Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Mike Semenock

A Member Of Friends Is To Be Active In The Future Of The Battlefield. 

Webmaster's Note: Mike Semenock has been a member of Friends since 2001. He joined its board in 2006.

There is something more to Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield for me than sharing a common interest with others. Having never been one to join clubs, associations or to take part in group activities, I took some time to reflect on how it was that I came to be a member of Friends and why it remains rewarding.

It had been 32 years since I’d been there and I remembered almost nothing about the place. Custer Battlefield: just one of the many obligatory tourist stops on our family’s coast-to-coast vacation in my sixteenth year. There was that god awful heat and the small museum that provided the only respite from it. The sun-baked and lifeless hills, covered in parched grass, were indistinguishable from others for countless miles. Had there been a cemetery?

So what was it now that made me press on the accelerator a little more when I saw the first highway sign for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, as it is now called? I tried not to let my wife and son notice the excited anticipation that was filling me as they sat unimpressed with the monotonous terrain gliding by. Why had I felt this place tugging at me with increasing strength over the last several years? Every plan for a fly-fishing trip to Montana included a mileage check to Little Bighorn…always too far, never enough time. But this year a visit to my wife’s sister and her family in South Dakota presented the opportunity to satisfy an unexplained urge.

As I turned off I-90 onto the off ramp, I began to shake a little. “Watch that speed, now,” I told myself as we made our way up the hill to the entrance. I paid the entrance fee at the booth and parked. A quick look through the visitor center museum and we were out on the lawn at the head of Deep Ravine.

”Want to walk the trail?” I asked. “It’s so hot. You go ahead,” Sally replied. While she kept nine year old Harrison occupied, I began a slow descent of the trail. I felt the warm air fill my lungs, and surrendered my jitters to the calmness. I felt at peace in this place noted for war. It was as if the storm of violence and bloodlust of the past had been so utterly complete that only serenity could now possess this place. That was 1999 and I have returned each summer since.

Having a feeling of the battlefield set off a voracious appetite for the story of what happened the day of June 25, 1876, the events that led up to it, the aftermath and the lives of those who played out the events that unfolded there. For every factual sentence written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn there are volumes of supposition and conjecture. The untold stories of the dead and perplexing Indian accounts have left a clean slate for countless theories and versions of the enduring mystery story. Besides being a fascinating pastime, the literature became the best way to connect with others of similar interests during visits to the battlefield. Outside a small circle of enthusiasts, the battle as a topic of conversation is rarely encountered and the exchange brief when it is. So now I returned yearly to the battlefield for the feeling of the place, to imagine the history that played out on the now empty stage, and to give vent to the year’s worth of pent up discussion with people I found only here.

In 2001, the 125th anniversary of the battle, I learned of a Symposium to be held by a group called Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Speakers included Robert Utley, Neil Mangum, then Superintendent of the battlefield, Jerome Greene and others; quite an impressive lineup. The speakers, and a panel discussion, were enthralling and provided a kind of insiders look at the people and happenings of the national monument that is a captivating history in its own right. During the lunch break I spoke with Bob Reece, President of Friends, to learn something about the organization that sponsored the day’s event. Bob explained that Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is a non-profit association of people with an interest in the history, management and objectives of the battlefield. The group raises money to fund projects that enhance the battlefield experience for visitors. A recent example is the wayside exhibit, dedicated summer of 2004, which depicts the events in Deep Ravine as they may have taken place during the battle. Friends has a holistic view of the battle and its history and so is concerned with the Indian as well as the U.S. Military aspects of the events.

I joined Friends that year and thoroughly enjoy the annual gathering of members centered on the anniversary of the battle. Each spring I begin looking forward to the end of June when I’ll make that long drive to Hardin, Montana. There will be familiar faces and always new ones. Friends is growing rapidly and each year we welcome new members from around the world. The numbers who arrive at the annual gatherings are still small enough to give the group the feeling of a close-knit reunion.

A highlight of the activities is manning the battlefield trails to answer questions from visitors and tell the story. Some are content to just see the sites and move on. Others show an intense interest and will chat for half an hour or more. These encounters are fun and rewarding. I enjoy contributing to peoples’ understanding of the story of the battle and there are always questions that leave me stumped and eager to dig for the answer. I always inform such people about Friends and refer them to the award-winning web site that Bob Reece built and has made into the best of the Little Bighorn sites on the web in many peoples’ opinion.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield is alluring and the history intriguing, and that is enough for most. To be a member of Friends is about being active in the present and, more importantly, to be active in the future of the battlefield. For me, the organization added life and immediacy to something that eventually would have become merely a casual interest in a small part of American history. Friends has brought the place, the past and the future of the battlefield together for me and given me a way to participate, rather than just observe. It has brought me together with others who share the feeling and take pride in making a personal and physical positive difference in one of our country’s great historical places.

October 2006

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