River ride

Crow tribal members portraying Sioux and Cheyenne warriors ride through the Little Bighorn River during the Real Bird Reenactment near Garryowen.

The scene was a little disorienting at first.

There he was, George Armstrong Custer, dressed in buckskin and knee-high boots, his golden locks flowing below a spotless cavalry hat. He had just stepped out of a rental car into the hot July sun and was sitting down for iced tea on the shady patio of a downtown Billings restaurant.

Already seated was Crazy Horse, who had ordered a Diet Coke and a salad.

“I’m watching my weight a little bit,” said the legendary Lakota warrior.

Later in the week the two famed rivals would meet again to re-fight the Battle of the Little Bighorn for the umpteenth time. And Crazy Horse never tires of reminding Custer how the battle ends.

The two actors were in Billings several years ago to promote annual reenactment of the world famous battle near Hardin, about an hour south of Billings and not far from where the original battle was fought during two days in June 1876.

Beginning in the early 1990s, there were two Custers tromping around Eastern Montana, along with two Crazy Horses and two Sitting Bulls.

The Hardin Chamber of Commerce organized the re-enactment beginning in the early 1960s as part of the city’s Little Big Horn Days, staging it on a sweeping prairie grass-covered hillside a few miles north of town.

The script for the battle was written by the much revered Crow elder and tribal historian Joe Medicine Crow, who also narrated the battle for years, even as he teetered toward age 100. (He died in April 2016 at age 102, but lived long enough to see a new middle school named for him in Billings).

Then, in 1992, the Real Bird family, members of the Crow Tribe, began staging their own re-enactment from a more Native American perspective.

That battle is fought on family property between Crow Agency and Garryowen along the Little Big Horn River in the exact spot where Sioux forces gathered before the original battle.

The two re-enactments competed on the same weekend until the Hardin Chamber surrendered in 2015, citing financial concerns.

Jim Real Bird organizes the family’s re-enactment each year. He started ridingin Hardin’s re-enactment when he was a little kid.

“In about 1964 or so, I started riding it with my brother, Richard, who was the best rider that anyone had ever seen,” Real Bird said. “You were supposed to be at least 13 to ride as a warrior, but me and my brother were good enough riders they let us in. We were supposed to only circle the wagon, but we rode all over the place, whatever we could get away with.”

Richard Real Bird was such a good bareback rider, he could ride low on the side of the horse, hiding from the enemy, peeking under the horse’s neck.

“One year he exited the battle riding real fast and low like that, right in front of the bleachers,” Jim Real Bird recalled. “No one in the crowd had seen anything like it, other than maybe the movies. There weren’t many people alive who could even ride like that at all.”

Each year, the family tweaks the battle script, written originally by family member Henry Real Bird, a rodeo cowboy and cowboy poet who served as Montana’s Poet Laureate in 2009.

This year, among the Indian warriors, will be 19 young members of the Cheyenne River Lakota from South Dakota, all descendants of the Lakota who fought in the original battle. The young warriors will also join in an honor song, written by the Hidatsas, for one of the horses that survived the battle 142 years ago.

“We are horse people, horse tribes, and we honor horses in our culture,” he said. “We’ve used horses for a long time. They say the Spanish brought horses to this country, but we were riding before that.”

Watching the young warriors charge through the Little Big Horn River as the re-enactment begins is part of the fun. And, some of the spectators in the grandstands sit close enough to the combat to catch a whiff of gun smoke or have their hats blown back by the rush of charging unit of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

And those spectators come from everywhere, including Europe where the allure of the Wild West, a vestige of imported American cowboy and Indian movies, is still strong.

“We had a German TV station film the whole thing,” said Real Bird. “It wasn’t easy helping them translate what was going on and being said into German, I can tell you that. We’ve also had people from French TV here and that helps attract people from all over the place.”

Many visitors combine the re-enactment with a visit to the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, administered by the National Park Service. The monument averages 300,000 visitors a year and remains the most popular attraction in southeast Montana.

It was the Custer Battlefield until 1991, when the name was changed to reflect an acknowledgement that it wasn’t just a bad day for the white soldiers. In 2003, an Indian Memorial was added to the monument to honor all tribes who defended their way of life in the battle.

If you go

Battle of the Little Bighorn Re-enactment will be June 22, 23 and 24 at 1 p.m. on the eastern frontage road along Interstate 90 between Crow Agency and Garryowen, Montana.

Tickets for the 90-minute program are $20 for adults and $10 for children age 7 to 13. Children under age 7 are free.

A few tips: bleacher seating is general admission, so arrive early if you want to sit close. It can be sunny and hot, so bring sunscreen and a hat. Many re-enactors will mingle with visitors after the show, so you’re welcome to bring a camera. Some food and drink is also available from vendors at the performances.

For more information, call Jim Real Bird at 406-679-3825.