Ten years ago, I was sitting on the living room floor watching a documentary on the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
I had just returned from a three week trip that took me to the Great Plains and back. I wanted to see Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and hopefully catch the Crow Fair. I was a little late for the fair, but I got the chance to spend a day in Crow Country with some good people that I met there.
I was thinking about the people I had come across, both Natives and white visitors who went to pay their respects to Custer. The US government created a national cemetery for the American soldiers that died on that land. Later, they expanded it to include soldiers from other wars. I didn’t expect to see that. It seemed very disrespectful; a blatant attempt at rewriting history.
I met a professor from Crow College whose name I believe was Marvin. He told me about how Crow veterans, his grandparents, later reunited with their relatives, the Lakota, as old men to discuss the battle and exchange war stories. Imagine their tales. He told me he was a horseman. I thought to myself how he would do at a charreada. Later, we visited his in-law’s family restaurant. To my surprise his wife was Mexican on her mom’s side. Her parents met in San Antonio where she was from. I remember she said something kind of funny, like, “Mira hasta donde me trajo la vida.” Her husband spoke a few words to me in broken Spanish. I wondered how they managed to communicate.
Later that day, I was shooting footage along the trails and I met a WWII veteran who was with his daughters. I asked to interview him, but when I turned the camera on and asked why he was there, he froze up and didn’t want to talk to me. His daughter yelled at him, “Dad, answer the question?” I think he started crying. I was surprised at her response, but not his. I imagined it was too hard to accept defeat at the hands of Indians and discuss it with one on tape.
I learned a lot. What a great trip.
A few hours later, everything would change.
How did those in Indian Country see the images on television that morning? For some, I’m sure it was a slap in the face to see white people act so innocent. The millions of Indigenous Peoples the United States killed in establishing itself as a nation seemed to never cross the mind of those decrying the attacks of that day.
Ten years is enough. It’s time to wake up from the nightmare.
One day I’ll visit Montana again. There I’ll place tobacco down for the real heroes of this land.