The only sound to be heard was the ever-present wind rustling the golden prairie grass. Visitors to this solemn site walked in silence or whispered to one another in acknowledgement of what had occurred here.
I’d experienced this same reverence when visiting other places that depicted horrific history – the Holocaust Museum, the 9/11 Memorial, Civil War battlefields, the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. In all these places, confrontation with humanity’s cruelty overwhelmed the senses and dampened speech.
Such atrocities are, after all, almost too soul-crushing to allow spoken words. And the outrage that occurred at the Little Bighorn was no different.
But at this particular site, the outrage memorialized was doubly cruel. It encapsulated first, the tremendous loss of life here — 300 to 600 people died during the two-day battle among the golden grasses.
And secondly, it also marked the death of an entire way of life. For in the aftermath of this battle, a people’s historic Black Hills home was lost and their culture extinguished.
For us, at this place and time, silence was the appropriate response to such dual tragedies.
We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours … we did not interfere with you. We do not want your civilization.Lakota Sioux War Chief Crazy Horse
Although the Little Bighorn has come to be one of the most well-known battles in the Plains Natives’ fight to retain their homeland, it was far from the first conflict in this years-long clash. For many years, the U.S. government had waged a war for control of land and the ability to exercise dominance over the people who had lived there for thousands of years.
In the Black Hills, the war against the Sioux started in 1854. The conflict effectively culminated 22 years later with the Campaign of 1876, designed to force the tribes to reservations and wrest control of the Black Hills from the Native people. The plan to round up or decimate the Natives in 1876 was predicated, in large part, on the fact that gold had been found in the Black Hills two years before.
Part of that campaign included an invasion of the valley surrounding the Little Bighorn River, a spot where Plains tribes had gathered for a celebration of their annual Sun Dance. It was the most important cultural event for the tribes and that year thousands of Lakota Sioux, including the Lakota’s spiritual leader Sitting Bull, and Cheyenne had camped in the valley to take part.
A contingent of the U.S. forces dedicated to the 1876 campaign was eliminated in mid-June when Gen. George Crook was forced to retreat after a battle at Rosebud Creek, located within the same valley.
The remaining troops split, with the 7th Calvary, 600 men under command of General George Custer, headed up the Rosebud with a plan to eventually attack the main Native camp on the plains of the river.
Custer’s scouts located the large Native camp on June 25, but seemingly underestimated the number of foe they would face. Some 7,000 Natives were camped in the valley, including between 1,000 and 1,500 warriors.
Custer divided his troops and they moved forward to attack.
For two days, the battle raged. Much of the time, the troops not with Custer had little idea precisely where their leader and his soldiers were fighting. Their line of sight was impeded by the rolling hills of the battlefield. They could, however, hear the battle and it sounded fierce.
Later accounts from Native warriors who were there attested to the ferocity.
The shooting was quick, quick. Pop-pop-pop. Very fast. We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again. Soldiers drop, and horses fall on them.Cheyenne Chief Two Moon
When the separated troops finally were able to mount a rise on the battlefield and view the site where Custer had been fighting, not a soldier was moving on the mound that became known as Last Stand Hill. All five companies that had been fighting under Custer’s direct command had been killed.
After the battle, the Native warriors removed their dead and placed them on scaffolds or within tipis on the hillsides. Two days after the battle, U.S. troops hastily buried their dead near where they had fallen.
In 1890, the Army erected 249 white tombstones across the mammoth battlefield to note where people fighting for the U.S. had fallen. It took 109 more years for the U.S. to erect a handful of red granite monuments to denote where Natives had died. Many are topped today with items left by visitors paying their respect to the fallen warriors.
An accurate account of the dead was never possible as the number of Native deaths reported fluctuated. Similarly, an accurate narrative of Custer’s portion of the battle was never gathered as no U.S. soldiers was alive to tell the story.
Native warriors, however, attested to the courage shown on the battlefield over those two days.
It was a terrible battle … a hard battle because both sides were brave warriors.Lakota Warrior Red Feather
A response from Washington to the loss of Custer and his troops was soon in coming.
Within two months of the battle Congress passed a law attempting to force the Sioux to give up the Black Hills. Six months later, Congress took away all Sioux land and established reservations for those who remained.
Although the Plains Natives had won the battle, they’d lost everything.
The silence was profound as I stood on the battlefield gazing at the white granite tombstones on Last Stand Hill. There, nestled among the others, was the granite stone denoting where Custer had fallen.
His body, like others, had eventually been moved elsewhere. Custer is now entombed at West Point Cemetery in New York. On another of the battlefield’s hills, a large cemetery contains the bodies of other soldiers.
Like a cathedral to the fallen, this was a holy site.
The silence I experienced that day, however, led me to thinking about how such silence has so negatively impacted Native people today.
The injustices that Natives have suffered – and continue daily to encounter – have too often been ignored. Treaty after treaty has been broken. Indignities and violence to Native people have been accepted by the larger populace. And the media and racial activist groups have too often been complicit in maintaining the silence.
The effects of the willingness to keep silent aren’t hard to see.
On reservations, where 22 percent of the country’s 5.2 million Native people live, conditions are abysmal — substandard infrastructure, poor farmland, absent healthcare, and unacceptable educational institutions. Here, somewhere between 38 percent and 63 percent of families live below the poverty line.
In fact, across the board, whether on or off reservations, Native Americans have the highest poverty level and lowest labor force rate of any major racial group in this country. The average household income is $35,000.
One in four Native families experience food insecurity, as opposed to one in eight within the general population of the U.S.
Native people also reside in some of the most inadequate housing in the nation. Less than half of all Native homes are connected to a public sewage system and nearly two of every 10 lack indoor plumbing.
Not only are economic discrepancies apparent, so is the racism.
Many Western towns today still proudly display monuments and statues to heroic American white settlers who “civilized” the land and exterminated Native populations. Where’s the outrage that today attends statues erected to commemorate people invested in supporting slavery?
That worldview was apparent even at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where a large memorial (circa 1881) decried the violence done to whites “while cleaning the District of the Yellowstone of hostile Indians.” At the foot of the statue a tiny sign in 12-point font noted that the idea of “hostile Indians” is today a term the National Parks Department today considers inappropriate.
A couple touring the battlefield shook their heads in dismay upon reading the monument. I pointed to the small sign and they bent low to read it. “You’d think they would have made it bigger,” the man declared.
Even more horrifying are the racial hate crimes committed against Native Americans. In fact, bigotry is a constant institutional force.
That racism appears regularly — from white men in a pick-up truck waving artificial but realistic “scalps” at a holy Native ceremony to the recognition that decades of systemic racism has led to a lack of health services for Native people that directly resulted in a shockingly high death rate from COVID-19.
It appears in other sinister ways as well. For example, there’s a recent reckoning within the nation regarding the violent crimes, disappearances, and murders of thousands of Native women that are too often poorly investigated by law enforcement. The news media has also failed these women by historically ignoring their numbers.
In fact, a recent survey shows that one out of every 10 Native people has been the victim of a hate crime, a number higher than that reported by Black Americans. In addition, 16 percent of Native Americans reported they’d been spit or coughed on, also higher than the percentage attributed to Blacks.
It’s high time that Native Americans be included in the fight for racial justice.
We should no longer allow anyone to suffer, let alone Natives who’ve been subjected to a particularly American form of genocide over the years. We must all speak up to begin the process of dealing with the atrocities still being faced by Native Americans.
Silence is only appropriate when applied to historic sites.
The silence surrounding racism needs to end.