More than 130 years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, two men rode horses across eastern Montana, directing their steps to match those taken by Lt. Col. Custer and his men in June 1876. One was Henry Real Bird, a member of the Crow nation and a man deeply rooted in that area of the country. The other was Juneau resident Joel Bennett, who’d come to learn more about that pivotal moment in American history and the Plains Indians who took a stand against Custer’s troops. Both men had a strong interest in the battle: Real Bird’s family, some of whom live very close to the battle sites, organize an annual reenactment every June, and Bennett, a filmmaker, had done extensive research of the event, prompting him to make the trip to Montana.
But over the course of the next three days, as Bennett got to know his guide, a focus on history was slowly edged out by an acute awareness of the present: The ride itself was unforgettable, a friendship was forged, a lasting connection made.
It wasn’t until the next year, when Bennett returned for his second trip with Real Bird, that he learned that he’d been riding with the poet laureate of the state of Montana. Though surprised, Bennett already had decided that Real Bird was an amazing man, one he’d been very fortunate to meet and befriend. He came back the third year with a friend, and the year after that with his new wife, Ritchie Dorrier.
Now, five years later, Bennett will host Real Bird for the first time on his own turf — and Juneau will also reap the rewards. Real Bird will give a presentation at the University of Alaska Southeast in the Egan Lecture Hall beginning at 7 p.m. Friday. The presentation, “Horses, Language, Life,” will likely include poetry and a discussion about language revitalization — Real Bird is bilingual and Crow is his primary language — as well as more general remarks about his life as a modern day Plains Indian. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Bennett said he is excited for the opportunity it provides for Juneau to get to hear this fascinating man.
“I thought, if I could possibly get a venue for him so he can share his poetry with Juneau, with the community, it would be a mutually satisfying trip.”
Last year Real Bird became the first Native American to win the Academy of Western Artists’ Will Rogers award for his poetry, and in 2010 he was featured on NPR for his unusual book tour, in which he traveled hundreds of miles around Montana on horseback handing out copies of his book, “Horse Tracks.”
Bennett said the ride, like the poetry itself, stemmed in part from Real Bird’s desire to inspire the young people in his community and beyond.
“His overall motive is to inspire young people to follow their passion, apply themselves to society,” Bennett said.
Real Bird is very active in the Crow community. Raised by his grandparents to speak Crow, he raised his children to speak it also.
“He has three kids and when they were small he insisted they speak Crow,” Bennett said. “Now they’re adults and they are all bilingual.”
Real Bird also encourages his kids to ride their horses as much as possible, in spite of the fact that the pick-up truck has supplanted the horse in many areas.
“What he tries to get his kids to do is take the horse, go slower, look at the land. It’s not just about a love of horses.”
Real Bird is also a teacher, with a master’s in general education, and directs the Crow Tribe Head Start and Seven Hills Healing Center in Montana. He also raises bucking horses.
Bennett said by the end of his first trip with Real Bird, he knew he’d met someone remarkable.
“Probably toward the end of the first trip I started to understand that he wasn’t just necessarily taking me as a guide, he was trying to get to know me a little bit. If I hadn’t been from Alaska, I might not have gotten as far as did.”
Bennett said his original trip to the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn was inspired by a desire to learn more about the history of the Plains Indians and about what drove Custer to engage when he was so clearly outnumbered.
“I wanted to satisfy my curiosity in terms of what went into that moment in history – it’s an incredible historical turning point,” Bennett said.
During this decisive battle, which took place in June 1876, Custer led an army of about 600 men into a convergence of Indian tribes that included Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho and numbered about 7,000. Custer was trying to force the tribes to follow the U.S. government’s order that they return to the Great Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Bennett said Custer, remembered as a hero in American history, no doubt knew he was ridiculously outnumbered, but arrogance kept him from retreating. His forces were quickly overwhelmed.
“A lot of it for me was how in the world could anybody be so arrogant as to believe they could take 600 men right into the middle of this convergence of tribes,” Bennett said.
“I know how to ride a horse and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to try to retrace the last couple of days’ ride that he took to the battlefield, and if so, how I could get permission to do that, who would I do it with.”
Initial phone calls connected him with the Crow agency, which put him in touch with Real Bird’s family.
in the first trip the men covered about 30 miles, through “some pretty rugged country," following a trail Bennett had mapped out after researching maps and other reference materials, and also guided by Real Bird’s extensive knowledge of the area.
After that first trip, Bennett thought that would be the end of it, but the next year, drawn by an interest in the area and the personal connection he’d made with Real Bird, he found himself heading back. On the second trip, the men took a different route, up in the mountains. Real Bird learned that Bennett had recently lost his first wife, Luisa Stoughton, after decades of marriage, and their conversations helped Bennett move forward.
“It’s just great to be around people like that who just keep on going in the face of adversity,” Bennett said. "He’s had plenty of his own.”
By the third trip, Bennett had purchased his own horse, which Real Bird keeps for him on his ranch. On his last trip, Real Bird invited him to a Sun Dance, the central ceremony of Plains Indians, and a great honor for a guest.
Bennett said all four experiences have been inspirational for him.
“It’s much more than just a ride,” he said.
Though he would have been happy to host Real Bird simply as his personal guest, he thought his visit might be more rewarding if he was able to share his poetry and views with Juneau.
“I resolved to try to get him to come to Alaska. I thought, maybe I can repay him for the exposure he’s given me by bringing him up here.”
Bennett, who has done a lot of work with Alaska Native tribes in his film career, including a film on language preservation in Klukwan, said for the most part he hasn’t applied his professional skills in his trips with Real Bird — though he did make one short film, interviewing Crow elders about Little Big Horn. But he recently began recording Real Bird during the rides, and has ideas about trying to get something down in writing.
“I was thinking of writing something with a different style, a recounting of my relationship, and my experience with this man and this area,” he said.
“The things he says are so incredible.”
Hear Real Bird’s presentation and poetry Friday, at UAS.
in the meantime, here is an excerpt of Real Bird’s poem, “Rivers of Horse."
"All you real human beings, listen.
This is the story of the coming of the horse.
The Spanish barb the Comanche rode,
The mystic pony the Shoshone stole
Drifting up from the Rio Grande
To the Columbia River Basin,
Mighty herds the Cayuse drove,
Mighty herds of horses.
Out of a dream they came to the Crow,
Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho,
Through the Northern Plains and mountains grazed,
Around the wolf and buffalo strayed,
Flowing herds of horses.
Rich flowing herds of horses.
Rivers of horse ..."
-- from “Rivers of Horse,” a poem in “Horse tracks,” by Henry Real Bird