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by Sharon Auberle
We are driving on the Crow reservation this cold autumn afternoon, to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. In the distance, Last Stand Hill rises behind the flat gray buildings of the Monument. Cottonwoods blaze golden by the Little Bighorn River, one spark of color in the colorless day.
It's warm in the visitor's center as people, both Anglo and Indian, slowly fill the room's wooden benches, where a ranger will relate the story of the grisly battle that took place on June 25, 1876. We try to get comfortable on the hard seats, but there is an unspoken feeling that there should be no comfort in this place.
The benches are forgotten as we sit, entranced, at the ranger's words. For forty-five minutes he speaks, gazing out at the bleak landscape, as though he is watching the battle happening in this moment. As if he can see each blade of grass bending in the thundering passage of ghost horses. His words are so eloquent that a smell of blood and smoke seems to hang in the room. We can almost hear the screams of women and children, the moans of the dying. The ranger does not judge, only relates, his voice, at times, close to breaking. The entire room is achingly silent. People reach for each other, tears on the faces of many.
We climb the steep hill then, past the gravestones marking where each soldier fell. At the top, the men of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry lie buried in a mass grave. Lakota and Cheyenne families removed their dead after the battle, placing them in tipis and on scaffolds and hillsides.
On this day, as war still rages in Afghanistan and Iraq, we bow our heads in the keening wind. Will this world ever learn, it seems to ask? I feel only grief in the oppressiveness of towering clouds. A sense of hope and healing is not present here. And, I suspect, there will be no healing until war has made its last stand and lost.
I think of similar places I've visited the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, and Aachen, Germany, a tragic site of World War II. Each place carries the same heaviness. The same darkness hangs there, waiting for release. And yet, as tensions continue to increase around the globe, we move further from peace with each passing day.
Beneath a cold, slow rain, we drive away. On the wall of the visitor's center, six words spoken by the Sioux spiritual leader, Black Elk, are engraved:
KNOW THE POWER THAT IS PEACE.