Montana-Wyoming 2011 - Broken Promises (You Reap What You Sow)

Published: August 7th 2011
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"As long as the grass shall grow and the waters flow". Sometimes quoted as "and the rivers shall run", this clause appears nowhere in the the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868, but is often quoted as the sense of how long the treaties should be valid. The treaties "gave" the Sioux Indians their sacred Black Hills in perpetuity in exchange for peace. Like most treaties between the white man and the Indians, these treaties did not survive first contact of white men with valuable resources found on Indian Lands.

On July 2, 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a force of some 1200 men out of Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory (now Bismarck, ND) to the Black Hills for the purposes of finding a site for a fort, finding a route to the southwest, and investigating the possibility of gold mining. The Black Hills were relatively unknown at the time. The prospectors accompanying Custer found gold in the Spearfish Canyon area of the Black Hills, and the gold rush began. Predictably, the Indians began killing the white men who were illegally invading their lands, and equally predictably the federal government ordered the Indians to be rounded up and herded onto reservations.

The process had begun earlier. In 1873 the Nez Perce had attempted to escape into Canada, and after bitter battles and protracted travel had been caught and surrendered, culminating in Chief Joseph's famous (although disputed) speech:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

The Sioux and Northern Cheyenne refused to negotiate new treaties. In their view, you did not negotiate to give away your ancestral lands. Chief Joseph said that his dying father had told him:

"My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."

Diplomatic efforts to achieve peace with the Indians having failed, the decision was made to use military force, and thus was begun the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. As part of that war, in 1876 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was sent out as one of three columns of cavalry to subdue the Indians, His particular charge was the Rosebud and Little Big Horn river valleys. Coming upon a large Indian Village on the western banks of the Little Big Horn, he attacked, apparently greatly underestimating the number of Indian warriors. His men may have been armed with inferior rifles, and the 700 troopers were no match for the approximately 4000 Indians. Custer had unaccountably split his force, and the men under Reno and Benteen suffered casualties but were eventually relieved by other forces. Custer and his immediate command of 268 men of five companies were killed to a man, a minority of them on what is now known as Last Stand Hill. Facing devastating fire, they shot their horses to use them as bulwarks, then fought until all were dead. Their bodies were originally buried where they had fallen, but were later dug up and reinterred in a mass grave at the top of the hill where Custer had been found. Most of the officers were removed to eastern cemeteries, and Custer himself rests at West Point. Today, there are memorials to the horses, the Indians, and the dead soldiers, the one to the Indians coming considerably later than that to the horses. THere is a national cemetery, now closed to further interments, containing the remains of veterans of several wars. At the entrance stand two markers imprinted with the first stanza of Theodore O'Hara's poem "The Bivouac of the Dead". Written during the Mexican-American War, the poem became a standard inscription at most national cemeteries, although its author was rarely credited since he had fought on the side of the Confederacy. During the 1920's and 1930's, these inscriptions were mostly removed, but the first stanza is now being replaced at those which do not have it.

"The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.

No rumor of the foe's advance
Now swells upon the wind;
Nor troubled thought at midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind;
No vision of the morrow's strife
The warrior's dream alarms;
No braying horn nor screaming fife
At dawn shall call to arms.

Their shriveled swords are red with rust,
Their plumed heads are bowed,
Their haughty banner, trailed in dust,
Is now their martial shroud.
And plenteous funeral tears have washed
The red stains from each brow,
And the proud forms, by battle gashed
Are free from anguish now.

The neighing troop, the flashing blade,
The bugle's stirring blast,
The charge, the dreadful cannonade,
The din and shout, are past;
Nor war's wild note nor glory's peal
Shall thrill with fierce delight
Those breasts that nevermore may feel
The rapture of the fight.

Like the fierce northern hurricane
That sweeps the great plateau,
Flushed with the triumph yet to gain,
Came down the serried foe,
Who heard the thunder of the fray
Break o'er the field beneath,
Knew well the watchword of that day
Was "Victory or death!"

Long had the doubtful conflict raged
O'er all that stricken plain,
For never fiercer fight had waged
The vengeful blood of Spain;
And still the storm of battle blew,
Still swelled the gory tide;
Not long, our stout old chieftain knew,
Such odds his strength could bide.

Twas in that hour his stern command
Called to a martyr's grave
The flower of his beloved land,
The nation's flag to save.
By rivers of their father's gore
His first-born laurels grew,
And well he deemed the sons would pour
Their lives for glory too.

For many a mother's breath has swept
O'er Angostura's plain --
And long the pitying sky has wept
Above its moldered slain.
The raven's scream, or eagle's flight,
Or shepherd's pensive lay,
Alone awakes each sullen height
That frowned o'er that dread fray.

Sons of the Dark and Bloody Ground
Ye must not slumber there,
Where stranger steps and tongues resound
Along the heedless air.
Your own proud land's heroic soil
Shall be your fitter grave;
She claims from war his richest spoil --
The ashes of her brave.

Thus 'neath their parent turf they rest,
Far from the gory field,
Borne to a Spartan mother's breast
On many a bloody shield;
The sunshine of their native sky
Smiles sadly on them here,
And kindred eyes and hearts watch by
The heroes sepulcher.

Rest on embalmed and sainted dead!
Dear as the blood ye gave;
No impious footstep shall here tread
The herbage of your grave;
Nor shall your glory be forgot
While fame her records keeps,
Or Honor points the hallowed spot
Where Valor proudly sleeps.

Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished ago has flown,
The story how ye fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor Time's remorseless doom,
Shall dim one ray of glory's light
That gilds your deathless tomb."

Perhaps the culmination of all this was the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. There, the Army attempted to disarm the Lakota Sioux who were on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One brave apparently refused to give up his rifle on the grounds that it had cost him a great deal of money. During the struggle to forcibly remove it, the weapon discharged and a trooper was wounded. The troopers began firing indiscriminately into the Indians and each other in a chaotic scene. Between 150-300 Indians were killed, mostly women and children, as well as 31 troopers, many of whom probably died of "friendly fire". Today the site is a national memorial, a fact which the Indians undoubtedly find comforting.

Our day consisted of a brief visit to the Vore Buffalo Jump near Beulah WY, which we found completely lacking in significance, then driving hell-bent for leather (rubber?) across Montana vastness to Little Big Horn. Our arrival coincided with the gust front of a large thunderstorm, and our initial visit consisted of driving the battlefield in a driving rain listening to cell phone audio tour descriptions of various sites. The rain ending, we visited the museum in the visitors' center and headed to Billings for our eventual departure home.

By later today all the photos should be on

Warning: there are a LOT of photos.

WARNING TO FAMILY: the photos include graphic images of wildflowers which you may find disturbing, although I have removed any containing full frontal scientific names.


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