In New Orleans, membership in most parade Krewes is a major commitment, stiff dues and an entrenched hierarchy provides order to their acts. The krewe known as Societe de Ste. Anne, takes the extreme opposite view and their parade is an explosion of color and creativity open to anyone who wants to take part.
The St. Anne parade started 50 years, in 1969, at the height of the counter-culture movement. Residents of Bywater and Marigney wanted to protest a city ordinance to ban walking parades in the French Quarter and they gathered their creative friends to make their best costumes and march anyway. The tradition took off.
This year, a band of roving skeletons on foot and bicycle beat their drums and called out to us as they passed our house on Burgundy St. well before 8am. “Happy Mardi Gras!” they greeted to roust neighbors out of bed. Time to don your costume and walk to the rendezvous points where friends meet to admire their costumes, drink Bloody Marys, beer or coffee, and get ready to march.
By 9 am, hundreds of people, dressed in the most imaginative costumes, from the traditional Cajun dress that is worn mostly in rural areas to the male peacocks who struck their stuff every year.
The parade kicked off with a group dressed in gold, walking to the brass band sounds of the Storyville Stompers. A float and festoons of ribbons wove in and out as they walked.
More and more people joined the flow of celebrants as they walked through the Marigney district and by the time they reached the French Quarter, the streets were overflowing with color and good cheer.
Get a taste of the fun and see some of the most colorful costumes by clicking on the slideshow below.
Faith in spiritual healing in New Orleans is more than just a story of voodoo or witchcraft, it runs deep within the traditional churches. Just take a look at the Catholic saints.
Saint Roch was a 14th-century pilgrim in Italy where he was said to have miraculously cured plague victims with prayer. When he became infected, he went into the forest, where a nobleman’s dog brought him bread and licked his wounds. He survived only to be executed later as a spy. After his death, stories of St. Roch’s healing made him sought after as people across Europe were stricken by the deadly Black Plague. Eventually he was called a saint.
A young girl's tomb and the figure of Christ lay in front of St. Roch's chapel.
When New Orleans was ravaged by yellow fear in the late 19th-century, a Catholic priest prayed to St. Roch to protect his parishioners and astonishingly, none died. In thanks, Reverend Peter Thevis vowed to build a chapel for St. Roch and he traveled to Europe to study Gothic architecture before building a fine example here.
Pilgrims started seeking out St. Roch’s chapel and praying before a statue of him accompanied by a small dog. On certain holy days, more than a thousand people crowded in to the small chapel to seek St. Roch’s healing.
Thousands of people have found cures by praying to the statue of Father Roch, seen with the dog that saved him. The woman in the statue at right is unidentified. Both statues are in a recessed area of the chapel awaiting restoration.
Once cured, the faithful returned with prosthetic feet, legs, hands, or even artificial hearts, to thank St. Roch for his intercession on their behalf. Today, the chapel is closed while undergoing renovations but you can peer into a side window to see the dust-covered artifacts that have been left over the years.
Crutches, prosthetic limbs and rosaries have been left in thanks to St. Roch.
Outside the chapel, Father Thevis established a graveyard for people from the parish. The above-ground mausoleums and wall crypts line several corridors with plastic roses and broken vases scattered along the walk.
Favorite toys and blessings are left for the newly departed by those left behind.
A visit to St. Roch’s cemetery and chapel is worth it for its historic value, but while you’re there it wouldn’t hurt to say a prayer to help an ache or pain.
Big Queen of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Guardians of the Flame helped lead the funeral parade for Reverend LeDoux.
A New Orleans tradition, born in a Catholic Church formed by free black men and women at a time when slavery ruled the South, and mixed with the African roots of Congo Square and the Mardi Gras Indians, was on full display recently in the Treme section of the Crescent City. A fine array of people, mostly African-American but embracing people of all races, came together at Saint Augustine church in a vibrant tribute to one of their most distinguished leaders, Rev. Jerome LeDoux. LeDoux, a former priest at the historic Catholic church, who was loved for his loving smile and embrace, and for bringing music, song and worship together to save the church from closing after Hurricane Katrina. A banner with a portrait of him, smiling, led the procession out of the church.
The celebrants came out to mark the passing of their beloved priest, Reverend LeDoux.
Every song that had been sung, every dance that had been danced and every arm that praised the Lord inside St. Augustine and other parishes that stretched from Louisiana to Texas came out to honor Reverend LeDoux on a beautiful Saturday morning. Outside the church, the priest greeted a family member with a hug, then stood with members of the Catholic auxiliary group Ladies of Peter Claver who wore white tasseled cardboard hats over solemn expressions.
Voodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux, Merline Kimbel, a Gold Digger Baby Doll and two officials of the Ladies of Peter Claver await the ceremony to release the doves, representing the spirit of Rev. LeDoux.
More women arrived, all dressed in white, some with the frilled parasols and lacy garments of the Baby Dolls. They formed a semi-circle around Big Queen of the Mardi Gras Indian group Guardians of the Flame, Cherisse Harrison-Nelson, her bright blue feather and bead costume dazzling. All eyes were on a white basket covered in white flowers that the priest and others opened to release three pure white doves that flew off into the cloudless blue sky.
The priest greeted a family member just before the doves were released from the basket.
Then the Treme Brass Band started to play, first Amazing Grace, then I’ll Fly Away. The ladies danced, smiling, happy to send off Reverend LeDoux to heaven.
.This woman seemed to swoon over a photo of Reverend LeDoux as she led the line of marchers from the church.
Marchers went to a field nearby for more dancing and piles of food served for the community. Everyone was invited. The Vodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux and Anita Oubre of the Mahogany Blue Baby Dolls danced to the brass band while members of the Congo Square Preservation Society looked on.
If you would like to learn more about St. Augustine church and Father LeDoux, check out his book War of the Pews that relates the early history of the church, including the tension that erupted between free blacks, whites, and creoles in the mid-19th century a process that led to a multi-ethnic congregation that we found today. You can also learn more about the church and neighborhood at the Backstreet Cultural Museum right across from St. Augustine’s.
New Orleans is a fascinating city, full of traditions and rituals that date back 300 years. Most people think of the city as the scene of spectacles and parades that mark Fat Tuesday, commonly known as Mardi Gras. They picture a day or two of intense partying that ends the next day when the Lenten period of abstinence kicks in.
If you spend more time in New Orleans, as we have, you discover that Mardi Gras is not just one day, week or a month before the start of Lent but kicks off with the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on January 6. This year, 2019, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, comes later than usual, March 5, which means celebrants will parade, sing, dance and wear costumes for a full two months.
The Epiphany marks the visit of the Three Kings, the Magi, to Jesus Christ’s humble stable where he was born. New Orleans popular culture honors the religious aspect of the day by eating an incredibly rich King Cake with the figure of a baby buried inside
Folks love the King Cake, which comes with inventive flavors and fillings.
This year, a local café, the Bywater Bakery, held a party to mark the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and to offer a half dozen varieties of King Cake. Outside in the street, a small group of Mardi Gras Indians dressed in elaborate feather costumes came by to sing a spiritual song.
The Mardi Gras Indians tribes draw their members from New Orleans’ African-American neighborhoods and honor the Native Americans who helped them escape from slavery. Each year they compete with each other for the most elaborate costume and style.
Minutes later, Grammy-award-winning R&B pianist Jon Cleary banged out some New Orleans tunes to celebrate the day.
After taking a rest from the Bywater party, we headed down to the French Quarter where a magnificent parade honoring the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, was getting ready to march. The choreographed story of the teenager martyr unfolded before us, told by costumed marchers who brought to life her courage and martyrdom in the 15th-century.
First, however, the paraders reminded the crowd that they were in New Orleans, Louisiana, not France, by chanting Who Dat?, the New Orleans Saints football team’s rallying cry, then playing its signature song.
The medieval revelers followed, carrying a cake marking the 607th anniversary of Joan of Arc’s birth.
Joan arrived on a horse…
Followed by priests and commoners.
The marchers portrayed how, after her victory on the battlefield in 1429, Joan of Arc was tried and condemned.
Found guilty, at age 19 she was burned at the stake.
Declared a martyr, then a saint, Joan of Arc walked with angels at the end.
All this took place on the first day of the Mardi Gras season. Stick around to find out what other festivities the clever residents of New Orleans have in store.
We arrived on the pond in Bradley in early September when we could still feel the heat of summer, the open windows of our camp bringing in a breeze at night. After Labor Day, the campers and boaters headed back into town and we could enjoy the peaceful setting undisturbed.
We chose to stay at this camp to be near my mother, who was turning 101 the next month. My mother is a remarkable woman who savors the simple pleasure of being alive another day. She is tended to by a team of aides who ensure her safety and engage her in puzzles and activities. We joined her every day we could.
My mother turned 101 in October.
When her birthday approached my mother frequently asked how old she would be and, after learning that she would turn 101, smiled and said, “I guess my days are numbered.” I laughed, agreeing that my days are numbered, too.
It was a quiet fall, filled with paddling on the pond or walking along the four-mile dirt road that lead to our camp.
We made one trip to Campobello, Nova Scotia, where we bicycled the entire island over the course of two days. I bought a beautiful new bike, an electric one, in September and experienced the joy of riding all over the place.
That's me and my bike outside the newly-discovered farm owned by one of my ancestor families in Orrington, Maine.
Throughout our three-month stay I worked with a local group that is affiliated with the Central Maine Labor Council called Food and Medicine. My assignment was to make contact with three dozen small farmers throughout the region and contract with them to purchase some of their crops, part of a program called Solidarity Harvest.
I helped with the potato harvest at the University of Maine farms, which donated 4,000 pounds of spuds to the program.
Solidarity Harvest raises money from labor unions, community groups and individuals to provide nutritious overstuffed baskets of food to some 1,300 Mainers in need. It is founded on the principle of solidarity, not charity. Before Thanksgiving, nearly 40,000 pounds of the produce – carrots, squash, turnip, beets, onions, garlic, apples and cranberries – need to be sorted and weighed, a feat carried out by an army of volunteers. Mark joined in this year, serving as captain of a team of college frat volunteers.
We also knocked on doors for Congressional candidate Jared Golden who won the November vote.
We went for long hikes every weekend, admiring the leaves as they turned from green to gold. The hills near Acadia National Park provided an opportunity to watch the maples burst out red and orange and the colors of the blueberry fields explode.
A blueberry field in fall.
On one hike in Steuben, we discovered a plaque on the grave of a geologist, Wilmot Bradley, that read: “The earth has music for those who listen.” Inspired by these words, a local seismologist and artist created a global chain of monitoring stations that record the vibrations of the earth and broadcast them online at earthsound.com..
Click here to listen to the sounds of Pigeon Hill in Steuben and enjoy below a view of the ocean from the hilltop.
Looking out across Dyer's Bay toward Cadillac Mountain.
Our camp on Chemo Pond in Bradley was really much more than that. The house hugs the shoreline and looks out at the hills surrounding the pond. Fully equipped with a canoe, a kayak and a paddle boat, we could take a paddle whenever the mood struck.
View from our living room.
Inside, the house was so solidly constructed with great attention to detail. Our landlady, Jane, is also a woodworker and she had a hand in building the place. She also decorated it with etched carvings and taxidermied animals.
We got used to living with the critters after a few days.
While the weather was still mild we had some visitors, including Sharon and Simonetta from Cornwall-on-Hudson and Ernesto, the son of a friend. Our son, Max, was able to spend several days with us out in the country and we sang songs around the campfire one full-moon night.
In late October, Margo and John joined us for a few days from Minneapolis and we managed to get out and hike around the area despite many grey clouds and some rain.
John and Margo in Acadia National Park.
By then, the warm weather was a distant memory with temperatures at a record low. We put our bikes away and donned orange vests for walking when deer-hunting season opened next. We had our first dusting of snow on October 24th.
By November 16th, the first real snowfall hit us, and again, even harder, four days later. Thanksgiving day the temperature did not rise about above 15 degrees.
Sunrise after a snowstorm.
It is time for us to leave. We are saying our goodbyes to my mother, loading the van and hooking the car to the trailer hitch to head south to our next destination: New Orleans.
Before we go, I’d like to remember the changing seasons on the pond.
We just spent our third summer in Alaska, where we are surrounded by the double joys of warm family and spectacular scenery.
Throughout our travels we photograph the natural beauty and, at home, we partake in the rituals of gardening and, naturally, of eating the bounty the gardens produce.
In the following sections we are sharing some of the best views of our 2018 Alaska stay, from the many glaciers we discovered to the footprints of wanna-be miners stampeding to search for gold.
Glaciers Yes, the glaciers are receding from coastal Alaska. Yes, scientists report that 75 billion tons of ice are lost every year from Alaska’s glaciers, resulting in “sustained mass loss.” Glaciers are melting at the fastest rate in 400 years.
The warming trend brought by climate change could be reversed in time to stop the ice fields from melting but, pessimistic about the future, we have seen as many of these sparkling frozen rivers as we could.
Family When we stay in Alaska, we’ve been living in a small apartment attached to my brother- and sister-in-law’s house on the outskirts of Anchorage. Their house is perched on a hillside overlooking Turnagain Arm, part of the Cook Inlet. Some of Janis and Jerry’s children live in the area and we often got together to share a meal. In July, their son Josh and his wife Tess came from NYC to celebrate an anniversary with us all.
Nature We didn’t have to go far to see wildlife, they frequently visited us, grazing through the nearby woodlands. When two black bear cubs were separated from their mamma, we listened to the babies cries and the mother calling them.
The wildlife did not stop us from hiking in the outback where we found flowers, mushrooms, fungi and lichen.
Gardens Farmers in the Matanuska Valley are the major vegetable producers for south central Alaska and we visited the gardens in Palmer where we met the lovely Cabbage Fairies pictured at left..
At home, we had two green houses, six beds, many containers and a fruit orchard to tend to throughout the summer. Our niece runs a small urban farmer growing greens and flowers and saw them grow from seeds.
Click here to see what you can grow in a garden in Alaska.
Pioneers & Artists White settlers first came to Alaska 120 years ago in a mad stampede for gold and displaced many of the Native peoples who lived there.
At a National Park Service display in Skagway, we learned about the thousands of people, largely men, who spent a year trying to get to the Klondike gold field only to find the gold gone by the time they got there.
We also visited the Anchorage Museum and want to share their splendid new exhibits tell the history of the state and highlight its artists.
To learn about some of the Alaska pioneers and artists we discovered, click here.
Mountains We have driven by hundreds of mountains in Alaska, and can testify that each one has its own special charm. That’s why we keep taking photos of mountains.
If you like them, too, click here to see some of the beauties that we found.
The Sea This year we took three trips on the Alaska Marine Ferry System and got a first-hand look at the waters where so many Alaskans make their livings on fishing boats.
From Bellingham, Washington, we spent three nights and four days in early May sailing past Vancouver then through the Inside Passage to Ketchican, Juneau and Haines.
In July we sailed seven hours from Whittier, Alaska, across Prince William Sound to Cordova, which is not reachable by road.
Finally, on our departure from Alaska we took a short ferry ride from Haines to Skagway on the state’s eastern edge.
Click here to see some of the views we encountered in the waters off Alaska.
My sister and brother-in-law, along with daughter Rachel, own the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, certainly the finest pastry shop in the state. When we arrived in May, they were putting the finishing touches on their third bakery, this one with a giant oven to meet the demand for bread and cakes.
In August, Fire Island opened its newest shop on a beautiful, sun-struck day. See the excitement here.
How two cultures intermingled in a small Alaskan town.
St. Nicolas Church and graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska.
On the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, in the village of Eklutna, we found a vivid reminder of a clash of two cultures nearly 250 years ago.
In a spruce forest at the foot of the Chugach mountains, a cemetery is filled with graves marked by dozens of tiny spirit houses painted in bright colors that have been pummeled relentlessly by winter snows and summer rains. Close beside it an onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel that is filled with elaborate gold icons and intricately-painted images of Orthodox saints.
Looking around, we found that Alaskan Natives had built the ornate church as well as the spirit houses. The spirit houses are an expression of their native culture, while the three-pronged Russian Orthodox crosses reflect the new faith they have adopted.
This sign welcomed us to St. Nicholas church.
This is the cemetery of the Dena’ina, Alaska natives who are descendants of the Athabaskan people who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia more than 12,000 years ago. Their traditional religious beliefs held that the world was filled with spirits, both human and animal, who could be called on by shamans to heal the sick or ensure success on a hunting expedition.
Dena’ina Chief Stephan of Knik is shown wearing a ground squirrel parka, headdress, and dentalium shell (k’enq’ena) bandolier in this late nineteenth-century photograph. The dentalium shells and headdress are symbols of Chief Stephan’s status as a qeshqa, a leader. Photo: Louis Weeks Collection, Anchorage Museum.
After contact with Russian traders, Orthodox priests sought to eradicate the Dena’ina shamans and by the late 19th-century many of the Dena’ina had shifted their faith to the Orthodox Church. The transition emerged after decades of abuse by the traders who quickly established their dominance over the native people. Beginning around 1784, Russian traders moved from the Aleutians and Kodiak Island to the Kenai peninsula and mainland where they implemented the practice of capturing local natives and holding them as hostages until their kinsmen returned with piles of furs to sell to the Russians. Female natives were forcibly raped and a Russian Orthodox missionary reported that traders “treat the natives in the most barbaric manner…they take the wives and young daughters as sexual partners. They kill any who refuse to hunt sea otters.”
Georgii Shelikhov was a dominant Russian fur trader in 18th-century.
Perched at the edge of a vast, cold wilderness, and fearful of retaliatory attacks, the Russian traders built fortified settlements and later brought the Dena’ina inside their walls where they introduced them to the Russian language and religion while training them to become servants. Smallpox and flu epidemics shrunk the Dena’ina population as well. By the mid-20th century, the Dena’ina culture was fading. The elders still spoke their language but the young people grew up speaking English and lived among the burgeoning population of immigrants who settled in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.
This 1907 postcard shows neighboring Ahtna Native Alaskans whose ancestors also encountered Russian traders.
In more recent years, a cultural revival has focused on reviving the Dena’ina language and culture. Working with the Smithsonian Institute, native Alaskan people have recorded their stories and traditions. They have also created the Eklutna Historical Park.
In the overgrown Dena’ina cemetery in Eklutna, one can almost feel the life of those buried here. Each spirit house tells a story, with the names of the dead painted on wooden panels and plastic flowers or hand-painted tributes written on stones. William Bryan Walters Sr. died at age 38 but the red-checked curtains in his spirit house and the row of red stars across the roof bring a part of him to life.
Buddy Walters was remembered by loved ones at a potlatch ceremony held after his death.
Before contact with the Russians, the Dena’ina people cremated their dead and buried their ashes. After becoming Orthodox, the bodies were interred in the ground. The spirit houses at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna provide a resting place for the spirit on its journey from the grave. Friends and neighbors left personal belongings for the departing soul.
Uncle Max, Giggles and Jesus saves, just three of the messages to comfort the departed in the spirit world.
After Walter’s burial in the plot beneath the spirit house, the elders held a potlatch in the nearby community center to celebrate his life.
Traditional Dena’ina potlatch ceremonies featured a song composed for the deceased that immortalize their talents and works. Family members give gifts to those who attend a potlatch, a way of repaying any debts to the community.
The impermanence of life is overwhelming at the cemetery in Eklutna. The Dena’ina people believe that the spirit resides in the little houses for 40 days before moving on. Once the spirit leaves, they see little reason to maintain the now empty tiny residences, letting the grass grow up around it and the paint to peel.
Learn more about the Athabascan culture here. Learn more about the Russian Orthodox church in Eklutna here.
Looking past the copper processing plant to the Kennecott Glacier. Photo: National Park Service
It took 23 years but I finally made it back to McCarthy, Alaska, a town deep in the Wrangell Mountains. When I was first there, the place was a virtual ghost town, no sign of the thousands of miners who came seeking fortune in the Kennicott copper mine. From 1900 to 1938, an astounding supply of high-grade copper ore kept the mines working full steam. When the ore was gone, the owners abandoned the mine, the mill, the bunkhouses and kitchen. Hardly anything had been touched since 1938.
In 1995 I flew into McCarthy with my husband and toddler son. The small plane carried us above expansive ice fields and glaciers in the Wrangell Elias National Park about 250 miles from Anchorage. Two glaciers still flow within walking distance of Kennecott and a fine day hike will bring you close enough to touch the icy surfaces. This video of an ice chunk moving down the Kennecott River past our campsite will give you an idea of just how cold it is there in July.
The Richest Copper Mine in the World
On our first visit, we walked Inside the Kennecott mine buildings and could see abandoned furniture, medical supplies and other detritus left behind when the mill closed. Our guide, Chris Richardson, described how men slept in the bunkhouse beds in shifts, one man taking over when the other went to the mine. He told us how laborers endured temperatures of fifty below zero to build a railroad over a grueling mountain terrain to transport the copper to market.
in the winter, everything freezes and is entombed in snow.
A Deadly Day in McCarthy History
Most of all, Richardson talked about the winter day in 1983 when a local resident massacred six of the 22 people in McCarthy, part of his futile plan to stop the Alaska oil pipeline. Richardson was shot in the head by the assailant and lived. Richardson relived the details of the attack daily, haunted by his survival while good people died.
As we walked the mine’s crumbling ruins, you could sense the ghosts of copper miners and laborers. But when I looked into Chris Richardson sharp dark eyes I could feel the trauma he experienced in this isolated mountain town. I knew I wouldn't see him on this second trip to McCarthy as he died in a house fire more than a decade ago.
Restoration of Mine Buildings by the National Parks
Today, most visitors to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine appear to be unaware of the massacre. They come instead to see the glaciers and the mine facilities that have been restored by the National Park Service.
The mine superintendent's office, in the foreground, is restored and open to the public.
Where Chris Richardson once led a handful of visitors around the ruins, park rangers roam. Kiosks describe the mine and the living conditions and tourists pose in front of newly painted structures in Kennecott. This June, the park service opened an interactive exhibit bringing to life the workers and the families who lived in Kennecott during the mining operation years from 1911 – 1938.
The McCarthy Road
We took it slow when we drove into McCarthy. The 60-mile dirt road is notorious and we didn’t want to bust another tire on Alaska roads. The road runs along the bed of the old railroad and old wooden ties and spikes still surface. We picked up a CD disc available at the National Park Service visitor’s center and enjoyed its account of the monumental challenges and heroic efforts that went into building the railroad.
This wooden railroad trestle was built in 1908.
Once it snows, the road is not plowed and stays largely shut down through the winter. We arrived in early July and the sun was out all day. We parked on the banks of the Kennecott river and took the footbridge to cross into McCarthy town.
History, Hiking and Honky Tonk
The local museum focuses on daily life in this isolated community that sprang up to offer liquor, women and other amenities to the men in the mine. The mine administrators brought their families and a small professional class tried to lead ‘decent’ lives amid the ribaldry. Today, behind the Old West-style façade of a few buildings, you can find hand-made jewelry and crafts, burgers, salads and beer. While we were there a country band from Tennessee got people dancing at the local saloon.
You can walk or talk a local shuttle five miles up the mountain to the Kennecott Mines and from there hike to the Root Glacier (3 miles). Or, weather permitting, hike up 3800 feet to the Bonanza and Jumbo Mines.
That's me on the Root Glacier.
Just outside McCarthy we hiked to a moraine field with mounds of glacier ice covered in gravel. Ice cool pools of water with chunks of ice floating in it dot the landscape.
A moraine field with ice chunks.
We spent four days in McCarthy before heading back out the road, which we traversed without problem.
Valdez: Vistas to Die For
At the main road we took a left and swung down to Valdez, a port on the Prince William Sound. The ride down was astonishingly beautiful: massive glaciers and ice fields on one side giving way to towering waterfalls on the river side.
The Worthington Glacier. The day after we visited, a 10-inch boulder fell off the glacier and struck a five-year-old boy, killing him and proving again how wild Alaska nature can be.
A fishing town and the terminal of the Alaska oil pipeline, Valdez is a thriving community that is tied to the sea.
Fishing is the lifeblood of Valdez.
The Wrangell Mountains.
We only stayed a few hours then retraced our steps. The clouds had disappeared and the sun was shining, exposing the majestic snow covered Wrangell Mountains, including Mount Blackburn, the 5th tallest peak in North America.
The grassy hills and valleys of southern Montana stretch to the horizon. Atop the knoll where General George Custer made his famous last stand, I can see for miles in every direction and imagine the U.S. Calvary troops snaking around the perimeter of a flat riverbed where a large Lakota nation settlement was on the alert for a possible attack.
The rows of rectangular grave markers testify to the failed offensive by Custer’s calvary.
The U.S. leaders badly underestimated the size and strength of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters they would face on the Little Bighorn river. The attackers were out maneuvered and largely annihilated over two days of fighting. The Native American warriors fought fiercely to defend their way of life. which was threatened by settlers. In a short-lived attempt to end hostilities eight years earlier, the U.S. had signed a treaty that gave the Sioux Nation exclusive access to the Black Hills to the east of Little Bighorn. But when gold was discovered in 1874, miners rushed into the Black Hills and General Custer lead an expedition against the Sioux. The battle at Little Bighorn two years later proved to be the Sioux’s last triumph in the war.
As a child, I learned about General Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn against the warring Sioux tribes. Scant, if any, attention was paid to the broken treaties that fueled the hostilities. After his death, Custer’s widow published accounts describing her husband’s heroics and the site became Custer National cemetery a decade later. In 1946, the National Park Service renamed it Custer Battlefield National Monument.
For 25 years, the site attracted visitors to the cemetery where more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers who served throughout the region are buried. Then, in 1972, Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began protests to demand recognition of the Sioux who had fallen there. Debate raged for nearly two decades until Congress voted to rename the monument and create a memorial to the Native Americans who fought and died in the battle.
The memorial was conceived to express the theme of “peace through unity” and to provide a place where Native Americans can celebrate and honor the memory of their relatives. The design was chosen to express the spirit of the Plains and other Native Americans who played a decisive role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and to rectify the historic imbalance of the Indian role and sacrifice.
The memorial was only partially completed when it opened in 2003. It took another decade for the 17 Native American tribes tied to the site’s history to develop the text and images that would be inscribed on the interior granite walls. Today, the memorial honors the Native American ancestors who took their own stand in 1876.
Walking through the memorial, I was struck by its beauty: The warriors on horses galloping against the great blue sky and the smooth granite walls carved with stories that told of the celebration of victory.
Rarely have I been in at a war memorial that succeeded in honoring both sides of a battle and I saw hope for this nation to overcome its deep divisions. The memorial has achieved its goal to honor those who suffered and died in conflict and to help heal the wounds first opened some 150 years ago.