LAME DEER — For 1,000 years or more, native peoples have etched their histories and prophecies on the sandstone faces of Deer Medicine Rocks near what is now Lame Deer.
Barely visible bighorn sheep, warriors on horseback and a grizzly bear roam the soft, sheer faces of the rock outcrop just off the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
And on an early June day 136 years ago, a Sioux artist carved a vision that had come to Hunkpapa medicine man Sitting Bull after a torturous Sundance ceremony. In the dream, soldiers with “grasshopper” legs fell from the sky into the Indian camp. The soldiers had no ears.
This vision is believed to have foretold victory at Little Bighorn about three weeks later on June 25, 1876.
On Monday, descendants of the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who defeated Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry gathered at Deer Medicine Rocks to celebrate the sacred site’s new status as a National Historic Landmark.
David Harrington, acting superintendent at nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, told about 200 people gathered for the ceremony that Deer Medicine Rocks’ new status ranked it beside the Alamo, Mount Vernon and the Empire State Building as one of the nation’s most important historic sites.
“Only 2,500 sites are so honored,” he said. “That seems like a lot, but there are 87,000 sites on the historic site list. It is one of only 3 percent so honored.”
The National Park Service oversees sites designated as historic landmarks. The process of getting Deer Medicine Rocks certified as a landmark took years. Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux worked with the Park Service to designate the rocks based on their relationship to the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.
Harrington said there are three other national landmark sites associated with the Great Sioux War — Little Bighorn Battlefield, Rosebud Battlefield and Wolf Mountain Battlefield — all within 35 miles of the newly designated Deer Medicine Rocks Landmark.
“The three previous sites were killing sites, battlefields,” Harrington said. “This is a cultural and historic site for the tribes and the only one that tells the story from a Native American perspective.”
The site is on a ranch owned by the Jack and Carol Bailey. The property has been worked by the Bailey family since the early 1880s. Northern Cheyenne and Sioux officials thanked them for preserving the rocks and for allowing tribal members to fast, smoke and pray at one of their most sacred sites.
Bruce Wittenberg, director of the Montana Historical Society, announced that later this year, Jack Bailey will be honored as one of Montana’s “Heritage Keepers.”
During the two-hour proceedings Monday, visitors gathered above Rosebud Creek as it meandered through the picturesque country of red-tinted hills. In the time of Sitting Bull, camps of Lakota and Cheyenne stretched for three to four miles along the creek, said Steve Brady Jr. of the Northern Cheyenne.
Sitting Bull, leader of the largest coalition of warriors ever gathered on the Northern Plains, was drawn to Deer Medicine Rocks by a vision, said Philip Whiteman of the Oglala Lakota.
“He came to the Cheyenne and asked where the rock was he saw in his vision,” said the cultural leader from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
“In his vision he saw a whirlwind with this blue lightning strike and these petroglyphs,” he said.
A lightning strike on the rocks did leave a long, blue scar that bisected the image of a deer. The image is thought to be where the rocks got their name.
Not long after Sitting Bull’s Sundance, Custer’s troops traveled through on their way to the Little Bighorn. Custer and his Arikara scouts saw images left in the camp and on the rocks. The scouts grew uneasy, understanding that the Sioux and Cheyenne believed that they would win a great victory.
Whiteman said that through all the oppression of native peoples since the time of the reservations, Sitting Bull’s vision for his people propelled them forward.
“We are going to be leaders and teachers once again,” he said. “Our ancestors spoke of this time -- a cleansing.”
Phyllis Young, a Hunkpapa who sits on the Standing Rock Reservation Council, said “America is ready for us. America is ready for our old ways.”