Travels Through The Badlands

1 November 2015
Read Time: 6.0 mins

At first I walked along the edge of a grassy bluff overlooking the campsite below, admiring the tipis and the horses, but eventually I went down among them. Everyone was preparing or eating breakfast.

No one looked at me. Was that significant, I wondered?

At these annual tribal pow-wows, a sort of cross between agricultural show, rodeo and fairground, the mood is celebratory and cheerful but they are definitely aimed at tribal members rather than outsiders.

 On the bluff … James Real Bird looking out over Little Bighorn river. All photographs by Kevin Rushby

Not only that, but this was the Wyoming-Montana border: hard battles had been fought here long ago between the United States cavalry and the Native Americans and, no doubt, deep grudges were laid down.

Then, skirting around a clump of cottonwood trees, I walked slap bang into someone’s camp. Two large women were frying eggs on a stove while a few grizzled men sat watching from under an awning. Their conversation, which had been in Crow language, petered out when they saw me.

“Good morning.”

It was unclear, for a moment, whether anyone had heard me. No one smiled or replied. The men were all in battered cowboy boots, distressed jeans and plaid shirts, and they sported long, black ponytails. Nearby stood a makeshift horse corral, with half a dozen mustangs milling around.

 The Crow Indian tipi camp

“I’m looking for the Real Bird camp.” I said. “Someone told me they take people out riding at Little Bighorn?”

Silence. A few muttered words of Crow. A woman stepped forward and pointed with her cast-iron frying pan: “That’s the Real Bird camp. But there’s no one there right now.”

“OK. Thanks.” Silence. Sometimes the best tactic is to keep still, keep smiling, and ride out uncomfortable moments.

The Potential For Discomfort Is Great

The night before, I had driven into Sheridan, Wyoming, a city named after the man who reputedly said: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

This was the man who ordered the seventh cavalry, under his protege, George Armstrong Custer, to exterminate as many Native Americans as possible, slaughter their horses and burn their tipis – hoping the survivors would either freeze or starve to death.

There are seven US towns named after Philip Sheridan. There are also five counties, a mountain, a glacier, countless streets, and a 1960s army tank. Sheridan’s military mentor, William T Sherman, was the general who talked of extermination of the “Plains Indians” as a “final solution”, long before the Nazis used the term.

The largest tree in the world is named after Sherman, plus 11 towns, an asteroid and a battle tank. Custer has a city, six counties, two towns and a type of hair extension.

The Native Americans, on the other hand, got the Badlands and the measles. The potential for uncomfortable moments is great.

 Crow warriors in the dance competition at Crow Fair, Hardin, Montana

At the tipi camp, one of the men eventually turned and said: “You should talk to Mike Yellowmeal.” Pause. “Where you from?” We shook hands. Pete turned out not to be a Crow at all. “I just got to know ’em 20 years ago and been hanging around ever since. Best people in the world.” He grinned. “Sometimes a bit wary.”

He lived a nomadic life, moving between towns, taking photographs of horses and sacred landscapes, then selling them to Native Americans at annual pow-wows like this one. “They love their horses. You should talk to Mike. HEY MIKE!”

We pulled our chairs over to Mike’s camp next door and chatted about horses, several of which he had in a pen beside his tipi. After a little while, someone came over and gave me a phone number for the Little Bighorn ride.

Tourism and the Native Americans have had a tricky relationship. Back in 1877, the first holidaymakers to go west arrived a little early – before the cavalry had fully prepared the ground.

In one of the more bizarre sequences, a group of tourists in Yellowstone park got entangled in the pursuit of the Nez Perce tribe by Sherman’s cavalry. (“We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop progress,” Sherman wrote to President Ulysses S Grant.)

In all this, the Crow tribe, it has to be said, did not fare too badly. They had a prophet who warned them not to fight the white man, and so they didn’t. When the dust had settled, at the end of the 19th century, they had decent land in Montana that included the site of Custer’s final, and fatal, military engagement: Little Bighorn. I rang the number.

 Ready for steer-roping at the Crow Fair rodeo

Boot Camp Takes On A New Meaning

A few days later, I drove out to a house on a big curve in the Little Bighorn river surrounded by fences, feed boxes and, rather prominently, a mechanical bucking bronco. A young man in a white cowboy hat came out of the house and introduced himself as James Real Bird. There were horses everywhere but he had already picked mine out: “Tarzan. He’s a great horse. We use him in the rodeo all the time.”

In Britain, whenever I’ve been riding, the first thing they do is provide you with a helmet. In the US, they look at your feet. James whistled in surprise. “You ain’t got boots!”

He searched among a mountain of old cowboy footwear and kitted me out. There was no mention of helmets. There were three other people on the ride who clearly knew more than I did about horses. They had boots.

We trotted down to the river, splashed across, then rode up on to a bluff overlooking the river. James leaned on the pommel of his saddle.

“You see that notch in those mountains?” He pointed south to where the Wolf mountains rose up. “That’s the Crow’s Nest lookout. On 25 June, 1876, Custer came there and, looking down here, saw the tipi camp, right where our house is now.”

 Gambling and church are strong presences in many reservations

Custer’s plan was simple: send a detachment of men to distract the warriors to the south while he sneaked around and attacked the camp from the east. Depending on who you believe, his intention was to either round up the women and children as hostages, or slaughter them.

James led us down into a narrow valley. “This here’s Cedar Coolie, where Custer came, but he got spotted and the warriors chased him up on the ridge.”

Whenever James spoke, I noticed, Tarzan and the other horses listened.

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No Need For Cowboy Movies

We rode down the valley, following Custer’s route. Tarzan, I discovered, could turn on a sixpence and was very good at walking backwards. I had been loaned an equine Ferrari.

Where the valley opened out we could see the hill rise up to the battle monument. “That’s where Custer made his last stand and was killed,” said James.

“Do you ever watch cowboy movies?” I asked.

He laughed. “No! But there is a movie called Little Big Man that I kinda liked. My dad was an extra in it. They shot the final battle scene right here.”

 Wyoming-Montana border territory near the Bear Claw Pass

Little Bighorn, of course, proved to be a hollow victory for the Native Americans, who were soon after defeated and sent to reservations. I visited one of the more well-known reservations: Pine Ridge. In the US the name is a byword for social deprivation and substance abuse but that is only one side of the story.

Here, amid miles of lovely, rolling grassland, you can escape the endless tarmac and chain restaurants of modern America and get a feel for what the prairie once was. It is also home to talented Indian artists and I went to visit one of them: Evans Flammond Senior.

We drove through the spectacular Badlands national park and then south to Wounded Knee creek, scene of a notorious massacre that marked the tragic end of the “Indian wars”.

There are no fast-food concessions or tour buses here, just a lonely hilltop cemetery where descendants of the victims have tied feathers and ribbons as tributes on a white picket fence around the stone memorial.

Further into the reservation, we found Evans in his half-built house-cum-studio, painting a set of traditional eagle feathers. He was a huge bear of a man in Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts. “They’re not real eagle feathers,” he admitted. “Federal law don’t allow it.”

 Ledger art … Evans Flammond painting warriors on old account books

All around were examples of his astonishing talent for modern interpretations of traditional arts and crafts: an electric-blue horse’s head-dress and a decorated spear.

But it was his “ledger paintings”, that most caught my attention. “When the wars were over, our people had no access to materials to paint on, so they used old pages torn from the ledger books of the government agents.”

Evans took me close up to the pictures and I could make out, behind the over-painting, the old-fashioned calligraphic handwriting of the bookkeepers: “One stack of hay – $8. One gallon whiskey – 37½c.”

Over such prosaic entries the ledger artists recorded, and still record, their dreams and visions: battle scenes, horses and wildlife. What had started as an expedient use of waste paper had become a subtle form of revenge – the white man’s obsession with money, so neatly laid out in black and white, flooded by a wild tide of colour.

In the corner of the studio, I leafed through Evans’s stock of as yet unpainted, ledger books, a window into a lost world of the wild west and its accountancy practices. On this analysis, the lawless frontier had fewer pistols and much more in the way of sewing supplies, ribbons and hay.

Among all these lists of pioneer shopping, I found a sheet showing the accounts of one branch of the Custer family, not George Armstrong, but a great uncle perhaps. It was too good to resist, I immediately commissioned Evans to scatter some of his wild mustangs across the page, an act of artistic licence which, he agreed, would be immensely pleasurable.

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This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


Kevin Rushby

Kevin Rushby is Guardian Travel's 'Explorer' and a contributor to the Saturday Review. He is the author of four acclaimed travel books, including Hunting Pirate Heaven, an investigation of 17th century pirate utopias in the Indian Ocean. His most recent book is Paradise, an historical account of human searching for perfection over the centuries.