Thousands help dedicate Indian memorial on battle's anniversary

Thursday, June 26, 2003

LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT, Mont. -- After demanding for decades that their ancestors be given their due, hundreds of American Indians dedicated the first permanent memorial Wednesday to the warriors who wiped out Lt. Col. George Custer and his cavalry in 1876.

"I know the spirits of our ancestors dwell here," said George Amiotte, a Sioux who decorated his long gray-tinged hair with feathers for the ceremony. "It's a great day to be alive."

The memorial consists of a wiry sculpture of Indian warriors, a sunken stone circle -- a sacred symbol to many tribes -- and an open-air space for tribal ceremonies.

For more than a century, a hilltop granite obelisk and white headstones on the battlefield have honored the estimated 260 members of the 7th Cavalry who died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Indians have long complained that they never received the proper recognition for fighting off the invading force. They now have a monument within sight of the cavalry memorial.

'Proud people'

"I never thought it was going to happen," said Donlin Many Bad Horses, a Northern Cheyenne. "But today it did happen and I'm very glad so many people came out -- came out to see what kind of people we are, the proud people we are."

On June 25, 1876, Custer attacked an Indian village along the Little Bighorn River but apparently miscalculated the size of the force that he and his troops would face. By some estimates, as many as 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors fought back. The Indians were estimated to have lost fewer than 100 people.

Congress authorized a memorial to the Indian participants in 1991, in legislation that also changed the battlefield's name from Custer battlefield. But lawmakers didn't provide the $2.3 million in funding for the memorial until 10 years later.

Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members arrived before dawn for ceremonies on the battle's anniversary that drew a crowd ranging from camera-toting tourists and Indians who hummed and swayed to the throbbing beat of their traditional drums.

National Park Service officials estimated that 4,000 people attended the ceremony, which also included speeches from tribal leaders and politicians.

Indian activist Russell Means made a surprise appearance, riding in on horseback and walking on to the stage before the other speakers had arrived.

He said the memorial's location along the battlefield ridgetop is important because it will be the last thing visible as visitors leave.

"The memorial is not about war. It's not to remember war," he said. "The last thing you'll remember when you're leaving is us."

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