Nearly a dozen years ago, Congress changed the name of the national battlefield monument from Custer to Little Bighorn and authorized the memorial to the fallen Indian heroes of the battle. The Indian Memorial was unveiled on this June 25, the 127th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Both the original battle and the legislative one hold valuable lessons for Native America today: don’t cave in to saber-rattling on Last Stand Hill or Capitol Hill; don’t be pacified by others’ assessment of what’s possible; and fight ’til you win.
At the time of the legislative battle, Montana had two congressional representatives, Ron Marlenee, a Republican, and Pat Williams, a Democrat.
Congress had only one member who was Indian, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat in the House at that time and a Republican in the Senate today. He was then and is now Cheyenne. Campbell’s relatives and mine were on the winning side in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The Cheyennes were at the Little Bighorn because Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer had murdered Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle and his people who were camped along the Washita River on lands secured in the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty. The Cheyennes were at the Little Bighorn because the women and children survivors of the Washita Massacre were savaged in captivity on Custer’s watch.
The Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos were at the Little Bighorn because Custer had encouraged gold miners to dig in the Black Hills, despite the U.S. treaty promise to keep its people out of that sacred place.
The Indian warrior families were there because Custer was a front-line destroyer of the buffalo, elk and the way of life of the Plains nations.
Campbell and Williams were champions of the course of action that eventually prevailed, to strip the name of Custer from the monument’s designation, to rename the area the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and to establish the Indian Memorial.
Marlenee opposed all three goals. When he saw that we were about to achieve legislation, he tried to cut the opposition’s losses and salvage the name of Custer. He threatened the tribal leaders in Montana that he would kill the bill – and oppose future Indian appropriations – if it carried the name-change.
Some Washington wags told tribal leaders that it was impossible to achieve both the memorial and name-change and, without Marlenee’s support, neither goal was do-able. Reasoning that the White House would follow Marlenee’s lead because his party was in power there, they sagely advised that the only way the Indian memorial could be attained was for Indians to agree to keep Custer’s name on the battlefield designation.
Some Indian leaders caved in to Marlenee’s threats. Some were taken in by the seers of the possible.
When we started the legislative battle in the mid-1980s, I was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, whose tribal and individual membership was committed to attaining new law for both the name-change and the memorial.
When we won it in 1991, I was representing the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Oglala Sioux Tribes. We maintained a strong, unified position, as our ancestors had done at the Greasy Grass in 1876. The Crow Tribe, whose warriors had scouted for Custer, joined us in defying Marlenee.
It proved to be a coalition that could not be shaken or beaten.
Ultimately, Marlenee found he had more backers in Indian country than he did in the House or the Administration.
Congress enacted legislation finding that the Seventh Cavalry had been honored with a memorial erected on Last Stand Hill 100 years earlier, in 1881: “While many members of the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other Indian Nations gave their lives defending their families and traditional lifestyle and livelihood, nothing stands at the battlefield to commemorate these individuals.”
On Dec. 10, 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the legislation to drop the name of Custer from the monument’s official designation, to rename the site as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and to honor the Indian heroes of the Battle of the Little Bighorn with a memorial.
A federal commission authorized by the law took over and proceeded at the snail’s pace known as “all deliberate speed” toward the development, design competition and fundraising for the memorial. Chauncey Whitwright III (Sioux and Assiniboine) was instrumental in keeping the commission on course.
Since the 1960s, Native American women and men had called for the battlefield to be renamed and for federal recognition of the Indian heroes. We had waited for the people in Washington to do something, but they never got around to it.
In the meantime, things at the battlefield got worse.
The story of the battle was told exclusively from an 1800s white perspective, with no acknowledgment of the many peoples who converged at that place at that point in history. Books by Indians or others portraying an accurate history of the battle were banned from sale in the gift shop at the site.
Nothing happened to improve the situation until Enos Poor Bear (Oglala Sioux) and Austin Two Moons (Cheyenne), both since deceased, spiritually organized the national campaign that ultimately prevailed. Once we had a Cheyenne chief in Congress, there was no stopping us.
Our friends in the legislative victory were many. Among the most valiant were Williams and his staffer the late Judy Chapman, Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, members of the Black Caucus and former Rep. Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico.
What won the day was that a small but mighty group of Indian people did not cave in to threats from the powerful, were not dissuaded by prognostications of the timid and held strong until all the shouting was over and the last vote counted.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.