- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

CROW AGENCY, Mont. (AP) - Seven years ago following a near-fatal automobile collision, Warren Stevens was told that although he was lucky to be alive he might never walk again.

Yet recently he was riding a horse across a portion of the Little Bighorn Battlefield dressed as an 1876-era soldier with 22 other students in the U.S. Cavalry School. Although he admitted the work was hot and tiring, he seemed as giddy as a puppy.

“It’s a time machine, that’s what I told my wife,” said Stevens, a 61-year-old retiree from the aviation and aerospace industry in Southington, Connecticut. “I’ve stepped back in time.”

In the process, he seemed to have regained the emotional vitality of his youth, reported the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/28YQplF).

Battleground

On the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn - an event considered one of the worst military defeats in U.S. Army history but one of the greatest victories by Indian tribes - re-enactors, students, volunteers and family have been mixing on the Real Bird property. It’s the location for what has become an annual gathering at a portion of the actual battle site, Medicine Tail Coulee, and on land where Chief Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux were encamped.

“This is hallowed ground,” said Gary Stewart, a 57-year-old Salt Lake City man playing Brevet Lt. Col. Tom Custer in this year’s re-enactment - his 20th.

Wearing a blue shirt with the crossed saber cavalry insignia on the collar he held his restless horse as he chatted about seeing Indian ghosts on horseback, finding an ancient buffalo skull and his love for the history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“Everyone here has a passion for history and wants to find out what it was like, and this is as close as you can get,” he said.

The school ended the weekend re-enacting the battle. Stevens planned to take part, even though he knows his character will die at the hands of his Indian adversaries.

“It’s not even over yet, and I want to come back,” he said. “The ride we took yesterday, the word ‘fantastic’ seems to be an understatement. I can’t believe the things I’m doing on horseback. I can’t imagine this getting any better, but I know it will.”

Re-creation

Adding to the feeling of stepping back in time, canvass tents were pitched along the Little Bighorn River underneath the shading branches of cottonwood trees. A sign lying at the base of one read: 7th U.S. Cavalry Welcome to 1876. One tent bore a sutler sign - the traveling salesmen of the time who followed soldiers to peddle provisions. Over the top of a wood fire, large coffee pots were set on a grate to boil water.

Under a nearby awning Keith Herrin, the 44-year-old owner of the school whose other job is working for the National Guard in Helena, paused between hurried bites of a lasagna lunch to talk about the history of the school.

It was founded in the late 1990s by veterans who participated in making the Kevin Costner movie “The Postman,” a post-apocalyptic tale. They had such a good time on the film that they created the school, Herrin said. After working at all different jobs at the school following his introduction in 2004, he bought the operation in 2013.

Students, including women, pay up to $1,900 for an immersion that includes clothing, tack, a horse and chances to learn mounted horse maneuvers, shooting, saber fighting tactics and even basics like cleaning a saddle and washing clothes 1800s style. Many of the students are veterans, Herrin said, and about 30 percent are return visitors. Some students attended so many times that they’ve become instructors. Another component of the students are horse people looking for something different, Herrin said, like riding the battlefield or taking part in the re-enactment.

“It fills some desire to experience what it was really like rather than read about it in a book,” said Mark Jacobsen, a Miles City volunteer who has been taking part in the re-enactment for four years and acts as the camp trumpeter. “Being treated like a trooper, some of the basics of frontier life, the visitors from back East really enjoy that.”

Lifestyle

For some, the step back in time extends beyond this Little Bighorn encampment.

Sharon Brown and her husband Mark, of Whitehall, have been taking part in re-enactments for more than 35 years. Sharon, who wore a small sheathed knife hung around her neck, has earned high praise for her ability to weave cloth and make clothes that are historically accurate down to the last detail. She’s even reproduced one-of-a-kind items for the National Park Service.

A nine-button pleated enlisted soldier’s blouse copied from the original in the Big Hole Battlefield Museum was hand-stitched, taking her about three months to make working 10 hours a day. For a blouse she sells for $325, that’s about a penny-and-a-half an hour in wages, she figured. The only other original is in the Smithsonian Museum.

“That’s OK, I’m not doing it for the money,” she said, her handmade, full-length white print dress shifting in the breeze. “I’m doing it to see if I can re-create something.”

She owns more than 800 original garments from which to learn about different sewing techniques of the era. She even has eight original sewing machines, the oldest from 1854, to match stitching of the time period.

Her husband, Mark, takes photographs similar to the age using a wet plate camera from 1860 that can require a 30 second exposure. He compares the process to going back in time a little bit.

“It’s not like George Orwell’s ‘Time Machine,’” he said, “but emotionally, culturally and educationally it’s a mission you are on.”

Defender

For Gerry Schultz of Glendive, that mission has been to elevate the historical status of Pvt. Peter Thompson of Company C. While some historians have discounted Thompson’s written recollections of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 62-year-old Schultz said he has been able to verify the survivor’s account.

Thompson’s “The Experience of a Private in the Custer Massacre” so enthralled Schultz that he began researching the battle’s history and took part in his first re-enactment in 2009.

Paul Kicking Bear, a Los Angeles-area born Lakota Sioux, said visiting the Real Bird property and re-enactment has changed his life. His family never talked about their native roots, but he’s found a reconnection to his ancestors by sleeping on the same ground where the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes numbering an estimated 11,000 were camped on June 25, 1876. To the tribes involved, it was the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

“That was the most precious thing to me, to sleep and walk the ground my ancestors did,” he said.

Disengage

Kicking Bear, 50, said he can’t wait to leave Los Angeles for the annual gathering in Montana. It gives him a chance to “de-escalate” and “disconnect” while enjoying the history and the fellow re-enactors. Since he plays a “hostile,” he noted with air quotes, he enjoys ribbing his cavalry counterparts. His T-shirt depicted the profile of a 1800s-era soldier on horseback riddled with arrows.

“Hey, they lose on this fight anyway,” he said. “It’s not like they’re not expecting it. So I enjoy rubbing it in. I don’t hide that. But it’s done in good humor, not in a resentful way.”

He also takes the opportunity to educate the participants on the native view of the battle and the era. The entire camp seems to be an education that never stops. Depending on who a visitor talks to, everyone is a historian in some respect with an in-depth knowledge of some aspect of the time, battle or people involved.

“This battle, this time period, has always been kind of my focus,” said Mark Brown as he relaxed in the shade after conditioning his horse to the sound of mock gunfire in a nearby corral. “I’m frozen in it. It’s been studied and studied. It’s amazing, 140 years later and people are still coming up with ideas of what happened here.”

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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