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Megan Reece Thesis: Memorial History

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"The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and an Indian Memorial After 1988"

By Friends Member, Megan Reece

Copyright © 2005, Megan Reece. This thesis cannot be reproduced without permission from the author.

Webmaster's Note: The fascination with the Battle of the Little Bighorn never dies. It's been nearly 130 years since George Armstrong Custer and 268 of his men fell in a hard-fought battle with Lakota and Cheyenne Indians. Yet, every new generation carries the torch in searching for the truth; Megan Reece is proof of that. She successfully completed her undergraduate honors thesis in History from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the spring of 2005 receiving Magna cum laude. “The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and an Indian Memorial After 1988” chronicles the history of the Indian Memorial and it is an eye-opener. It is honest, quite in depth for an undergraduate thesis, and it should answer many unanswered questions about how the Indian Memorial came to be. It might prove controversial with certain groups, but that is always expected when truth in reporting of history is published.

To access the thesis just click on the link above at "More to See." The file is a pdf which is readable via the free software from Adobe Reader. If you don't have Adobe Reader installed on your computer, go to -- -- to get the free download. You do not need to worry about downloading Adobe Reader - this company is highly respected and they will not transfer a virus to your computer when downloading the software.

Now, I turn this over to Megan where she'll give you some background regarding her work on the thesis.


            I wanted to write like Hunter S. Thompson, so I decided to become a journalist when I entered the University of Colorado.  It did not take me long to realize that it was the writing I loved, and not the cut-throat attitude or that dog-eat-dog mentality that came along with my chosen profession.  I was not about to give up my coveted spot in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, or the skills I knew it would teach me, but I was beginning to hate every part of school. 

By the start of my junior year, I knew I had to make a change.  I tried to come up with a way to stay in journalism for the skills it would teach me, and to stay happy with my education at the same time.  History was the answer; it had always been a hobby for me, and I had used up most of my required “elective” credits on classes about medieval Europe, ancient Rome, colonial U.S. history, and more.  I decided to tack on another major.  I would become a double degree student, and straddle the journalism school, as well as the School of Arts and Sciences.  I went to visit my future history advisor, Patrick Tally, and his eyebrows lifted at the sight of my transcript.  “Your GPA is good enough if you would like to enter the honors program,” he told me.  I would have to keep my GPA above a 3.5.  Easy. 

“And, you’ll get to do an honors thesis, too,” he said.  I was not sure if I had heard correctly. 

“A thesis,” I asked, “Like, a REAL thesis?”  Sitting there in Tally’s office, I immediately thought, “The Little Bighorn.”  There was nothing else that I could imagine writing about.  I still had one and a half years to go before I started the honors program, but I was already formulating my thesis.

One year later, when I told Virginia Anderson, the professor for the prepatory course about my topic, she puzzled over who should advise me during the process.  She put me in contact with Professor Peter Boag, who had studied the American West to a great extent.  She seemed to think he was the only one who might be able to help me slog through my relatively obscure topic.

Once I was accepted into the honors program, I began the long process of refining my topic.  I knew I wanted to focus on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, but I was not yet sure on which aspect.  I had watched my dad and his friends struggle for years to get the Indian Memorial built and dedicated, and realized that I had as much passion for the memorial as anyone.  After its dedication in 2003, I had become even more interested in why it took so long to be built.  Eventually, I realized that my exact topic was staring me in the face.

I suggested this idea to Boag, and he informed me that a topic as wide as “why” would fill up much, much more than seventy five pages.  “Pick a year,” he said.  “Pick a particularly influential year and write about why that year contributed to the memorial.”  Now I was getting the idea.  When I talked to Dad, he suggested I focus on 1988.  I had been considering 1976, but then I realized that both of those years were pivotal in getting a memorial going.  1976 led the way to 1988, which opened the door to the years that followed.  At last, I had a narrow enough topic with which to write a thesis.

I do not know exactly when I decided to finally put my journalism skills to good use, but once I had a topic, I began to understand exactly how much journalism could help me.  Unlike the other honors history students, I had a topic that, though it was linked to long-past events, had happened in contemporary times.  Many of the people who had witnessed these pivotal years were still alive, and I knew that they might be able to add a richer dimension to my thesis on the struggle for the Indian Memorial.

I made a quick laundry list in my head of who I might be able to talk to about my topic.  Robert Utley, Jerry Greene, John Doerner, and Neal Mangum were the first four people who popped up.  They knew more about the battlefield than anyone else I could think of, and I knew that if they would help me, I could really make my thesis into something special.  I had hoped to talk to Russell Means as well.  I knew his role was crucial to the Indian Memorial, but alas, my e-mails to Means went unreturned.

As I continued researching and refining my topic, I decided that Paul Hutton would be an asset as well because he had served on the memorial committee.  I also thought that Ernie LaPointe would be interesting to talk to because of his relation to Sitting Bull.  I sent LaPointe an e-mail asking for his help, and he wrote back.  He was flattered, he explained, but he did not believe that he was the man to talk to about my subject, so he sent me in the direction of his good friend, Chauncey Whitright III. 

I began the process of interviewing by sending Utley a long list of relatively scattered questions, and I eagerly awaited his response.  I learned a great deal from that first correspondence, and I knew that I still had a huge amount of research to conduct.  I learned that I had developed theories of my own without the proper amount of research to support them, and I resolved to answer the questions I still had.

Utley helped me to see that a good piece of writing is more than just asking questions; it is also about pouring through books, articles and letters in order to find the answer to your question.  Research at this level is dusty, tedious, and to any proper historian, absolutely delightful.  Along with his helpful answers and insights, Utley also sent me in former NPS Regional Director John Cook’s direction.  At last, my list of interviewees was complete.

My next interview was in January 2005 with Jerry Greene.  I looked forward to this one particularly because I knew Greene through Dad well enough to be comfortable at an interview.  Also, because Greene’s office is in Denver, I was able to drive up from Boulder  to meet with him in person.  I knew I would have to rely heavily on what the journalism school had taught me.  I arrived, armed with several blank notebooks, audio tapes, and a tape recorder, as well as some of Greene’s books that Dad hoped to have inscribed.

I was immediately comfortable in Greene’s office; he was as kind and patient as I had remembered, and he answered every question with thoughtful knowledge.  I also loved the fact that he did not offer one-word answers.  His comments were in “essay” form; I guess that happens when a person studies history for a living!  I left Greene’s office with renewed confidence, but also with apprehension.  I knew that I still did not have enough hard, dusty research to write a thesis.  Luckily, I had a good idea about where to look.

During my prepatory class, Anderson told us about a scholarship that the History Department offered one honors student every year.  Each year, the Charles Middleton History Scholarship awarded $500 for a student to travel and research his or her thesis topic.  I figured I could easily get to Montana with less than $500, so I applied and then forgot about applying.  A month or so later, I received an e-mail from Professor Padraic Kenney asking for more details about my topic, and how exactly I would spend the scholarship money if I won.  With surprise, I wrote back and gave more information.  A few days after that, Kenney informed me that I had won the scholarship. 

I was more shocked than excited.  I really did not think I would win; in fact, I had not even told anyone but my close friends and family that I had applied.  I certainly had not informed Park Historian John Doerner of my intentions of visiting.  After Kenney e-mailed me, I contacted Doerner and explained the situation.  I asked if it would be alright if Dad and I came to the battlefield in February, and if I could research in the White Swan Memorial Library while I was there.  He replied excitedly that, of course he would have us, and he agreed to let me interview him in person while I was there.  Dad and I could hardly wait.

Dad and I saddled up in the first week of February 2005.  The weather was beautiful and gracious, and our snazzy little rental car made the trip in record time.  I had never seen the battlefield in the winter before that week, and it was even more amazing and intriguing than during the summer season.  The apartment was wonderful; Dad and I went grocery shopping in Hardin, and then returned and happily prepared dinner on our first night there.  That night, I could hardly sleep because of my excitement for the research to come.

Doerner greeted us at the library the next morning and I immediately began my search.  Doerner kindly pointed me in the direction of all the documentation on the Indian Memorial and I started to pore through the file cabinet drawers.  I sorted through newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, and design sketches, as well as binder after binder of old LBHA Newsletters and CBHMA Dispatches.  Most of what I found was profoundly interesting; the most difficult part was deciding which pieces to include in my thesis. 

During the evenings, Dad and I would talk, and I began to get a clearer and clearer picture of exactly what I wanted to address in my thesis.  I did not want to offer only a history of the memorial itself, but also a glance at the vehement politics and arguments behind the memorial.  I knew that not everything behind that memorial went smoothly or beautifully, and I wanted to show that those hitches made the completed memorial even more amazing.  The memorial was much more than a design, I concluded; it was also a living, speaking story.

My trip to Montana was, by far, the most valuable thing I could have ever done to make my thesis into what it became.  Not only did I find uncountable sources at the battlefield, but I also found a true path to my completed project, priceless knowledge about my subject, and a few new friendships that I will treasure far into the future.  When Dad and I headed back home after five days, I knew I was ready to start writing.

The peace of our trip was quickly shattered when I got back home and reality hit.  I realized that I had a grand total of two months to write my entire thesis, not to mention all the time it was going to take to read in detail all of the sources I got from the battlefield.  I also had several interviews to do.

The rest of the interviews were my islands of mercy in the disaster that was my thesis in February.  I knew that I could enjoy remarkable and educational conversations about my topic, all for the benefit of research.  Those conversations beat writing the darn thing any day!  I e-mailed a list of questions to Whitright and to Cook, and each of them responded with insightful – and incredibly useful – information.  Their thoughts added a new layer to my thesis that was slowly building itself.

I conducted telephone interviews with Mangum and Hutton, and found both of them as easy to talk to over the phone as they are in person.  I appreciated the undivided attention that I was able to get from these historians over the phone; they offered me tidbits of information, anecdotes, and powerful insight that I could never have picked up from a book.  There truly is nothing like talking to the individuals who lived through a special time in history for picking up on the happenings of the time. 

One day, I woke up and realized that my research was finally done.  I suddenly had a coherent outline in my head for exactly what my thesis would say and how it would be explained.  That was when the real writing began.  I had been writing a miscellaneous chapter here and there and offering them to Boag for his critiques, but all in all, not much had happened on the writing front by the time March rolled around.  I knew that I had until April 4, and panic began to set in.  For me, though, that panic is what fueled my writing.  I knew the time was close, and that inspired me.  The thesis came together word-by-word, page-by-page, and chapter-by-chapter.  Instead of bringing one chapter a week to Boag, I began bringing two or three. 

For about a month, I neglected my family, my friends, my dog, my responsibilities, my other classes, and my general health to turn all of my attention on finishing my thesis.  One day, my friend Liz called me and begged me to take an evening off of writing to hang out with her, our friend Chris, and my boyfriend, Ron.  “It’ll only be for a few hours, I promise,” Liz said, “You really need to get out for a while.”  She was right; after the get-together, I returned to work more refreshed and more excited than I had been in weeks.

One evening, I put the finishing touches on my chapter about the 1988 protests and realized with a start that I had completed the initial writing.  All that I had to do to finish completely was edit and re-write.  That was a great feeling; I finally could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Boag helped me get through the editing process, but I could never have finished without Dad.  I sent every chapter his way and he looked each one over and sent me suggestions on how to make my points more clear.  He also looked my writing over for accuracy; he had the knowledge to catch mistakes that Boag would not have known about.  Without Dad’s help, my thesis would have only made sense to the people who know almost nothing about the Indian Memorial, and that was certainly not my intended audience!  I finished my thesis, bound it, and turned it into the Honors office at CU with time to spare.  Now, I had to survive the defense. 

I had already selected my defense committee; it would consist of Boag, Honors History Chair Professor Fred Anderson, and my favorite professor of all time, Douglas Burger.  Despite the great relationship I had with all of these professors, I started sweating before I even sat down in the tiny defense room.  Burger arrived first, and when I told him how nervous I was, he reassured me that the defense process was really more of a conversation.  “They should really change the name,” he said, and smiled.  I felt just a little better after that. 

 The defense was actually a wonderful and enlightening experience; it really came down to me blabbering on about the battlefield and the Indian Memorial for an hour or so.  The committee asked some tough questions, but I knew enough about my topic to tackle each one.  Anderson stumped me once, though.  He asked what the Little Bighorn Battlefield might have in common with other Indian battlefields around the country.  I had a hard time thinking of much of anything that was not too obvious.  Anderson is a colonial American historian, and he pointed out that, when the American Indians won, battlefields were often named after the losers, but when the soldiers won, their side was glorified as well.  Anderson named a few battlefields out east, but I had a couple running through my head already; Custer Battlefield and the Fetterman Fight, for example.

I left my defense sweaty but relieved.  Now, all I had to do was wait to find out my honors designation.  I wanted Summa cum laude – the highest honor – so bad I could taste it.  I kept visualizing a purple ribbon around my neck.  I knew that any honors would be great, whether it was Magna cum laude, or cum laude, but the perfectionist in me wanted Summa.  One week later, I walked up the stairs in the Norlin library on shaky legs.  I found the bulletin board with the honors designations.  I purposely covered up the honor titles with one hand while my other hand searched for my own number.  When I found it, I uncovered the other side and prepared myself.  “Even cum laude is great, Megan,” I whispered, “You worked hard.  Any honors are amazing.”  Next to my identification number was one word: “Magna.”  My heart sank and lifted at the same time.

I left Norlin confused about how to feel.  I called my boyfriend, Ron, and left him a message with my news.  He called back and screamed, “Congratulations!!!!”  He seemed to think it was just great, but I was still trying to let it sink in.  I called Dad and Mom, too, and they were both just as excited, but I could not shake that slight disappointment that I had not received Summa.  I did get used to the idea, though, and by that evening, I was celebrating along with the rest of them.  Later, during the honors convocation before graduation, I learned that only one history honors student had received Summa.  Magna was looking look better and better.

The convocation was truly one of the best moments of my life.  I was so proud, and all of my family and friends who had gathered to watch me receive my medal and honors certificate were as excited as I was.  Mom, Dad, my brother Austin, Ron, and most of Ron’s family lined up in the back, and when I crossed the stage, they screamed long and loud.  I looked over and saw Dad snapping pictures, and I saw the smiling faces of many of my professors – including Doug Burger – who had helped me reach this point.  I would have cried if I had not been so busy smiling.

Megan Reece

May 2005

Megan with her "favorite professor of all time", Douglas Burger

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