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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Sam Venable


A Clash Between Cultures

By Sam Venable - Knoxville News Sentinel

Webmaster's Note: Mr. Venable is a humor columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Mr. Venable shares his feelings from visiting the Custer Battlefield for the first time. It is a moving account that succinctly captures the history and passion of our magnificent monument. We wish to thank Mr. Venable and the Knoxville News Sentinel for granting permission for us to post the article which ran in the May 30, 2008 issue.

At strategic locations in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the National Park Service has posted small signs telling visitors they are walking sacred ground.

Given the potential for boorish behavior by Tom and Tammy Tourist, perhaps these reminders are necessary.

But if someone truly needs etiquette lessons at the scene of historic carnage, a sign isn't enough. A dope-slap, maybe.

This sweeping grassland vista is more than the site of a military confrontation, fought to its visceral finish on June 25-26, 1876.

Here, the U.S. 7th Cavalry suffered some 260 dead, including its commander, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Some were scalped, some disemboweled. Fatalities among Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors were believed to be 100 or fewer.

More significantly, this marks the spot where two radically different social cultures collided.

Verily, here is where the Northern Plains Indians won the battle but lost the war.

In truth, they - along with their brothers and sisters to the east - had been losing it for centuries.

Aided and abetted by politicians who would sign a treaty one year and ignore it the next, settlers ceaselessly gobbled native territory. Neither side understood the complex lifestyle of the other. Ultimately, might morphed into right. And the beat goes on.

Belatedly, the federal government has acknowledged this tract signifies more than the culmination of us versus them.

Even though designated a national cemetery in 1879, with a 7th Cavalry obelisk erected on Last Stand Hill in 1881, it wasn't until 1991 that the name of this national monument was officially changed from "Custer" to "Little Bighorn" and a memorial to Indian participants was commissioned.

Today, the circular Indian memorial and the marble obelisk sit approximately 350 feet from each another. Behind fences, there is a profusion of markers denoting where Custer and the soldiers under his immediate command fell.

Nearby are markers where fighters from both sides were known to have met their fate. And as with any killing field, surely the bones of many more unknown lie scattered, buried, lost to time.

It is a stunningly beautiful spring afternoon as I stand on this lonely hill, gazing southwest into the valley of the Little Bighorn River where approximately 7,000 Indians had been camped. Closer flows the river itself, across which Sitting Bull's warriors attacked.

Quiet envelops the land. The only sound that carries in the gentle prairie breeze is the lilting, melodious call of a western meadowlark.

Nonetheless, I attempt - with utter failure, of course - to imagine the maddening din, the choking dust, the broiling heat and the unbridled terror on both sides during those two days of savagery so long ago.

I need no reminder to remain reverent.

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