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Native Americans Finally Receive Recognition for Fallen in Historic Battle - 2003-07-01


For decades, Native American Indians have been demanding recognition for their role in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, on the plains of southeastern Montana. The battle has taken on legendary proportions, becoming widely known as "Custer's Last Stand." For the last 127 years, there's been no official recognition of the American Indian victors, until now. Jackie Yamanaka reports from Little Big Horn Battlefield.

Before the formal dedication ceremony at the new Indian Memorial, representatives from several tribes gathered for a private prayer and a victory ceremony.

The descendants of the American Indians who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn could be seen from a distance galloping their horses in a circle... as songs of victory and honor echoed across the rolling green hills.

George Amiott, a member of the Oglala tribe, was among those who came to the battlefield before sunrise. "127 years ago the great circle of life was blessed upon these people and the tribes down there. Then the dark shadow came and we all know what happened. We all know the tears that were shed," he said.

On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer, leading a U.S. cavalry troop, attacked an Indian encampment on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. But General Custer miscalculated the size of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces, and the American soldiers were wiped out. The rout was a tremendous shock to the U.S. government, though it did little to slow the military campaign to suppress American Indian tribes.

Since that time, there had been no formal recognition of the tribes who won that battle...until now.

American Indian Movement activist Tim Lame Woman lives nearby on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. He said this memorial is long overdue. "It's such a beautiful feeling to finally come and reach a goal and accomplish something that the world has seen unveiled today," he said.

In 1988, he and other AIM members placed a crude metal plaque atop Last Stand Hill, where for over 100 years a monument has stood to honor the fallen U.S. soldiers.

That act of civil disobedience spurred change. In 1991, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that authorized re-naming the site from the Custer to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The legislation also called for erecting an Indian Memorial, but Congress didn't provide the funding for it until 10 years later.

Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne said this memorial brings with it harmony and balance, because it recognizes both sides in this legendary battle. "We here today complete that circle by honoring warriors who chose to fight a battle in protection of their way of life and for their women and children," he said.

The memorial's design is a circle - a sacred symbol to many tribes. Through an opening at one end, one can see Last Stand Hill and the white, granite obelisk there that honors the U.S. soldiers.

Barbara Sutteer is the tribal liaison for the Indian Memorial project. She stands before what the designers call the "spirit gate."

"And that's to allow the soldier spirits and the warrior spirits to go back and forth to each other in a way that would be re-conciliation and keeping with the theme of the memorial which is peace through unity," she said.

Across from that gate rests a two-dimensional sculpture. Bars of metal are bent and welded to form three warriors on horseback.

"The third one is receiving a war shield from a woman who has run up to the horse and is handing a war shield up. So that represents the three warrior tribes and much to my satisfaction the woman represents the 10 women who were killed in the battle," she said.

Ms. Sutteer is now retired from the National Park Service. She was the first American Indian and woman to serve as a superintendent at this battlefield. During her tenure, came the legislation for this memorial.

Besides honoring their ancestors who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, many of the tribal representatives also spoke of all American Indian veterans. Special recognition at the ceremony was also given to the first American Indian woman to be killed in combat in the modern-day U.S. military. Lori Piestewa died in the U.S.-led war in Iraq last March.

Representatives of the 7th Cavalry unit led a black, riderless horse in her honor.