Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is proof that perception of the past morphs when seen through a changing societal lens.
Located in the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana, the site is a memorial to people who fought and died in a battle that took place in 1876. You might think something that happened so long ago would be static.
Yet, before 1991, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was known as Custer Battlefield National Monument. It focused solely on Army casualties.
On June 25-26, 1876, Native American warriors resoundingly defeated the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
The Lakota called it the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Whites called the battle Custer’s Last Stand. The fight in the valley of the Little Bighorn River was one of the last salvos in the war between native peoples and the expanding United States.
The battle that took place was part of the Great Sioux War. In 1876, the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne joined forces to protect their way of life, sacred spaces, and ancestral hunting grounds.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 prohibited settlers from trespassing in their lands in South Dakota, including the Black Hills. Large swaths of land in Wyoming and Montana were also supposedly protected.
Like so many other agreements, the Treaty of Fort Laramie became meaningless as white settlers encroached and they, and members of the United States government, decided the riches of the land, especially gold, were more important than their word.
Lt. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry arrived at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876.
By then, thousands of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were camped along its banks, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Nineteen years before the great battle, those two had met with other leaders at Bear Butte to discuss the threat the settlers presented.
And it had only been eight years since gold-rushing settlers trod on the infamous treaty and stole the Black Hills.
The battle was disastrous for the personnel of the US Army, who suffered 268 casualties, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer. The tribes lost anywhere from 40 to 100 warriors.
Related: National Parks checklist and easy tips for visiting
This was the site of Custer’s Last Stand.
But it was more than that.
It was one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians, and one of the final battles in a war between two cultures that were inherently unable to coexist.
One, a nomadic people who followed the land and went where the living was best. The other, a people who settled a land and made it what they wanted.
Three days after the battle had begun, Major Marcus A. Reno and seventh cavalry survivors began burying fallen soldiers in shallow graves. The next year, the remains of Custer and other officers would be re-interred elsewhere.
The tribes buried their dead in their traditional way: removing them to teepees or tree-scaffolds in the nearby Little Bighorn Valley.
In 1879, three years after the June battle, the War Department designated Little Bighorn Battlefield a National Cemetery.
Two years later, the War Department erected the 7th US Cavalry Memorial at the top of Last Stand Hill.
Then in 1890, white marble markers pinpointed the soldier’s gravesites. Today, several are near the Memorial.
The battlefield became part of the National Park Service in 1940, but it would be another 51 years before the other side of the story was told.
After a 1988 protest by members of the American Indian Movement and combined pressure from that group and the National Congress for American Indians, Congress passed legislation requiring both sides of the story be told.
On December 10, 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed the legislation into law. The site of the battle of the Little Bighorn became Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Then in 2003, the Indian Memorial was dedicated. Its theme, Peace Through Unity, emphasizes the continued need for “cooperation both among Indian tribes and between tribal governments and the federal government.”
“… it is the only memorial to the Native American experience mandated by Congress and constructed with federal funds.” nps.gov
Visiting is somber. There are gravestones marking spots where soldiers and Native Americans fell. Bushes are strewn with prayer cloths, a practice we’d previously seen at Devils Tower National Monument.
Since the soldiers were members of the US Army’s 7th cavalry, there’s a horse cemetery. Most somber of all is the memorial etched with names above a mass grave of about 220 soldiers, scouts, and civilians.
There are several headstones inside the fence near the memorial, and there is even one for Custer, although his remains were moved to West Point.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is one of many unique things to do in Montana.
Visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Experience this memorial by making your first stop the visitor center. Inside, you can watch a 25-minute orientation video that details the history of the battle itself as well as the context that surrounded the conflict.
The center also houses a museum, and the exhibits expand on the the video and provide more information and education.
After you’ve explored the center, you can walk the Deep Ravine trail, a short half-mile self-guided walking tour.
For the full experience, drive the 4.5 mile tour road to the Reno-Benteen Defense Site.
Numbered markers indicate the stops available on the accompanying cell phone audio tour.
Just beware that there might be a traffic jam, Montana-style.
Custer National Cemetery is located at the entrance next to the Visitor Center. Take a moment to pay your respects to soldiers and military personnel who died in service to their country.
Little Bighorn Battlefield Fees:
- Private, non-commercial vehicle $25.00
- Motorcycle $20.00
- Per person, walk-in or bicycle $15.00
- Commercial Van/mini-bus 7-15 people $45.00
- Commercial Bus $100.00 (26 or more seats, regardless of occupancy)
As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.
Where is Little Bighorn Battlefield?
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located in Crow Agency, Montana, in the south-central part of the state. It’s one mile west of I-90/U.S. 87.
Where to stay near Little Bighorn Battlefield?
Billings, Montana, is about an hour from Little Bighorn and has several options for accommodations. You can browse deals below:
To find out more information, visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument website.