Holding her infant son and standing near the end of the bleachers bordering the Medicine Tail Coulee, Ariel Bad Bear waited for the wild horses to appear.
Seeing the dozens of animals herded before spectators is her favorite part of the Real Bird family's Battle of the Little Bighorn re-enactment that takes place each June south of Crow Agency. Saturday will mark the 140th anniversary of General George Armstrong Custer's defeat at the hands of a coalition of warriors representing several Native American tribes.
Though the humans did the yelling, shooting, talking, fighting and riding that make up the bulk of the theatrics, Bad Bear wasn't alone in her appreciation for the animals that carried the re-enactors — including two of her sons — and the Native culture those horses represent.
Earlier Friday, Bad Bear had put her son Nox atop a horse for the first time in his 4-month-old life. Though he couldn't say, Bad Bear's description of her son's first time on a horse suggested he might have been excited for the wild horses, too.
Bad Bear said Nox smiled and laughed as he sat bareback atop Bad Bear's 3-year-old black horse, Miss Jackson. Then when it was time to dismount, he cried, she said.
"He didn't want to get off," Bad Bear said.
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Like Nox, not every re-enactor got to choose when they dismounted their horses. Across the more than two hours in which the re-enactment played out, at least two young men riding as tribal warriors were bucked from their horses. Rather than startling Mark Bruised Head, the sight of the dismounting was encouraging.
"That's what it should be instead of drinking and drugs," Bruised Head said. "A healthy, strong, young Crow boy who can take a hit and get back up."
Bruised Head, 47, said he used to ride in the re-enactment "about 100 pounds ago" in the earlier days of the event organized by the Real Bird family, of which he said he is a member. He said he'd been bucked off all over the land spread out in front of him. "You got to be able to take a hit," he said.
"It's quite an adrenaline rush," Bruised Head said of riding on horseback into mock battle on historic land. In Bruised Head's time, the battle wasn't always theatrics. "Those soldiers, you start wrestling them, they kinda get into it," he said. "It gets kinda Western out there, or it used to."
In other instances it wasn't the horses, but the humans that went against the script. As 7th Calvary Regiment artillerymen loaded a cannon aimed at a tribal warrior standing across the water, the event's narrator, former Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird offered one of the many humorous asides he delivered over the re-enactment's two hours to the crowd of hundreds with license plates from California to North Carolina and from Alaska to Texas.
"We ask that you not look at the rider on the hill yet," Real Bird said. "He missed his cue."