As the sun rose during a cold September morning in Pryor, Montana I joined a group of some thirty-odd like-minded individuals ready to spend the day reliving the events of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The doors to the bus opened promptly at 8 a.m. and we all filed in obediently and took our seats. Not being a history buff myself, I was more interested in getting some great pictures than on the actual narration of the event which we would definitely get bombarded with on our way to the site. With that in mind I braced myself for a throw-back to my high school history classes, where the long-winded teacher would talk non-stop about this and that event, firing dates and names and numbers while completely disregarding my incapability to either keep my eyes open or prevent my forehead from touching the desk.
That is when Rose introduced herself and I immediately knew this was not going to be just another history dissertation; this was going to be an unforgettable experience.
Our guide, Rose, was a member of the Crow Nation and a Pryor native. Her voice was powerful and carried easily all the way to the back of the bus. From the first words she uttered she commanded the undivided attention of every individual present in that bus.
Rose, a third generation storyteller, learned her trade from her father just as he learned it from his own father. As she shared with us, storytelling within the Crow nation is a highly regarded skill, and usually passed on from generation to generation through the women.
She also shared with us the importance the Pryor Mountains had to the Native peoples of Montana.
With the narrative skill of a poetess she painted a story for us using bright words: “Up in that hill the air filled with gust and dust smoke” suddenly I could feel my eyes watering and the smell of cordite covering my nose like a wet rag.
“General Custer will make his way with five companies of men, twenty men per company that totals over 210 men plus a number of civilians” – and just like that her words populated the fields in front of me with row upon row of uniformed soldiers.
Everything she described became vividly alive through her demeanor, her delivery and her enthusiasm. Meanwhile the landscape rolled pleasantly by outside the bus window; a sea of flowing green pastures.
After a little bit the bus came to a halt. We had arrived. This was the site where the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in June 25, 1876.
As we gathered around the memorial, Rose continued weaving her tale, transporting us in our minds eye all the way back to 1876. The acts that took place at the Battle of the Little Bighorn were at times savage and gruesome. My mind drifted to that hot summer; the tribes at one end and the US Army at the other. And I was right there in the midst of it all, standing next to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse as they were leading their tribes to fight against Custer’s army. And at the center of this trip back in time was Rose; her narrative serving as the conduit between past and present, blending the one into the other.
Before I even realized the tour was over we were riding back to our hotels and I felt as if a piece of my heart stayed among the spirits at the Pryor Mountains.
Rose’s powerful deliverance of the retelling of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was like no other I’ve ever heard before. Long after this trip ended I can still recall the exact date and the order of events of this particular battle; take note all history teachers. This experience, this visit, this history lesson was memorable. But what made it so was the opportunity we were all given that day to see and experience this story through the eyes of a local tour guide. And the fact that this was the story of her own ancestors infused Rose’s telling with a passion that other tour guides can only hope to emulate.
As we were riding the bus back from the battlefield site, I realized that Rose had the true talent of storytelling; the storytelling that captures your imagination and makes you feel as if you were taken back through history and leaves you yearning for more. The kind of storytelling that makes you feel as if you were sitting by a soothing fire, listening to a great Indian Chief narrating the powerful stories of his ancestors to his future leaders.
I will never forget the story of the Little Bighorn River and how the Lakota and Cheyenne men without the latest and greatest artillery were able to defeat General Custer and the 7th Calvary. But above all I will never forget the talented, passionate, and proud Crow storyteller that guided us through this magical tour through history. Thanks to her I can say that for the first time since traveling the U.S. I feel a genuine interest in this country’s history. And all of this happened on the back of one of the most controversial and most debated battles in U.S. History. For me, that is some powerful storytelling.
I highly encourage you to learn about history by visiting the actual places, is not only a more effective way of learning but it will give you a deeper appreciation for your history and culture.
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