to begin. You return to the cavalry monument at the top of Last Stand Hill, feel the vital space connecting the two memorials, the new circle formed that contains them both. And you never think so simply again about the battle that for over a century was called "Custer’s Last Stand."

But it’s not just Custer’s story anymore, centering on the unresolvable debates about his motives and leadership. Or the cavalry story, with the endless disputes about who was to blame—Custer, Reno, Benteen, the generals. Or the endlessly chronicled motley stories of the troops, sifted through for every shred of evidence to dramatize the controversies surrounding Custer. Those stories are still there, embedded with the bones buried under the old monolith. But now that venerable old circle at the base of the monument has opened up to include these other stories, speaking through oral tradition and ceremonies, resonating from the new memorial.

Now you hear Crazy Horse’s story. Sitting Bull’s story. The story of Curley, the surviving Crow scout who brought news of the defeat to the astonished cavalry command still stationed on the Yellowstone river. The stories of the women and children in the tepees, of young boys, like Black Elk, swept into the thrill and carnage of the great battle. The story of the tribes’ Last Stand, of peoples who essentially knew then and have bitterly known since that this day of triumph had to be celebrated fully, since by the winter’s end they would be driven, starving and frozen, to their new lives on the reservations.

As we drank coffee and looked out the cafe window at the Little Bighorn valley beneath Last Stand Hill, Dan Old Elk reminisced about riding in the valley as a boy with his cousins and friends, leaving the battlefield artifacts where they were because they were taught to respect the dead, but changing the name of the battlefield even back then by reversing the "B" and "C" on a sign, so that it became "Buster Cattlefield." And only recently the Second Battle of Little Bighorn really began when the battlefield name was changed legally, from "Custer Battlefield" to "Little Bighorn Battlefield," the new story foreshadowed in the youthful prank.

After examining our sketches of the tepee emerging from the earth, Dan Old Elk sketched designs on a napkin himself to show how the tepee poles are arranged, how each has a name though he does not know the story that tells them. How the sundance lodge is constructed. How the peace pipes can be arrayed. How the medicine wheel can be constructed and protected as a ceremonial space. And he explained how his grandfather Curley’s horse medicine helped him to travel more than 100 miles over rough terrain in two days to bring the news to the Far West steamship, which would carry the wounded survivors back to North Dakota. How the Hidatsa and the Crow are related. How the Crow named a pass "Sioux Pass" because they would chase the retreating Sioux back through it, and the Sioux called it "Crow Pass" because it was their entry for war parties to attack the Crow.

"But how many lodgepoles will the tepee have?" he asked. "The Sioux build with three major poles, the Crow with four." Once again the issue we have grappled with throughout our discussion of the paradoxes built into the theme, "Peace through Unity." Peace on whose terms, unity through whose tradition, whose version of truth? Now the Crow and Sioux work together as Indian people to create the memorial, but enduring differences remain, centuries of conflict have not simply disappeared. Can we use seven, a sacred number incorporating both, integrating them into something new?

Dan Old Elk describes being shown a costumed Indian in a museum in Germany, where they take these things very seriously. He made no comment. "But everything is authentic," the curator protested.

"Arapaho moccasins. Crow leggings. Sioux warshirt. It’s a cartoon Indian. No real Indian would ever have dressed this way."

So what do we do? We design the concept, an interactive creative space. If the committee chooses our design the tribes will negotiate the differences. "Peace through Unity" is an ongoing process, like the Sacred Hoop of Life. So ideally everything should be in balance, even in opposition. Dreams were shattered on both sides in the battle. The goal of the memorial is not to make conflict disappear but to make some kind of reconciling harmony possible, to accept differences, to make place in the circle for everyone. "Design it with four poles," Dan Old Elk suggested. "It’s also the four directions of the medicine wheel at ground level. If the Indian Memorial committee likes the concept it can be worked out."

We split up at noon, the Old Elks returning to their ranch a few miles south near Garryowen (named for the regimental march that Custer chose for the Seventh Cavalry), the rest of us back to the battlefield. The sun glances through clouds on the fresh snow, now drifting into crevices in the granite-covered hills, as Bill and the designers show me the large circle for the memorial site that has been staked out below Last Stand hill since I last was there. I reconstruct for Bill and myself the Attack at Dawn ceremony that I had witnessed there earlier that spring, at the 120th anniversary of the battle, seeing again the Sioux riders against the skyline, hearing the chants of the people and the victory trills, wondering if they reverberate there from that day in 1876 that still seems so present.

The designers walk to odd points on the landscape, contemplate, take pictures. As Bill and I trace out in the snow the circle that our emerging tepee would make at the center of the memorial, the icy wind whips at our tracks. On the high ridge the stone monolith of the cavalry monument pierces the grey sky above the small fenced field of gravestones, now partially obscured by snow. The flowing line of bare-branched cottonwoods in the Little Bighorn valley, where the tribes were assembled for their summer hunt, seems far away. I brace myself for the drive home, the icy pass that I dread most between Lodge Grass and Sheridan, between the southern edge of the Crow reservation and the site of the old camp to which General Crook’s troops retreated from Crazy Horse’s warriors after the Battle of the Rosebud. We make last plans in the Visitor Center, discussing faxing and e-mail strategies to get the design proposal in within the required ten days. "What if we come back in a few years and it’s actually here?" someone says.

Perhaps ultimately something will be there, something to create the vital healing space we had imagined. The old story still unfolds, still transforms, recovering lost stories, creating new ones. We had become part of it, with no way of knowing how it all ends.

I began the long drive back to Fort Collins, scanning the sky for hints of sunshine, appraising the dark clouds emerging in the West, visualizing again that day in 1876 when Custer and his exhausted troops swirled onto this ridge, the Sioux chanting and counting coup on the monument last summer, the newly defined space on the hillside that might become the Indian Memorial, a new center of storytelling. And about the strangeness of destiny, that all of us—descendants of that most famous frontier battle, Indian and non-Indian—can only shape our present and future by re-imagining this past.

What emerges in that circle in the snow can fundamentally alter reality, just as the world changed more than anyone on either side could have imagined on June 25, 1876, when Custer’s men were annihilated and the traditional life of the old plains Indians was irrevocably transformed. The ice was still treacherous as I approached the Wyoming/Montana border, but there was no tangible sign yet of new storms, and I began to think of home, and of the small circle that we had traced in the snow now swirling into the wind.

 

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