Etched in granite on the Indian Memorial at the Little Bighorn Battlefield are words spoken by Cheyenne warrior Young Two Moons.
“It was a hot, clear day and no wind,” he said of the June 25, 1876, battle. “There was a great dust from fighting, but no storm after the battle.”
On Wednesday, at the battlefield where Indian warriors celebrated victory over the 7th Cavalry 138 years ago, it wasn’t hard to imagine a day like the one Young Two Moons described. With mostly clear skies and temperatures in the low 80s, the weather mirrored the day of the battle.
Wednesday was a victory of another sort for the Indian tribes that took part in the historic battle. Eleven years after the Indian Memorial was initially dedicated at the battlefield, a ceremony marked its final completion.
Granite panels that are 10 inches thick, 44 inches high and 78 to 91 inches wide have replaced the temporary aluminum plates initially put in place. They commemorate the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who allied in 1876 to form the largest Native army ever recorded on the Northern Plains.
Panels in the circular memorial also honored the Crow and Arikara scouts who served with the U.S. Army against their traditional, more powerful enemy tribes.
A rededication ceremony featured tribal representatives, as well as a former Little Bighorn Battlefield national superintendent. The day also included Indians on horseback, recreating their charges into battle, a sunrise ceremony and other talks.
The Bighorn Riders, members of the Sioux Nation, took part in the morning charge on horseback on hills north of the battlefield in the morning. Members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe did the same in the afternoon.
Most of the panels contain quotes from chiefs and warriors. Each tribe worked to identify those who fought and those who died so their names could be listed.
Before the ceremony, monument Superintendent Denice Swanke said it took about a decade for people from each of the tribes to come to consensus about what the wording on the panels should be.
It’s not National Park Service words that were developed,” she said. “It’s actually from the descendents of the people who participated in the battle.”
Because a warrior might be known by more than one name, it took painstaking work on the part of the tribes to decide which names to include in the memorial, Swanke said.
Chevo Studios of Denver completed the etching in September and October 2013. They set up shop and worked every day, all day, for several weeks, Swanke said.
The photographic images of the warriors and chiefs in the memorial were done off-site with computer etching.
The memorial also includes a bronze sculpture of three Native American Spirit Warriors riding off to battle. The sculpture was deisgned by Oglala artist Colleen Cutschall.
The Indian Memorial provides a balance that the battlefield lacked for many years, Swanke said.
“Certainly a number of the tribal communities that I have worked with have expressed to me that since this Indian memorial was built, it’s a more welcoming place where they can come and pay their respects to their warriors,” she said.
A couple thousand people visited the battlefield to mark the anniversary, and probably a couple hundred attended the ceremony.
One of the speakers, former monument Superintendent Barbara Sutteer, who traveled to Montana from Arizona for the event, worked at the battlefield at a crucial time in its history.
Not long after she came on staff, Sutteer said former U.S. Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, D-Colo., who is part-Northern Cheyenne, approached her with what would be the first item on her agenda.
It would be legislation to change the name of the battlefield and authorize an Indian memorial. The name change, from Custer Battlefield Memorial, came without much problem, she said, but the memorial was an uphill battle.
“It was a very contentious time in the U.S. Congress,” she said. “It took two Congresses and five field hearings, three protests and I think a lot of street fights to get this memorial.”
Sutteer grew emotional when she recalled getting the phone call, after all the hard work, in November 1991, just before Thanksgiving, that the memorial had been approved.
“It was the victory call,” she said, choking up. “It was our song. We still sing that song today. It’s still a victory.”
With that victory also came a message from so many years before. Two Moons and Four Bear urged peace through unity.
“That’s very, very important because it’s going to take all of us to do all the things that we still have to do,” she said.
Dr. Leo Killsback, a Northern Cheyenne descendent of Chief Dull knife and professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, was commissioned by the tribe’s former president to help with the memorial’s design.
The work took more than five years, Killsback said during the ceremony, and he’s proud of the final result. It’s important, he said, to remember why the warriors fought so hard on that day 138 years ago.
“I think a lot of times we forget what our people were fighting for,” he said. “It was about protecting our way of life and, most importantly, our homeland.”
Invaders to the Indian lands brought with them guns, disease and a strange way of living, along with an addictive drug, alcohol, which destroyed their communities and continues to do so today, Killsback said. Those who came also didn’t respect the Indian ways, he said.
To this day, many people don’t respect Indians as human beings who have something to contribute to the world, Killsback said. But efforts are being made to “bring our Indian knowledge and wisdom by sharing our rich histories, especially to people who originally wanted to destroy our Indian ways.”
He challenged his audience to learn more about the original people of this land and their traditional ways.
“And then maybe people can understand why our people fought so hard,” Killsback said.
Over at the memorial, which sits on a hill not far from the 7th Calvary monument, Eric LaPointe, from Mission, S.D., looked at the names of the Lakota warriors that were carved in stone. He is related to at least six of them.
He visited the memorial with other members of his tribe, and also brought his 10-year-old daughter to learn about her heritage.
“I brought her to teach her kinship, our customs, our culture and our history,” LaPointe said. “It means a great deal to me to have her here and show her all these names.”