I am leaving early tomorrow morning to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota. There I will go to a motel, shut the door, and sleep. The next day I will talk to the folks who have already spent a week on Cheyenne River Reservation building homes as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ summer programs, and on Monday morning we’ll begin our bearing witness retreat. We will travel west and north, stopping at various sacred sites, arrive at the Crow Reservation in Montana, and spend time at Little Bighorn in Crow Agency.
Little Bighorn. As a young girl I first came across it in the movie, They Died With Their Boots On, memorializing the several hundred soldiers who died at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors along with their general, George Custer. Errol Flynn played the role of Custer, Anthony Quinn was Crazy Horse. Some of the other Indians, as they’re referred to in the movie, were played by Native Americans and that included the great runner Jim Thorpe. Others were played by white Hollywood actors. That’s the kind of mishmash that characterizes our stories of Little Bighorn, and relations with Native Americans generally.
There are many versions of that story, a recent one being that prior to the stand at Standing Rock last fall and winter, it was the last great gathering of Native tribes determined to stop Europeans from taking their territory. And while there’s still controversy about the personality of George Custer, there’s little doubt that once gold was discovered in dem dere hills, the treaty our government signed with Native Americans went into the trash and Custer was sent to insure the safety of the gold miners rushing in, hungry for treasure.
Little Bighorn happened some 140 years ago. Fifteen years later the massacre of Wounded Knee took place, effectively ending the wars with the Lakota and, in Black Elk’s words, breaking the Sacred Hoop.
You read and you read and you read, and then there’s being there. The battle at Little Bighorn happened in summer, and we will be there in summer. There’s a museum there now and a national cemetery, also roads, fields, and fences. It’s part of Crow Agency, and we, mostly European-Americans, will be led by Native leaders.
My experience is that we don’t just get their side of the issue, but something more subtle: their sense of the land, of the big sky, and the rhythms of time and history—ours and theirs—that transcend our more narrow concept of time and schedule.
The schedule is often the first thing that goes when we’re with Native Americans. Plans, too. We plan and schedule a lot, that work is always done, but my guess is that we’ll ditch lots of it and start from scratch, from not-knowing, day after day. Go outside, greet the sun, breathe the air, ask for guidance. What do we do here today? What—who—calls us? If you ask, if you truly and deeply ask, someone will answer.
Bernie will be home, Stanley will be home; Rae will be there to care for them. Whoever I leave back home still travel with me, and often that journey out is just part of the big circle that always brings me back right where I started.