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He made a career of interpreting Montana's Little Bighorn Battlefield, thanks to his part Mohawk grandfather

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Ken Woody learned a lot from his Mohawk grandfather.

Woody grew up in Plum, Pennsylvania, with his grandparents nearby in the Unity neighborhood.

“When I was a child, 5 or 6 years old, my grandparents would babysit me while my parents were at work,” he remembers.

“Grandpap had his own [automobile repair] garage along Universal Road. His name was Joseph LaFountain, but everyone called him 'Indian Joe.' He was part Mohawk,” he says. “He would teach me how to make eagle feather head dresses, leggings, breech cloths, pipe bags and do bead work.

“When you're a child, a window opens and influences you for the rest of your life,” said Woody, who will turn 58 in January.

“I found my calling in life,” said the man who now is an expert on Native American culture. He will retire on New Year's Eve after 23 years as chief of interpretation and visitor services at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.

“Ken is one of the world's leading experts in Indian tipis, a walking encyclopedia of Indian culture,” said Michael Donahue, who has spent 33 years working as a seasonal ranger at the battlefield.

That's where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the five companies of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry that were under his immediate command were annihilated on June 25, 1876, along the banks of the Little Big Horn River while trying to force nomadic Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes onto reservations.

The Lakota, Cheyenne and handful of Arapaho warriors who fought with them that day won their greatest victory over any U.S. fighting force west of the Mississippi River, but the Indigenous peoples' way of life was soon lost forever.

The road to the National Park Service job of his dreams was long, hard and full of surprises, says Woody, whose full name is Kenneth Russell Woody III.

“A lot of it was being in the right place at the right time,” said the 1982 graduate of Plum High School as he remembered how he met his wife, the former Lorraine Frack.

“My mom and her mom were friends who hadn't seen each other for many years before one day her mom just popped into our house for a visit,” said Woody whose parents, Ken and Geneva Woody, no longer live in Plum.

“She was having some car troubles so my Mom and Dad followed her back to [her home in] New York and I went along.”

He and Lorraine were 18 years old when they married. Two years later their daughter, Cindy, was born, followed later by Kenny IV and Joe.

“I hated New York City. I knew I didn't want an office job and I knew I wanted to work outdoors,” Woody said. “I found a school in the wilderness.”

That was the New York State Ranger School, now the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry or SUNY-ESF near Wanakena.

“The school was in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York,” he said.

“It was hard but we managed. We basically lived on Ronald Reagan [free government] cheese. We lived in an old loggers house with thin walls, no insulation. It seemed like it snowed every day and was 30 below. We had a foot of ice on the roof covered by 2 feet of snow. We had a wood stove in the living room where we made our bedroom.”

He later took some classes at Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh before taking a job as a seasonal National Park Service ranger at Fort Necessity near Farmington.

“I spent two summers giving interpretive talks. It was cool and I decided to pursue a career in the National Park Service.”

He spent a third summer as a seasonal ranger at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in the Upper Missouri River Valley in North Dakota, where Northern Plains Indians such as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara hunted like nomadic tribes but were essentially earthlodge dwellers and farmers.

While there, Woody received a postcard from a friend telling him of a permanent National Park Service position as a part-time evening and night law enforcement dispatcher at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

He applied for the job and became a permanent National Park Service employee 30 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1991.

“I spent nine months there and got to see a lot of things in Independence Hall and other sites that most people don't get to see,” he said. Next he took a permanent ranger position at Knife River.

There he honed his skills making Native American regalia as well as tipis, war shields, buffalo robes, war shirts and head dresses. As time went on, he began selling his wares to museums and private collectors. He also eventually began giving educational talks and re-enactments and modeling many of the items he made.

But life can be tough on the Northern Plains where the weather can be as unforgiving as the Adirondacks.

And his career really was a labor of love because National Park Service wages were relatively low at that time, especially when you're trying to support a family of five.

“In the National Park Service, we get paid in sunsets,” he said. “Rangers live in places where people go on vacation, so part of the income is being able to live there.”

He enjoyed giving talks visitors at Knife River, but he felt he had more to offer and, according to Donahue, things were starting to change at Little Bighorn.

Under pressure from the American Indian Movement and other Native American organizations and a general change in attitude by white America toward the indigenous peoples, the stricken field was renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in a law signed by President George H.W. Bush on Dec. 10, 1991.

With Native Americans joining the ever-changing list of superintendents who have been in charge of the battlefield, Donahue said, the way interpretative rangers gave daily talks to visitors changed, too.

“The pendulum swung from being pro-military, pro-Custer to pro-Indian, anti-Custer,” said Donahue, whose full-time job is as an art teacher and former department chair at Temple College in Temple, a community in Central Texas.

Donahue believes Woody's appointment as chief of interpretation and visitors services in December 1998 was perfect timing as the pendulum swung closer to the middle.

An Indian Memorial for the warriors who fought against the soldiers as well as the Crow and Arikara Indian scouts who fought with army was dedicated in 2003 on Last Stand Hill, less than 100 yards from where Custer fell and the obelisk for the fallen soldiers has stood since 1881.

As Woody settled into his new job, he realized he had found his niche at what he has called “the ultimate historic park in the West. ... The battle is well known. ... It's a fascinating enigma, a modern army being defeated by a Stone Age people.

“I like giving talks. I like being a showman. I like an audience. It's better to have a big audience. Knife River got maybe 20,000 visitors a year at the time. Little Bighorn was getting 300,000,” he continued. “I always was a big fan of movies like ‘Little Big Man’ [an anti-establishment film that portrays Custer as a megalomaniacal lunatic]. Little Bighorn was a culmination of all my interests.”

Despite his self-acknowledged “pro-Indian” leanings, Woody believes “there are no good guys and no bad guys here. ... Everyone was doing what he thought was right. ... I think Americans look at Custer in the wrong light. He was doing the will of the lawmakers in Washington.”

Donahue says, “Ken always encouraged us to be fair and unbiased. There are more than two sides to every story. There are three, four and sometimes five sides to the story.”

“Ken knows a lot about the battle but he was always willing to ask questions and learn. He's not a know-it-all. He's very humble in his knowledge.”

Michael Stops, a Crow tribal member and longtime chief ranger at the battlefield who also is retiring, said Woody brought “good objectivity” to the job. “I think because he's from back East, he's more neutral. He's not really for either side. I think that's very important because you have the military and all the different tribes who all have their own distinct interest in the park.”

Woody's world was transformed forever on Dec. 15, 2011, when his 21-year-old son, Kenny IV, was killed in a vehicle accident near the family's home in Hardin, some 15 miles from the battlefield.

“Things changed. My attitude toward life changed. Some things aren't as important now,” Woody says.

Life is too unpredictable to keep putting off the things you want to do.

“I've been here 23 years. As cool as this place is, it's time to do something else. I've been there, done that,” he said. “As much as I would like to stay, too much other stuff is not fun; paperwork, meetings, projects. I kind of want to be left alone. I want time to be with my family.”

For the past several years, Woody has been purchasing, renovating and renting homes in Hardin. Now he's planning to become a full-fledged entrepreneur, opening a trading post with Native American regalia. He hopes to open an Airbnb and offer private tours of the battlefield.

“I've already been asked to lead a tour next summer on the anniversary of the battle” — the 146th.

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