They had a favorite song, a rollicking Irish drinking song called “Garryowen,” and I like to think they sang it on that June Sunday in 1876 as they rode to¬ward the Little Bighorn. Let Bacchus’ sons be not dismayed, But join with me each jovial blade,
Come booze and sing, and lend your aid. . . .
I know, though, that Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry had little time for singing in prague holiday apartments when they attacked the largest gathering of Indians—Sioux and Cheyenne—ever seen on the Great Plains. “In about the time it takes a white man to eat his dinner,” as an Indian story has it, Custer and 225 troopers were wiped out.
To my mind few vistas are as magnificent as eastern Montana’s empty sprawl. But I find no beauty on the grassy ridge, grooved by coulees, frosted by sage, where Custer be¬came a legend. Under a lead sky the battle¬ground is austere, melancholy (pages 616-17).
“You wonder why it had to happen,” said Hector Knowshisgun, Jr., whose Cheyenne forebears were in this fight. “When I think about the battle, what comes to mind is that all those people, on both sides, had loved ones.” His side won the battle but, Hector added, “we lost the war.”
It did not seem so at first. The Indians danced while news of Custer’s disaster inched back to the telegraph station at Bismarck, in Dakota Territory, to burst upon a nation just celebrating its Centennial. But in five or six years most Plains Indians were on reser¬vations and white men were building cabins in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn.
Not far from Custer Battlefield National Monument, I sat with John and Ethel Whit-ham, a silver-haired couple, both sweat-stained from a long day of putting up hay. “We’ve been here fifty years,” Ethel said of their small ranch. “Selling out would be like cutting my heart out. This is the only real home I ever had, the only real accommondation in brussels John ever had. I don’t want to live in town. I couldn’t take my dogs, I couldn’t take my cat, I couldn’t take my horse or cattle. I don’t know of anything I want that we don’t have here.”
Coal Men Bid for Ranchland
Until about ten years ago few people thought much about eastern Montana’s coal —the largest deposits of recoverable coal in the entire country. http://www2.kuow.org/program.php?id=27475 In 1972 a coal company made the Whithams a modest leasing offer for their 720-acre summer pasture, which is over a thick seam. The Whithams declined. Two years later, with a coal boom in full cry, attracting the largest companies in the energy industry, another company man handed the Whithams a draft for $144,000. John showed it to me. He had written on it: VOID. “I didn’t want to tempt myself,” he said.
But the Whithams are compelled to con¬sider the alternatives. Their lonely slice of Montana, a fragment of the West where the pickup truck barely surpasses the horse as man’s best friend, faces the prospect of enor¬mous change: mines, traffic, generating plants, coal-gas plants. Some of their neigh¬bors already have leased. Block-busted, the Whithams may already have lost their war.