Social Justice at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

By Jill Cowley, NPS Intermountain Regional Office
Two rectangular grave markers with etched writing in a grassy field.
White marble 7th cavalry markers.

NPS/J. Cowley

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Crow Agency, Montana

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, located in southeast Montana, memorializes and commemorates the defeat of the U.S. 7th Cavalry by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors on June 25-26, 1876. Social Justice calls for equal recognition of all parties involved – not just the Euro-Americans, and not just the victors.

Park staff, tribal representatives, and other stakeholders have long supported equal recognition of both cavalry and warrior combatants. In addition, the park’s 2011 Long Range Interpretive Plan adds the need for recognition of Indian noncombatants, especially women and children, and their role in the conflict.

Stones are piled to form a marker in a field of golden grass.
Stone cairns were placed on the field shortly after the battle to mark the location of a fallen warriors and loved ones.

Image courtesy of Utah State University, from NPS Cultural Landscape Inventory report

Throughout the Little Bighorn National Monument landscape, there are a variety of markers and memorials that indicate where combatants fell and that commemorate the battle: white marble markers for 7th Cavalry soldiers and warrior memorial stone cairns were added to the landscape shortly after the battle; a program to add red granite markers for tribal warriors started in 1999; the 7th Cavalry monument was erected in 1881; and the Indian Memorial was dedicated in 2003. All these markers and memorials are critical to telling the full story and to keeping memories and associations alive.

Visitors look at an interpretive marker near a solid granite obelisk, under a bright blue sky.
The 7th Cavalry Memorial was erected on Last Stand Hill in 1881 and the oldest structure on the site. It is inscribed with the names of officers, soldiers, scouts, and attached personnel who fell on the battlefield.

NPS/J. Cowley

However, the application of National Register of Historic Places principles and criteria can result in some of these features being identified as “contributing” and others as “non-contributing”. The National Register of Historic Places, the nationwide list of properties significant to American history at a national, state, or local level, was established as part of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

The historic period of significance for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is from 1876, the year of the battle, to 1946, when the National Park Service took over management from the War Department. Landscape elements that relate directly to historic significance and that were established or developed during this period are identified as “contributing.” Those that do not directly relate to significance, that were established or developed outside of the period of significance, and/or are less than 50 years old, are identified as “non-contributing”, with management and preservation focus on contributing elements. Using this process, the 7th Cavalry markers, 7th Cavalry monument, and the warrior cairns, are contributing.

Three tribal representatives stand with two park rangers beside a low red granite marker.
Installation of red granite warrior marker.

NPS Photo/J. Doerner

Since the warrior markers and Indian Memorial were developed more recently than the end of the period of significance and within the past 50 years, application of special National Register criteria is needed to establish their importance to the battlefield. One such special criterion states that a property achieving significance within the past 50 years can be considered contributing if it of exceptional importance.

This is the case for the Indian Memorial, which was the result of a national effort. The red granite warrior markers, however, are currently being considered as non-contributing in National Register terms; they could be considered contributing if they meet the test of exceptional importance.

This kind of clarity on how National Register standards and criteria are being applied can help us understand the relationship between park resources and specific management actions. And, however the elements present within the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument landscape are defined in National Register terms, interpretation and educational programs at the park will continue to stress a balanced and inclusive view of the battle and all those involved.

The sky and open landscape are visible beyond the metal silhouette sculpture of warriors and horses.
Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

NPS/J. Cowley

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Visiting this Landscape

Annotations on an aerial map indicate the arrangement of features at the site.
Custer Battlefield Historic District as documented in 2007.

Aerial photography from Google Earth, Graphic by Utah State University

For the most updated and complete information, visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument park website. 

Contact: (406) 638-3204

Fees: $15/vehicle or $10/individual on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle

Access: Open daily, year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas day, and New Year's Day (hours vary)