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Confessions of a Park Ranger
Webmaster's Note: This article first appeared in the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield August 2004 newsletter. It is a deeply honest and accurate account of Neil's life while employed at the battlefield, experiences with Custer enthusiasts, and the true story of the Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association (CBH&MA) demise as the cooperating association of the battlefield.
I have known George Custer for almost as long as I have known myself. Personally, I never met the man, he having perished on the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn valley in southeastern Montana some 72 years before my birth, but his impact on me was, and remains, a dominant influence on my life and career. A late night movie, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, starring the swashbuckling Errol Flynn introduced me to the individual. I was hooked. I paraded outside the next day donning my blue Cub Scouts uniform replete with yellow kerchief and replayed the final battle scene, falling down and getting up 263 times, each act representing the death of a soldier. The last time, the 264th, I reserved for the gallant Custer. I believe my death pose no less dramatic than that portrayed on the silver screen, but alas, there was no camera to capture my Oscar-winning performance, such are the antics of an eight-year old Custer addict.
Reading anything and everything on Custer, I even contrived family vacations trips (blessed are my parents who tolerated my interests) that included places associated with the famous Union cavalry general. That wasn’t difficult, growing up in Virginia, where the Civil War Custer roamed–Yellow Tavern, Charlottesville, Beaverdam Station, Winchester, Tom’s Brook, Cedar Creek, Waynesboro, Petersburg, Dinwiddie Courthouse, Appomattox Courthouse, and Five Forks–the last place of significance to me, since it is the site of where my great-great grandfather was captured, perhaps by one of Custer’s troopers.
It is an empirical statement that Custer is partially responsible for my career with the National Park Service. The National Park Service administered Custer Battlefield National Monument, therefore I set my sights on obtaining my penultimate goal, to seek a job with the NPS and work at Custer Battlefield. I sought a seasonal job with Custer Battlefield in 1968. I was rejected. Worst still the peak of my deflated ego arrived when I read the envelope addressed to me but its contents containing the name of some other miscreant’s rejection letter. Stubborn, I turned to Petersburg National Battlefields where I became seasonal ranger. I parlayed that appointment into a full-time position ultimately becoming the park’s historian. But I desired to work at Custer Battlefield. On two occasions positions opened up at Custer but I was passed over each time.
In 1978 while working as park historian at Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Van Buren, Missouri, I decided to personally visit the battlefield and let the park superintendent know of my frustrations. I figured since the normal application route for filling park vacancies proved unproductive that I might as well attempt a person-to-person meeting. I had nothing to lose. Coaxing my wife to take an October trip to Montana, not unlike my contrivances with my parents on family vacations, we packed up and drove to Montana intent on meeting the park superintendent and telling him or her of my desires. I met with park superintendent Jim Court. Jim was and is a congenial fellow, bewhiskered, provocative to say the least, but willing to assume risks even to the point of endangerment to his own career when he thinks he is right. The conference seemed productive for Jim seemed intrigued with my sincerity. He was non committal, yet I left feeling that I had scored some points.
What I did not learn until later Jim had conducted some research on his own about me, checking my references, and compiling background information. Months passed without notice until I received a phone call from Jim indicating that his present historian was taking a position with the Bureau of Land Management and he desired to know if my attitude or current status had vacillated in the interim. No way. Through respective Regional Directors Jim lobbied to negotiate a direct reassignment but the wheels of government oftentimes grind slowly, if at all. Hearing no news, my wife Debbie and I started on a vacation to camp and meet friends in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The embarkation of the trip started on less than memorable note for I was stressed out over the dearth of information regarding the transfer. Would it go through or would it implode? Debbie reminds me to this day that I was not very pleasant to be around. All the way across Tennessee, and as you may know from your geography, Tennessee is a rather elongated state, we were barely on speaking terms in the car. I decided to try and reach Jim one more time. I stopped at a grocery store parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I found a payphone. I called Jim who had great news, the direct reassignment had gone through. He offered me the job of historian, which I accepted. That trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park will long be remembered for two things. I had achieved my dream to work at Custer Battlefield and for the fact that our Scottish Terrier, Penelope Windsor, had tangled with a skunk and lost. We retreated to Missouri with a dog wreaking of stench so malodorous that it forced us to roll the windows down in order to combat gagging.
Beginning in October 1979 we journeyed to Custer Battlefield National Monument, for me the park’s new historian, and the start to an almost nine-year odyssey. Upon arrival Jim impressed upon me the importance of fairness and objectivity in spearheading the park’s interpretive program. That’s was sound advice for I was known by some of my colleagues in the NPS as being pro-Custer almost to the point of blatant hero-worshiping. But if my enthusiasm for Custer was openly visible, it had undergone mutation by maturation and a series of articles that had recently appeared in newspapers and magazines. One particular article in LIFE magazine became ensconced in my memory. LIFE wrote a scathing story of the soldier-dominated accounts being elucidated at the park. The article pointed out a weakness in the talks, the exclusion of the Native American viewpoint, the conquerors of Custer. The article hit a nerve for I knew I would need to temper my personal impressions on Custer and present equal time to the Indian viewpoint. I endeavored to carry that theme throughout my tenure at Custer Battlefield. Unfortunately, that philosophy ran counter to others who could see no wrong with the Boy General.
In recent years, there has been some criticism leveled at former superintendent Court for being one-sided in his approach to the Little Bighorn story. Unfortunately, he has been unfairly saddled with that moniker. While one could argue for or against Court on other issues, one thing he did insist on was to impart a balanced story.
Custer Buffs On The Rampage
A balanced story, told from all participants headlined one of my two biggest difficulties in the 1980s. It seems that some members of the Little Bighorn Associates and the Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association, organizations devoted to the study of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and especially Custer, found exception to the telling of the story from the Indian perspective. Most of the members, then and now, I still hold in high esteem but like any organization, the vocal ones get heard from but they do not necessarily speak for the entire group. The upset members led by Custer champion, the late John Carroll, charged the superintendent and me with a biases toward the Indians. Their criticism did not stop, and, I was beginning to kick myself for ever seeing that damn Errol Flynn movie. I pondered complete disassociation with Custer rationalizing that if these people adored Custer then all the more reason to find disfavor with the 7th Cavalry’s colorful commander.
The crisis reached a pinnacle in the mid-1980s when a few individuals pressed the NPS to agree to an independent examination into alleged wrongdoings. Approximately 70 charges were leveled against the superintendent and myself, all of them baseless I thought. But the peak of their denunciatory expressiveness they reserved for me. The most serious and incriminating were the accusations of pandering to the Indian point of view. A Blue Ribbon Panel was formed comprised of scholars, and others headed by a colonel from West Point. The Blue Ribbon Panel visited the park and their findings revealed that their was a bias. They wrote that while the park’s interpretive programs exhibited progress in endeavoring to impart a balanced story more effort should be directed towards Native American viewpoints and to recruit Native Americans within the workforce. The Panel’s findings did not set well with the Custer buffs, who accused the NPS of stacking the deck. None of this was true as their was not one NPS employee on the Blue Ribbon Panel but the controversy festered.
I felt exonerated that the park’s interpretive programs were on the right track much to the chagrin of my attackers. If that was not enough to draw the ire of my accusers, one even advocating my transfer to a “less responsible position” at some remote, sleepy little park, the Blue Ribbon Panel recommended me for promotion. I received the promotion but the controversy festered. In fact, the entire episode left me wondering exactly where my relationship with Custer was going. I felt impugned that people considered me anti-Custer, or for that matter pro-Indian. I considered myself neither, just a historian/interpreter trying to impart the park’s story to the broad spectrum of visitors.
That there had been major changes to the park’s interpretive programs since the arrival of Jim and myself, there was no doubt. Instead of the usual half a dozen of so talks daily, we embarked on a program where more than 30 programs were presented daily. The topics included the standard “battle talks” but expanded to incorporate discussions of Native Americans involvement in the battle, programs on tactics, and the hiring of Native Americans from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. A tipi was erected on site and furbished with traditional plains Indians accouterments.
Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association
Another change occurred in the early 1980s when the superintendent opened the doors for more active participation from its cooperating association, Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association, the group that sold theme-related merchandise, mainly books and other interpretive publications. Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association had been at the service of the park since 1953. Its membership since inception had remained low, less than a hundred but with so many people wanting to assist and participate in the park’s programs it became natural to promote expansion of the membership base. By the mid-1980s membership once reserved for a few local businessmen and buffs now exploded to upwards of 2,500.
With bulging membership came problems. The chemistry of the board changed to the detriment of the park and I think to CBH&MA. Board members began to meddle into park operations to the point that the cooperating association became very much uncooperative. Discontent mushroomed. The first issue focused on George A. Custer, now, more often than not, my nemesis. Problems arose when the book committee, created by the superintendent to oversee the review and recommendations of books to be sold at the bookstore operated by CBH&MA, rejected the sale of Dr. Lawrence Frost’s book, CUSTER LEGENDS. Dr. Frost was the dean of Custerianna, a well-respected author/historian, and architect of some quality books on Custer and the Little Bighorn, many of them available at the bookstore. The book review committee was deadlocked on the decision to carry the book, voting 3-3. I, as park historian, and a member of the committee representing the park, voted NO resulting in the rejection of the book. This was a painful decision for Dr. Frost and I were friends, he having once wrote of me as a “diamond in the rough.” I regret to this day that my written response to Dr. Frost was not as well crafted as I would like for it to have been for in the body of the letter I expressed to Dr. Frost my views and that of some of the committee that it was turned down because it offered nothing new in print that wasn’t already being carried at the bookstore. I should have left it at that. Unfortunately I did not, for I went on to state that the book was extremely pro-Custer. In looking back, whether the book was pro or anti-Custer should not have played a role in the decision making. The letter received widespread communication for which I was condemned. Fortunately, the relationship between Dr. Frost and myself was solid enough and we remained friends until his death a few years later. In my defense, it should be noted that at the time any book finding issue with more than minor flaws in Custer’s character, would have most likely been rejected. Approval would have resulted in a howl of protestations.
NPS "Yanks The Plug" On The CBH&MA
The seeds of discord rippled with CBH&MA assuming more the role of an adversarial group bent on dictating management polices instead of focusing on their mission as a cooperating association. While cooperating associations are independent businesses, they are subject to oversight by the NPS to assure adherence to the established interpretive goals of that park. Members continued to write letters to congressmen and to NPS officials both in Denver and Washington D.C. protesting park management policies on such matters as land preservation, trail closures, and the old standby, how the park interpreted or did not interpret Custer. The issues with CBH&MA had not reached their crescendo before I departed the battlefield in May 1988, however, the recipe for disaster was ominous. I warned a few of my CBH&MA friends that if the association did not refrain from interfering with park operations, the time would come when the NPS would yank the plug on CBH&MA as the park’s cooperating association. Unfortunately, my words went unheeded and CBH&MA was removed from the park only a few years later, a disgraceful honor, I believe the organization will have to shoulder for as long as the Association exist.
I departed Custer Battlefield in 1988, having served almost nine years at the park as Chief Historian. Most people thought I would never leave, after all, it had been my lifelong ambition. Why did I leave? Money was part of it. A promotion was in the offering, and a chance to work closer to aging family members living in New Mexico certainly aided the decision. But another reason persisted, which was fatigue. Fatigue from dealing with the same story and answering the same questions everyday and sometimes even into the night. It was not uncommon for friends or total strangers to call me up to talk “Custer.” While I still enjoyed discussing the battle, I was more interested in the total concept of the Indian Wars and to a larger degree Western history itself. Santa Fe offered the opportunity to grow and expand and to work under the guidance of Dr. Melody Webb, wife of pre-eminent western historian, Robert Utley, and a fine historian in her own right.
My years in Santa Fe were good. Melody taught me a lot about history and helped me immeasurably in the art of writing history. She encouraged me to pursue post-graduate work that led to a Master’s Degree in the U.S. West under the tutelage of University of New Mexico professor, Dr. Paul A. Hutton. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from the best in the business. But I never got Custer or Little Bighorn Battlefield (the name change came in 1991) out of my system. In the mid-90s the vacancy for the superintendent’s position came open. I applied but like my seasonal and early NPS experiences, I was not selected. A strange thing happened, however, in the fall of 1997 while working at my office on the campus of Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas. I received a call from then Rocky Mountain Regional Director, John Cook, who proffered me the job of park superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. What a turn of events. Rebuffed while competing for the job, it was now being handed to me without benefit of competition, the same as in 1979.
I returned to the battlefield in March 1998. But things had changed dramatically since my ten-year hiatus from the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn valley. Gone was the name Custer Battlefield replaced with the more appropriate Little Bighorn Battlefield. Gone was CBH&MA as the cooperating association replaced with Southwest Parks & Monuments Association (now Western National Parks). Staff dynamics shifted too. There were more Native Americans in the workforce and not just in lower paying positions. The chief ranger and the administrative officer were both Native Americans. The interpretive programs of which I took so much pride and heat had continued to evolve. Additional programs dedicated to telling the story from the Native American viewpoints had been installed. My friend Custer remained part of the story but he did not dominate as before. Programs generated focused on the telling of the “Why there was a battle,” and the “Causes.” Still the “Battle Talk” remained a quintessential component of the park story as it had been since Superintendent Luce’s days. The only change to it was the frequent telling of the story by a Native American much to the delight and insistence of the public. And on the anniversary of the battle, Native American programs took center stage with the cavalry.
But the primary objective outlined to me in a Denver meeting prior to my arriving at the battlefield to assume official duties focused on acquiring funds to build the Indian Memorial. The Memorial formed part of the 1991 Act that changed the name of the park, however, no federal funding was authorized to build the facility. I received a significant number of emails and other communications urging me to not support the building of the Memorial or at least have it built in the valley. The problem with all these so-called alternatives was that a place to build the Memorial had already been selected by the Indian Memorial Advisory Committee. I could not change that fact even if I wanted too, and I didn’t. After several failed attempts to secure funding through the private sector, I took it upon myself with the blessings of the Denver Office, to meet with the Montana delegation in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, the meetings proved beneficial for federal funds were secured and the Memorial built, for which I am so proud. During the process of fund acquisition, I received threatening emails, some of which claimed that Custer was surely turning over in his grave over my advocacy for an Indian Memorial. I would like to think I understand enough of Custer’s character to believe that he, as a soldier, would only tip his hat in acquiescence to the victors that hot June Sunday in 1876. Custer was many things but he was not petty nor was he an Indian-hating war monger as perceived by the majority of the public who visited the site. Thirteen years at the battlefield has convinced me that most of what constitutes the public’s knowledge about Custer, and for clarity I lump the media in this arena as well, is a compilation of bad facts from bad movies.
Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield
The return to the battlefield gave me an opportunity to work with a broader spectrum of constituents and renew relationships with past groups. My two predecessors, both Native Americans, had opened doors to the Indian communities that I could never have opened on my own. Working with the tribes to build the Indian Memorial was a priceless experience, particularly with the Northern Cheyenne. I will remember the words of Clifford Long Sioux, friend and Vice President of the Friends of Little Bighorn Battlefield, who succinctly stated to me that in all his years that he and most members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe never visited the battlefield. Why, I asked, to which he replied their was nothing there to honor their efforts. He declared that all the markers on the battlefield and the monument were for the soldiers. No acknowledgment to the victors. Now with the Indian Memorial, there was a reason to visit the site. I understood his words.
I have endeavored to tell my Custer friends on many occasions that the Indian Memorial was the right thing to do, that they should not view the Indian Memorial as a slap in the face to the U.S. soldiers or to Custer himself. I viewed my mission in the 1980s and as superintendent, 1998-2002, as simply endeavoring to elevate Indian contributions to the understanding of the story to the same level as the soldiers and Custer, and not by any measure to misconstrue the rise of Indianism at the battlefield as a denigration of Custer.
For most part, the remainder of my tenure at the battlefield as superintendent was placid. Accomplishments, there were some, the reopening of the interpretive trails, the establishing of new wayside exhibits, new restrooms, the erection of the first Native American markers on the battlefield to indicate where their warriors had fallen, the establishment of the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, and reopening positive relations with some of my nemesis, namely a few folks affiliated with CBH&MA. I remain proud of the effort the staff put in to make the 125th anniversary the success it was. Horrors of what happened during the Centennial Observance where protests marred what should have been a day of remembrance to all who fought and died at Little Bighorn consumed my every thoughts in 2001. That the program came off without major glitches credit must be directed to the staff. Support groups like the various Indian tribes, the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield and numerous individuals gave of their time and energy to help with the remembrance. Even the very people who I philosophically clashed with over the Indian Memorial supported the festivities.
As superintendent, I never got away from Custer. I took delight in sitting in on seasonal talks, to give them constructive criticism when needed, or to applaud their performances, much like I had done twenty years before. The memories of my days at Custer, I will always cherish. Funny thing though, as much as I believe I have matured in my opinion of Custer, I still cannot help thinking he has been misunderstood or the facts twisted to create a selective, negative image. Despite Custer’s shortcoming, and he had many, he was not a demonic Indian-killing fiend or should have been tried for war crimes as one visitor noted in the remarks column of the Visitor Register. I have traveled a long road with Custer and I hope to stay on that journey until the end of the trail.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022