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LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT — Plans to build a new visitor center and museum at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, stalemated for decades, inched forward Tuesday during discussions at the battlefield.

Crow Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle, in a meeting with representatives of the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, said the tribe is willing to work with the National Park Service to build a new visitor center on land now owned by the preservation committee. He also said the tribe would like to see a wing for Crow artifacts added onto the museum.

Though the Crow Tribe believes there are a lot of issues to be worked out, Black Eagle said, “we realize there needs to be some movement.”

Jim Court, a member of the preservation committee and a former superintendent at the battlefield, said early in the meeting that “somehow or another, we needed to get off dead center.”

Barely an hour later, he hailed the movement that had been made.

“I see us making more progress than we’ve made in the last 30 years,” he said.

The meeting was organized by battlefield Superintendent Kate Hammond. She started off by summarizing the difficulties the Park Service has had in doing anything to act on the recommendations of a management plan drawn up for the battlefield in 1986.

It called for building a new visitor center away from the historic battlefield site; safeguarding the park’s collection of artifacts and archives; enlarging the park’s boundaries by more than 11,000 acres; and improving roads and parking areas.

Just two weeks ago, Hammond announced that the Park Service planned to temporarily relocate the museum and archive collection to a conservation center in Tucson, Ariz., citing numerous deficiencies in the cramped storage area in the basement of the battlefield’s 60-year-old visitor center.

Hammond said at the time that the ultimate goal was to bring the artifacts and archives home, and that the Park Service was committed to making progress on building a new visitor center and museum.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, Hammond urged those present not to focus on subjects of past disagreement, and to look instead for a small first step they could all agree on to get the process rolling. That is essentially what happened at the meeting, which was also attended by representatives of all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation.

Leaving aside issues associated with a large expansion of the national monument, which sits in the midst of the Crow Reservation, participants zeroed in on one piece of land — a 240-acre parcel near the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 212, a little southwest of the existing visitor center.

That land, owned by the preservation committee, was identified in the 1986 management plan as the best spot for a new visitor center. A later addition to the plan called for putting the center near Garryowen, closer to where the most storied battle of the Indian Wars opened on June 25, 1876. Everyone at the meeting agreed not to consider that option, because it involved many difficulties.

Over the years, the preservation committee has purchased about 3,500 acres of land outside the park’s boundaries but within the area in which the battle played out. The committee has always intended to donate the land to the Park Service.

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But those plans have met with objections from the Crow Tribe. Black Eagle said Crow Tribe members believe that the committee’s purchase of so much land violated the 1920 Crow Act. The meeting threatened to veer off into larger, contentious issues when Hardin attorney Harold Stanton, president of the preservation committee, said that perhaps what was needed was a declaratory judgment by a federal judge.

Hammond quickly got things back on track, urging all present to concentrate on the 240-acre parcel. Hammond said the Park Service can’t accept any land donation without the approval of Congress or a presidential proclamation.

There was talk of several options, including that of having the preservation committee give the land directly to the Park Service, or giving it to the Crow Tribe, which could then place it in perpetual trust for the benefit of the Park Service.

Stanton said the main thing was to push for new visitor center and a museum that would include a Crow component, if not a separate Crow museum.

Because there has been no museum to which Crow families could donate precious heirlooms and artifacts, Stanton said, “a lot of that stuff has disappeared into the marketplace. ... As a result, we’ve lost a lot of Crow culture.”

Black Eagle and representatives of the preservation committee agreed to meet again May 12 to continue discussions. In the meantime, Hammond said, the Park Service will examine the 240-acre parcel to make sure it would meet all the requirements for a new visitor center, museum and parking area.

As the meeting ended and people were shaking hands and putting on jackets, Court said, “I think we’re on our way.”

“Yup,” Black Eagle responded. “We’ve got to get something done.”

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Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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