Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Little Bighorn

"Why hop ye so high, ye high hills?" is a biblical quotation that sticks in my mind, though I don't know which part it comes from. It came to mind again as I stopped at a turn off and gazed up at the barrier of the Bighorn Mountains. Out of Cody, my next objective was to see the Custer Battlefield, and I chose the 14A route because it looked like a shortcut. It turned out this range of mountains that- compared to the Rockies- didn't look like much on the map. But there it was, a line on a mountain side, and the second thought I had was, "That can't be the road." But it was.
Cody is about 5000 feet high and the floor of the plain below the Bighorns must be about the same. So within about a half hour I had reached the summit at 9000 feet. I feared for my poor little van, but she didn't make the least complaint. The road runs along the top of the range and then plunges down on the other side.
I took a liking to Wyoming. The people were friendly, the houses neat and tidy, remnants of the old days were well looked after, and the countryside is beautiful. Cody is a bit touristy, showing off its cowboy heritage, but I liked it.
Wandering around the site of the Little Bighorn battle where an unwise George Armstrong Custer led his men to their deaths I got a chill, even though it was a hot day. The site has a museum and gift store. Talks are given by Park Rangers about that famous event. Admission is $10. The grave markers are placed where bodies were found, and though the biggest concentration is on that hill, many more are scattered all around.
Over the years, how this event has been interpreted has undergone many changes. In my youth it was all about the bravery of the soldiers. More recently the trend has been to find fault with the treatment of the natives by the invading whites. The implication of this latter view is that a cordon sanitaire be placed around a vast area of the West where they could continue to live in blissful harmony with nature, chasing the noble bison, roaming freely on their ponies, forever and ever. This is obviously nonsense.
Among the Hurons in Ontario the Jesuits had already tried to prevent them from being corrupted by white society. By converting them to Christianity, a purer Christianity than any other. Of course, they were eventually wiped out by the Iroquois, a related agricultural people.
I do have an inner environmentalist which would like to see this landscape as it was before farmers, ranchers and miners transformed it. George Custer wrote in his journal what a paradise it was for a hunter. He loved it, too. But there was no way to hold back the human tide coming west.
The Sioux, having mastered the use of the horse better than any other tribe, themselves were invaders who had taken territory away from the Crows. This is history. The first whites in the area were fur traders. Their day was already over. Then came the cattle drive era, made so famous in movies. That only lasted 20 or 30 years. One wave displaces another, and on and on. If we're not careful it could happen to us.
But having passed through this land I can well understand why the Indians did not want to give it up.

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