Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Big Story at Little Bighorn

Never underestimate the power of a good storyteller. En route to a gathering on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, I stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I’d been there before but it was a good chance to stretch my legs. And, as it turned out, my mind.

 It’s not a happy place -- a national cemetery, monuments to fallen natives and soldiers. Even more than a century after the fact, the ground still reverberates with battle. You can sense the blood in the soil. I wandered the grounds then went into the visitors’ center where I watched a good DVD about the battle – the last native triumph.

 Someone said something about a ranger’s talk outside the center. I wandered out and found a seat, not sure why I needed to hear a talk when I’d just seen the DVD. The ranger was Steve Adelson, who introduced himself as a former history teacher.

 He warmed the crowd with references to home states and other trivia. Then he started the story, conjuring the general state of this country on the eve of its centennial – bank failures, land hunger, buffalo slaughter, and unrelenting efforts to confine all natives to reservations. He described the Indian encampment along the Little Big Horn River, which we could see from our chairs as a dark green ribbon about a mile away. Then the ranger turned thespian, acting out the Indian’s responses to an initial attack. With movements and gestures and voice, he painted the battles that followed.

 And then the silence.

 But he wasn’t through. To people on the east coast, news of the battle was equivalent to 9/11. It was that horrifying, that unbelievable.

 But of course that wasn’t the end of the story. The battle only strengthened our government’s resolve to confine all natives to reservations. The policy was reservation or extermination. And, eventually, it was largely achieved.

 But that isn’t the end of the story either. After getting the ranger’s autograph and email, I proceeded east on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation where for four days I absorbed incredible wisdom from indigenous women elders/grandmothers. They are still here. But more on that later. For now, this is my thanks to Ranger Interpreter Steve Adelson.

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