Ranger Brings Little Bighorn Battle To Life

Aug 8, 2013

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is one of the most visited locations in the National Park Service system. And though there’s an extensive – and thorough – self-guided tour along the five miles that comprise the site, it’s always nice to have someone who can place you at the center of an historic event. 

Today, we visit a veteran park ranger who takes us to the Little Bighorn Battle as if it were happening right now. 

I’m standing on the rolling hills of the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. It’s a scorching hot summer afternoon…just like it was in 1876 when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his entire immediate command were killed by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. You don’t have to go far to find a book, historical documentary or film about what too place here. Finding the truth is another matter. There’s where Mike Donahue comes in. 

“Why did it happen in the first place?” asks Mike Donahue during his presentation at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. “Because you had two peoples that really didn’t understand or appreciate one another very well. After the Civil War…you’ll have a migration of non-Indians coming out here. And they will bring with them certain attitudes about the land and Native peoples.”

Mike Donahue is in his twenty-fourth year of being a seasonal park ranger at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Mike’s interest in the battle goes back to 1958, when he saw a Disney film about Comanche, a horse from Custer’s command that survived the carnage. Then there’s Mike’s Irish heritage.

“Most of Custer’s men were of Irish descent,” Donahue explains. “After the potato famine, a lot of them came over looking for a job in America. They arrive at the worst possible time.  The Panic of 1873 had thrown this country into tremendous economic straits. And, so what we have is a lot of young men trying to find work…and the Seventh Cavalry ends up being one of the places they can get a job.”

Mike Donahue’s lifelong interest in the Little Bighorn Battle has led him to offer not just the white side of the story, but all sides as well as the extensive background history that led to the final great conflict of what’s been referred to as “The Indian Wars”.

“From right after the battle, the Army had jurisdiction over this battlefield,” says Donahue. “And, so, the military perspective, the Custer perspective was the main thing they focused on.  It wasn’t til the 60s, you know, with the American Indian Movement going on and people becoming more sensitive to the Native perspective that they began to think… ‘Hey, you need to tell both side of the story here.’ And you see that starting to happen through the 60s, the 70s…  I arrived here I the late 80s and one of the things we were told when I first came to work here was ‘You’re gonna tell all sides of the story here…you’re gonna do it fairly, and you’re gonna do it with equity.”

Seasonal Ranger Mike Donahue (right) discuses the Battle of Little Bighorn with Jon Jones atop Last Stand Hill.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“This is his specialty, this battle,” says Ken Woody. “He studies it in detail.”

Woody is Chief of Interpretation at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. He’s known Mike Donahue for the past 12 years. Ken Woody says although all rangers are instructed to tell the complete story of the conflict that took place here, Mike Donahue’s ability to do that is unique.

“He probably knows about this battle more than anyone else,” Woody comments. “He really digs for information. He’ll go to different universities and different libraries…private collectors and final journals, final manuscripts and he interviews a lot of people. So, he’s…he’s doing independent research and he actually is adding to our knowledge here from that.” 

Ken Woody adds that it’s as much Mike Donahue’s skill at telling a story as it is his extensive knowledge that makers his presentations about the Battle of the Little Bighorn stand apart from the rest.

“He’s taken it to a high level of being able to make people laugh at his talk, even cry at his talk,” says Woody. “And think differently about the battle rather than just good guy-bad guy…goes into the deeper psyche of the human…touches the heart. And that’s what interpretation’s about. It’s actually an art form.”      

The audience agrees with Ken Woody’s assessment of Mike Donahue’s  storytelling abilities. Washington state resident Phil Levenseller says Mike’s presentation was much more than he expected.

“I think it was truly remarkable,” Levenseller observes. “You can tell that there’s a tremendous amount of passion that he has towards it…just drew you in, and you just wanted it to keep going.” 

Mike’s participation in archeological digs on the battlefield has also fueled his desire to tell as accurate a story as possible about what took place here in 1876. 

“I find that just fascinating,” Donahue says. “Cause we learn more about the battle…from not only reading the Indian accounts, but also from the tremendous amount of information gleaned from the archeological digs.” 

“They felt it was their God-given right to change this land,” Mike Donahue advises as his presentation continues. “They called it Manifest what, folks?”

“Destiny,” replies the audience.  

“Yeah. You’ve all heard that…Manifest Destiny,” Donahue confirms. “How did they look at the Native peoples out here? They looked at them as less than human. They called them savages and barbarians and uncivilized. They said…’It’s our job to make a Christian farmer out of each and every one of them.’ Folks, those were the attitudes of the 1870s.”

Listening to his presentation, it’s obvious to visitors that Mike possesses an unrivaled passion for bringing to life what occurred at the Little Bighorn more than a century ago – and taking his audience there along with him.

For more information: http://www.nps.gov/libi/index.htm