Skip to comments.Thousands see dedication of Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn
Posted on 06/26/2003 8:38:15 PM PDT by Land_of_Lincoln_John
Ogalala Sioux healer George Amiotte came alone to pray as the sun rose on the new Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
He wanted to be there early, before the crowds arrived for the dedication of the memorial honoring the American Indians who fought and died there June 25, 1876. There he would offer prayers for the dead on behalf of the three warrior societies to which he belongs on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Dressed in buckskins and feathers, as his ancestors would have been 127 years ago, he offered his thanks for their sacrifice. Amiotte is a member of the same warrior society that claims Crazy Horse and knows a little about the courage it took to fight at the Little Bighorn.
Pinned to his vest were the symbols of his own valor during three tours of duties with the U.S. Marines -- four Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star awarded for service in Vietnam.
Amiotte didn't pray alone for long, especially after relatives saw what he was doing. Soon he was in the middle of a circle of hundreds of Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Arikara who followed his lead in honoring their dead.
"I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps for a while, so I guess I'm good at moving people," he said later.
Before charging after the 7th Cavalry in 1876, Lakota warriors told each other that it was a good day to die.
"Today is a beautiful day to be alive in the great circle of life," Amiotte exhorted the modern crowd. "Remember the beauty of their deaths. Make the warriors who laid down their lives proud of you."
Amiotte, who lives in Washington, works part-time for the Veterans Administration, combining traditional and modern healing to help veterans cope with the aftermath of war. Many with whom he works suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Warriors were everywhere Wednesday at the battlefield -- marching in color guards, praying for unity and peace and remembering their own sacrifices as well as those of their ancestors.
Veterans carrying the flags of their nations, the state of Montana and the tribes participating in the ceremonies, danced in a circle in front of the new memorial. Drum groups pounded accompaniment to songs honoring the deeds of the warriors at Little Bighorn.
The vast majority of the estimated 4,000 in attendance were from the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Arikara tribes who participated in most famous battle of the Indian Wars. They gathered Wednesday on what they described as "sacred ground."
Conversation was subdued, but friends greeted each other and smiled. Grandmothers danced with granddaughters dressed in buckskin and elk teeth. Women of all ages wore elaborate costumes covered with chimes, and little boys in headdresses rolled in the wet grass.
All seemed glad to be there and pleased that the memorial had at last been built.
Weather was almost perfect. Instead of the blistering orb that shone on the battlefield in 1876, gray clouds floated across the sun whenever it threatened too much warmth. But it poked out of the clouds in elegant streams as horsemen made their way along Battle Ridge for official ceremonies that began about 10:20 a.m. at the Visitor Center Amphitheater.
Leading the column were jubilant Native Americans, but the parade included re-enactors representing the 7th Cavalry, American Indian cowboys and a group of Pennsylvania teenagers depicting the all-black Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soliders served at several Montana forts in the post-Little Bighorn era.
The Buffalo Soldiers, boys ages 15 to 19, come each year to participate and help the Crow with their sun dance, the group's leader said. Nineteen members of the group rode with the Crow in the opening procession.
Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne, who is hosting the other tribes this week, came to the podium in the company of a cortege of Crow women in elk-tooth dresses. They presented gifts of beaded bags to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, former battlefield Superintendent Barbara Sutteer and Montana Gov. Judy Martz.
The women also honored Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, who, along with Montana's congressional delegation, helped push legislation creating the memorial.
"We unite today to write the chapter unfinished," Venne, a Vietnam veteran, said in his welcoming address. "The circle has not been complete until today."
He urged those present to take to heart the theme of the day, "Peace through Unity," and learn to settle differences in the interests of all.
Venne had invited as special guests the family of Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a 23-year-old Hopi who died in Iraq. Piestewa was the first American Indian service woman to die in combat. Her parents and two children were introduced by Martz, who greeted the family with hugs and kisses.
"You have given us the ultimate price," the governor said.
Martz called the memorial long overdue and said, "I love the American Indian people, I really do. They are the heart and soul of what they call Mother Earth."
During a break between scheduled speakers, former American Indian Movement leader Russell Means took the opportunity to make some unscheduled remarks. Although he called the memorial to 7th Cavalry troopers, a "the phallic symbol up on the hill," his address was largely conciliatory.
He said that, if he had known that the monument represented a mass grave, he would have placed a controversial handmade plaque elsewhere in 1988. After years of waiting for the National Park Service to erect an Indian Memorial, AIM and its supporters in 1988 placed a plaque on the cavalry grave saying, "In honor of our Indian patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. Cavalry to save our women and children from mass murder. In doing so, preserving our rights to our homelands, treaties and sovereignty."
Some groups considered the plaque an act of desecration.
Means said that the trouble with the country today is that its people tend to put their ethnicity first. We define ourselves as Irish Americans, Hispanic Americans, Japanese Americans. Means said his people put America first. They call themselves American Indians, he said.
"We put American before our ethnicity," he said. "Americans have to put America first."
His speech generated cheers and a long line of autograph seekers and people who wanted their picture taken with him.
Patriotism ran high in the general spirit of good will. American flags waved everywhere, and a Crow singer belted out "I'm Proud to be American" to wild applause.
Whoops and cheers greeted two Black Hawk helicopters that flew over the battlefield in salute of the day.
A color guard from the modern 7th Cavalry stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, got a history lesson during its short stay in Montana. It was a first visit for Sgt. Jeff Young of Austin, Texas. He and his four comrades had learned some of the unit's history during their stay in Fort Hood.
"But here, you get to see the place where it happened," he said.
"It's part of our unit's heritage," noted Sgt. Robert Etie of Lafayette, La. "The unit is very proud of the battle that took place here."
When the ceremonies broke for lunch, visitors stood in long lines for a meal of buffalo roast, coleslaw, beans and brownies provided by the National Park Service. Myrna Clawson, co-owner of Yellowstone Kelly's Catering, estimated that 2,500 meals were served. She said that 2,000 pounds of meat had been prepared -- enough to feed about 3,500 people.
Because of limited parking at the battlefield, crowded shuttle busses ferried visitors from nearby parking lots to the national monument. A parking attendant at one of the four lots said 600 cars had been parked in his lot alone.
Nearby Crow Agency bustled with activity. The line stretched out the door at the KFC restaurant across the highway from the battlefield. Other vendors did a brisk business throughout the day.
The National Park Service estimated that 4,000 people took part in the events of the day. Other observers, however, said the number was much higher.
Donlin Many Bad Horses of the Northern Cheyenne summed up the mood.
"This is the most beautiful day I ever saw, because of you," he said. "You came to share this day with us."