LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT — Denice Swanke, the new superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield, wants to keep a promise made a year ago to bring the national monument’s vast artifact collection back from storage at a conservation center in Tucson, Ariz.
“That’s my priority,” said Swanke, a 21-year veteran of federal service in the Department of Interior.
She has her work cut out for her.
The 149,000 items in the museum collection were removed to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in the summer and fall of 2011 because existing facilities at the battlefield are inadequate for the safe storage of priceless uniforms, documents and artifacts related to the most famous battle of the Indian Wars.
While in the care of the National Park Service center in Tucson, the collection is being preserved, conserved and digitized for computer access. Before it was removed from its southeastern Montana home, the Park Service promised it had every intention of returning the collection.
But before it can be transported back to the battlefield, a secure facility designed for the preservation of fragile 19th century artifacts must be built. A new museum and visitor center for Little Bighorn has been a priority since the monument’s 1986 management plan, but little has been accomplished toward that goal.
Efforts made by Kate Hammond, Swanke’s predecessor as battlefield superintendent, stalled after a promising start to bring three major parties together to get the job done. The parties are the National Park Service, the Crow Tribe and the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee.
The Preservation Committee bought thousands of acres of battle-related land around the 765 acres owned by the Park Service, intending to give it to the Park Service. But the Park Service won’t accept the land without the approval of the Crow Tribe. The national monument is within the exterior boundaries of the Crow Reservation and the tribe has opposed expanding park boundaries.
Swanke said she hopes to get to work later this month contacting the Crow Tribe and 16 other tribes with an historic interest in the battle of June 25, 1876, that pitted the U.S. 7th Cavalry against a combined force of Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies.
“Knowing the Crow just had an inauguration, I thought I'd give folks the benefit of a week or so before I knock on their door,” she said.
The tribe has a new leader as well, Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, who was sworn in earlier this month. In the past, the tribe has expressed interest in a Crow cultural museum that could be part of a new battlefield museum. Swanke said the Montana Department of Transportation is also interested in building a rest stop in the vicinity of the battlefield, which is located near the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 212.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” she said. “The Montana Department of Transportation coming to the table may change the dynamic a little bit.”
Working with a broad range of issues and constituencies is one of the Swanke’s strengths, said John Wessels, Intermountain Region director for the Park Service.
“Denice brings especially useful skills and experience to the task of outreach and community relations in managing one of our nation’s most important and cherished historic sites,” he said.
Swanke said that while she had not been to Little Bighorn before accepting the job as superintendent, she was aware of the challenges that went with the position. A new museum isn’t the only item on the park’s list of needs.
“We’ve got some major issues with the water system,” she said. “The water system is barely functioning. That’s probably our second-biggest challenge.”
Water from the taps sometimes runs brown and the irrigation system in Custer National Cemetery is in precarious shape. The regional office in Denver has been supportive of efforts to fix the problem, she said. Swanke said she plans to walk the entire system with engineers from the Denver office this month.
Since taking over in mid-October, Swanke has spent a lot of time getting to know the issues and her staff of 22.
“I think it's important to build relationships, to make sure the staff is comfortable with me,” she said.
She’s also been busy establishing relationships in the community. She’s got a meeting of the Hardin Chamber of Commerce on her calendar and has contact with Building Bridges, a regional economic development group.
The new superintendent wants to broaden outreach with the community through programs like a recent “Night Sky” event that brought Hardin third-graders and some of their parents to the battlefield to look at the stars with an expert from Bozeman.
As for the battle itself, Swanke said she’s learning.
“I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading,” she said. “I have years’ worth.”
Before the move to Little Bighorn, Swanke worked as a legislative affairs specialist in the Washington, D.C., office of the Park Service. She served as a liaison to Congress for the Alaska and Pacific West regions.
She began her federal career at Zion National Park in 1991. Two years later, she moved to Moab, Utah, to work at the Bureau of Land Management Fire Center there. Later she worked in Moab as a physical scientist.
In the summer of 2002, she was sent to Butte for a two-week training program. Her husband, Steve, also a Park Service employee, took some time off and made the trip with her.
“We drove over the state line into Montana and I said, ‘I’m home. We don’t ever have to leave,’ ” she recalled.
The next year her husband was transferred to Yellowstone National Park and she got a job with the Park Service at the Yellowstone Center for Resources. Later she was assigned to manage the park’s winter-use activities.
They lived at Lake and skied and snow-shoed through the winter.
“Sometimes we’d get snowed in,” she said. "I thought that was absolutely heaven on earth."
Her husband retired in 2007, and they bought a home in Paradise Valley. Swanke’s career took her far from her Montana home at times. She transferred in 2008 to Grand Canyon National Park’s Office of Planning and Compliance in Flagstaff, Ariz. Then in 2010, she went to work in Washington.
Now that’s she’s back in Montana, the commute home to Paradise Valley is much less onerous. She’s been taking “use or lose” vacation time for long weekends home. Swanke is living in park housing at the battlefield now, and plans on renting in Hardin eventually.
Swanke holds a bachelor of science degree in earth science at Western Oregon University in Monmouth and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Montana.