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General Custer Loses at Little Big Horn Again as An Indian Activist Becomes Keeper of His Legend

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Barbara Booher is clearly uncomfortable, standing beside the marker where Gen. George Armstrong Custer was felled by an Indian bullet 114 years ago. “I don’t like the man,” she says. “But I don’t have to like him to do my job.”

Booher, 49, is the new superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument outside Crow Agency, Mont.—and, according to a small but vocal group of Custer buffs across the country, she is manifestly unfit for the job. Not to say they are right, but the Custer loyalists insist they have a point: Booher is a full-blooded Ute and Cherokee Indian who vows to cut through what she calls the Custer myth and tell the Indian side of the famous Battle of Little Big Horn. “The story is out of balance,” she says. “It doesn’t take much to look at the exhibits and see that everything is tilted toward Custer, who was the loser in that battle.”

“I don’t want to sound racist and chauvinist,” says Jerry Russell of Little Rock, Ark., a member of the Little Big Horn Associates, a national group that guards the old warrior’s memory. “But I want the lady out of there. She’s not qualified.”

Custer was a dashing, saber-wielding cavalry officer, a Civil War hero who distinguished himself with reckless forays into Confederate strongholds. His men died by the hundreds in these attacks, but—thanks to what came to be called Custer’s luck—he always emerged unscathed and covered with dime-novel glory. His luck ran out on June 25, 1876. While waging a campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, he ignored warnings that Indian tepees stretched for eight miles along the Little Big Horn River. He and his 225 men were wiped out when they charged into the midst of as many as 40,000 Sioux and Cheyenne.

Booher, who is the only Indian woman superintendent in the U.S. Park Service, contends that the monuments at the battlefield lionize Custer, thereby distorting history and slighting Native Americans. She notes that the names of Custer’s soldiers are inscribed on one monument, but no mention is made anywhere of the deeds of the triumphant Sioux Indian chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. And she points out that while Custer’s men are memorialized as “fallen heroes,” the Sioux and Cheyenne are described only as “hostile Indians.” The marker also fails to explain the reason the Indians were hostile: For decades they had been forcibly driven from their homelands and onto reservations.

Booher herself grew up on the Uintah and Ouray Ute reservation in northeast Utah and still remembers a junior high school teacher telling her class that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Booher, whose parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, spent the last 10 years working for the bureau in Anchorage, negotiating intricate land-allotment programs for Native Alaskans. Her skills as a mediator deeply impressed Lorraine Mintzmeyer, the Park Service’s Rocky Mountain regional director in Denver, who hired her. “Custer is a delicate situation,” says Mintzmeyer, “and with her connections in the Native American community, Barbara was the right person for the job.”

Booher was not so sure herself—at first. She liked her life in Anchorage. She and her husband, Hal, 56, a former Bureau of Land Management employee, own a home there, and she is a fanatic salmon fisherman and deer hunter. While vacationing in 1988, she visited the 760-acre Custer Battlefield for the first time and was moved by the eerie beauty of the place. She couldn’t help noticing too that among the myriad white grave markers there was just one that commemorated an Indian death. “It looked like a No Parking sign,” she says, adding, “This will all change.”

Booher promised as much to the surrounding Indian communities of eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, whom she met shortly after taking over last year. She advised them of her plans to install a permanent exhibit of Native American culture as well as monuments to Indians who died in the battle. “We were never made to feel welcome up there,” says Janine Windy Boy, President of the Little Big Horn Community College in Crow Agency. “When we heard she was hired, we thought a miracle had happened.”

While her husband tries to sell their home in Anchorage, Booher lives alone in the superintendent’s house below the battlefield. Her dining room window looks north toward a series of hills rising from the banks of the Little Big Horn River. “I sit here in the morning and look out on those hills,” she says, “and I try to imagine what Crazy Horse was thinking and feeling that day. It reminds me that the Battle of the Little Big Horn is really an Indian story.”

—William Plummer, Bill Shaw at the Custer Battlefield