In 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was defeated by Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors at Little Bighorn, Mont., in one of the last major battles of the Plains Indian wars.
Custer and five companies of the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out, the Indians were later confined to reservations, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn became a rallying cry for American frontier expansion.
Nearly 150 years later, the battle is still steeped in controversy.
A political tug of war has raged between the National Park Service, Custer buffs and Indian tribes over how best to fix a litany of problems at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Managed by the service since the 1940s, it was once called the Custer Battlefield National Monument, and it draws about 300,000 visitors every year.
Now, after more than two decades of failed efforts, the Park Service has started a new campaign to try to solve disputes over improving the monument once and for all.
Central to the conflict over Little Bighorn is land. The monument sits on 765 acres in the heart of the Crow reservation. The actual battle, though, spread over more than 11,000 acres, much of which is tribally or privately owned. The Park Service maintains that adding more land would allow the old visitors center to be moved from the base of Last Stand Hill and ease traffic.
Nearly 30 years ago, a group called the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee began buying up land around the monument — some 3,300 acres in all — in an effort to stave off development. The group has since tried to donate the land, which it bought for $14 million that was raised through donations, to the Park Service. But the service has said that unless Congress or the president changes the battlefield’s boundaries, it does not have the legal authority to accept the land.
Moreover, any land deal would need approval from the Crow tribe, which has considerable political influence in Montana and has resisted such a large land transfer.
The Crow chairman, Cedric Black Eagle said that any additional land the Custer group owned should go back to the tribe, not to the Park Service. “The most significant part of the battlefield and the monument is that it happens to be on Crow land,” he said. “We want to make sure we are involved in the process so we don’t end up losing any of that land.”
The dispute over the monument is, in many ways, the latest incarnation of the debate over Little Bighorn’s legacy. There was a time when every American child knew of “Custer’s Last Stand,” said Paul Hutton, a distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and a Little Bighorn expert.
For generations, Custer was portrayed as a hero. But the advent of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s chipped away at Custer’s image and recast the narrative of the American West. Custer went from a martyr to a loathed symbol of manifest destiny. In 1991, amid a push to more accurately portray the role of Indians at Little Bighorn, Congress passed a law stripping Custer’s name from the battlefield, and in 2003, a memorial to Indians who died there was dedicated.