Spend a moment with the ghosts of Little Bighorn, writes Ben Stanley.

From a distance, it was nondescript: a metre-high slab of smooth white stone with a short inscription on it.

Despite its curious location on a lonely field on the plains of eastern Montana, the marker, by itself, could have been largely unremarkable.

Except it wasn't by itself. There were hundreds more like it - 268 in all - scattered across a series of ridges between low prairie hills, and scrub-filled gullies.

I approached the marker, and crouched to check out the engraving.

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"US SOLDIER," it read. "7TH CAVALRY. FELL HERE, JUNE 25, 1876."

The markers mostly stood in groups of between 12 and 20 along the hills, while others were alone, marooned at the head of some lonesome gulch or exposed on the openness of the fields.

This was a place of ghosts - a place where men had fought, and died. This was where Colonel George Armstrong Custer made his infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The narratives of the two sides that fought at Little Bighorn are rippers.

In Custer, you had a flamboyant Civil War hero; an arrogant man motivated by political gain and column inches in the press. His adversaries at Little Bighorn, meanwhile, were the proud remnants of an entire culture on the ropes.

The settling and farming of the Midwest had quickly eroded the tribal land, and bison hunting grounds, of the Plains Indians. By 1875, most Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians had been forced on to government reservations.

The Plains Indians' way of life seemed doomed. Yet, the three tribes united and left the reservations - prompting the US government to send in Custer the following year.

The journey to the place where the 7th Cavalry, and the warriors of the three tribes met back then, is well earned, these days. The nearest city, Billings - the largest in Montana - is 99km to the west; meaning you need wheels to reach the battle site.

The entrance to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was unattended when I arrived, so my admission was free.

After a quick gander around the battlefield's small museum, I drove over the series of low prairie hills that make up the battlefield to the park's eastern extremity, where the Indian village was that day in 1876.

This is the best way to see Little Bighorn; working your way across it from east to west, playing it out as if it were happening as you drive.


Grave markers stand where native Americans and soldiers, including General Custer, fell during Custer's Last Stand. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Keith Ewing

Custer was convinced his troops were superior to the Indian warriors at the village, who, unbeknownst to him, were armed with more modern firearms, and numbered more than 2000. His column would make an instant retreat after attacking the village, and found its avenues of escape continually blocked by swarming Indian warriors.

The knots of markers today show how the battle unfolded, from the village to the place where Custer died at Last Stand Hill.

To leave your vehicle and walk among these markers - spaced mainly 500-600m apart - is to envisage how the battle progressed. Men fought, and died, in groups - trying to buy time for comrades. Others attempted to escape - only to be cut down.

The occasional brown markers of slain well-known Indian warriors also can be seen - with coins, cigarette lights and tea leaves left around them as modern tributes from their descendants. The spookiness of it all cannot be underplayed - especially given the sweeping beauty of the battle's location.

My drive finally took me to Last Stand Hill, where the battle reached its conclusion.

Off the western side of the hill is a circular earthwork that serves as a monument to the fallen Indian warriors from the three tribes that fought. Looking west from the earthwork are three spectacular bronze sculptures of warriors on horseback.

I looked further along the horizon from the sculptures, and saw smoke rising from a small town - Crow Agency - a couple of clicks away on the drive to the battlefield.

If Little Bighorn represents the greatest military victory in Native American history, Crow Agency shows its enduring, defeat.


General Custer made his infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The town is filled with trailer-bound, meth-addicted and drunk Native Americans; their culture dead. Custer might have bitten the dust, sure, but the bad guys won in the end.

I thought about that after I climbed to the top of Last Stand Hill and looked down at the fenced off cemetery that contained the marker of Custer, and those who fell around him.

An American tourist was leaning against the fence. After maybe a minute, I spoke up: "Custer sure was an arrogant bastard, huh."

The American nodded.

"The sad thing about Custer is he was in it for the glory and to advance his own political ambitions," he said.

"All those guys under those white markers were just doing their job, and wanting to make some money for their families."

He stopped talking, and we both looked back out over the battlefield, now drenched in sun.

The wind swept in, and the prairie grass shook in low waves. It was a beautiful day.

"Things never change," the American said, as he turned his back on Custer's marker, and walked towards his car.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Little Bighorn Battlefield is 99km from Billings, the largest city in Montana. American carriers fly daily to and from Billings from Denver, Portland and Seattle. Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles.

Details: Visiting the battlefield and museum below Last Stand Hill costs US$5 on foot, or US$10 to enter with a vehicle. Using a vehicle is recommended. The battlefield is open 8am-8pm over summer.

Further information: See visitmt.com and DiscoverAmerica.com for more information on travelling in Montana.

Ben Stanley travelled through Montana with the assistance of Visit Montana.