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Rosebud and Wolf Mountains: Threats to the Spirit of Place 

12-09-2015 17:35

No sites embody a more conflicted spirit of place than battlefields, where heroic sacrifice and tragic human failures resonate across time. The spirit of conflicted places holds layered meaning and differing significance for people of divergent cultural perspectives. To truly preserve sites that represent the experiences of several culture groups, it is important to consult people from all sides of the story, and to search for broad understanding and definition of the values of place. Ultimately, in seeking consensus and protection, a true willingness to save, rather than develop, the cultural landscape must be embraced on all sides.

Territorial Conflict on the Northern Plains

Eastern Montana lies deep within the Northern Plains—rich, rolling grasslands that were home to vast herds of buffalo and native equestrian people until the late 1800s. This was the last region of homesteading and settlement in the contiguous United States, and it was here that the last major campaign by the United States government against the First Nations of the plains was waged, capturing the attention of the world and altering the course of human history in the region and our nation forever.

The conflict had its roots in Westward Expansion and the national effort to throw the doors open to mining, railroading, and agricultural settlement of the American West. Stretching across some 25 years, the campaign to vanquish the plains tribes focused upon the Cheyenne and the Sioux, and came to a head in 1876–77, in an offensive centered in southeastern Montana.

The military strove to conquer the native people of the region, while the tribes fought to defend their homelands and to survive. The words of General George Crook, a U.S. Army general who led efforts against the plains tribes, and Wooden Leg, one of the Cheyenne tribal warriors who defended their territory, offer a historical perspective on the sharply different viewpoints held by those on either side of the fight:

“I believe it is wrong for a government as great and powerful as ours not to protect the frontier people from savages. I do not see why a man who has the courage to come out here and open the way for civilization in his own country is not equally entitled to the protection of this government as anybody else. The army should be strong enough, certainly, to protect their people throughout their whole domain.” (Crook 1876)

“The treaty allowed us to hunt here as we might wish, so long as we did not make war upon the whites. We were not making war upon them. I had not seen any white man for many months. We were not looking for them. We were trying to stay away from all white people, and we wanted them to stay away from us ... Lots of buffalo were feeding on the grass at the upper Tongue and Powder rivers, on all of their branches and on the other lands in this whole region. Lots of elk, deer and antelope could be found almost anywhere the hunter might go to seek them. Lots of colts were being born in our horse herds this spring. We were rich, contented, at peace with the whites so far as we knew. Why should soldiers come out to seek for us and fight us?” (Wooden Leg 1931, 159–160)

The Rosebud and Wolf Mountain Battlefields

Often called the Great Sioux War, the military campaign of 1876–77 began with an attack on a Cheyenne village in March of 1876, which in turn sparked the Battle of Rosebud Creek and the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of that year. The war ended in a final battle on the Tongue River known as the Battle of the Wolf Mountains, on January 8, 1877. Over these months, the Army pursued Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and villagers throughout the region for more than 400 miles.

It has been recognized for almost 130 years that this trail and the battlegrounds along it are among the most important historic places in the United States. The Little Bighorn Battlefield, a national monument since January 1879, is one of the most prominent historic sites in the lexicon of the American West. However other battlefields along the trail, less well known, are at great risk. A study by the National Park Service and Western History Association (2002) under a Clash of Cultures theme identified several sites along the Great Sioux Wars Trail that are at risk, and deserving of far greater recognition and protection.

Among those, the Rosebud Battlefield, 50 miles from the Little Bighorn, and the Wolf Mountains Battlefield stand out. Rosebud Battlefield is a Montana state park, purchased in 1978 to protect its inherent cultural and historic values. One valley to the east, the Wolf Mountains Battlefield is located on a family-owned ranch and holds tremendous integrity, thanks to family members who have provided great stewardship for this place over the past century.

Due to their remote locations, these battlefields are exceptionally well preserved, unlike battlefields in more populated localities. As the former superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Neil Mangum, noted: “Rosebud Battlefield is not a park of picnic tables and playgrounds. Few structures  disturb the nearly pristine landscape …The site looks remarkably similar today to how it did more than a century ago, when Brigadier General George Crook’s command was met in battle by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.” (Mangum 2004)

The pressure to produce and move new energy to market in the United States has changed this picture dramatically. Both are now imminently threatened by energy development.

Cultural Preservation in an Energy Basin

The river valleys of southeastern Montana are located within the Powder River Basin, a region rich in oil, gas, and coal. Just to the south, in the state of Wyoming, the basin has been extensively and destructively mined for all of these commodities. Strip mines for coal, coal bed methane [CBM] wells, gas pipelines, energy railroads, and oil wells are now common throughout Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. To the north, Montana remains almost pristine in contrast but is next in line. Few controls exist to prevent damage to historic sites, even those of highest national import, against the energy rush.

The challenges are exacerbated in situations where surface lands are owned separately from the minerals that lie beneath, a  situation known as “split-estate,” that leads to conflicts between those hoping to preserve land, heritage sites, and habitat, and companies seeking to develop the minerals below. The complexities are mind-numbing, involving federal-, state-, or privately owned minerals that are leased out and often sold several times over the lifetime of the lease, in a system of speculation that is incredibly hard to track and virtually impossible to stop.

And at some point, if it becomes feasible to actually develop and mine those leased minerals, the tension between surface owners and stewards, and of subsurface development interests boils over. Even when all parties— even developers—agree, as they do on southeastern Montana’s battlefields, that the landscape should be preserved, it is a nightmare sorting out the various interests, and it costs a fortune to try and retire the mineral interests.

Still, a growing partnership has formed to pursue those goals. The group includes the National Park Service and American Battlefield Protection Program, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the State of Montana, several Cheyenne and Sioux Indian nations, the Montana Preservation Alliance, and numerous historical, cultural, and environmental organizations of the region.

Such advocacy has arrived none too soon. From its outset in 2004, CBM gas drilling has been a disaster. The first CBM gas field was drilled in southeast Montana, and, sadly, the federal government permitted the drilling of 178 wells on and around the Tongue River Heights Fight site, one of the secondary skirmishes in the Great Sioux Wars campaign. In issuing the permits, the Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the national implications of drilling into this site, as well as tribal cultural and environmental impacts.

Such impacts to historic sites in the region have sparked new alliances and strategies to see that the battlefields and other sites related to this history are preserved. And as traditional tribal historians and landowners challenge land managing agencies to better protect the cultural heritage of our state, the effort to find common ground and preserve these battlefields has strengthened.

Spirit of Place Threatened

Beneath the Rosebud Battlefield lie coal and gas reserves that now threaten its existence. Elmer “Slim” Kobold, who operated a cattle ranch on the core lands of the battlefield prior to its becoming a state park, understood the inherent value of preserving the battlefield. “When mining companies found a rich coal seam under Kobold’s property in the early 1970s, he began an intense letter writing campaign and teamed up with [the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks] to get Rosebud Battlefield designated in the National Register of Historic Places. A few years later, with constant urging by the tough old cowboy, the Montana legislature agreed to preserve the site, appropriating money … to acquire a large portion of the battlefield.” (Peterson 2004)

The battlefield was protected, it seemed, from development. However, the state did not acquire the minerals under the land. With 80 percent of the subsurface minerals retained by the Kobold family, and some 20 percent either federally owned or owned by the Crow Indian tribe, mineral development under the battlefield is a very real threat. At this time, all of the mineral rights are under active lease, and in January 2008, Pinnacle Oil & Gas filed its intent to drill for coal bed methane gas beneath the Rosebud Battlefield.

Negotiations are currently ongoing to retire these leases. Montana Fish, Wildlife &  Parks and the Conservation Fund, supported by the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Foundation for Community Vitality, and the National Trust, are working with the owners and developers to attempt to trade out the leases with the state and retire the mineral rights under the battlefield. Meanwhile, the challenges mount. A new railroad to haul coal from Wyoming through Montana has been approved for the Tongue River Valley. As currently planned, it will cut through the heart of the Wolf Mountains Battlefield and coal trains more than a mile long will be rolling through the battlefield within a few years time.

Urgency to protect these sites is expressed by a growing audience, and by officials at the highest levels of government, from Montana’s governor and congressional leaders to tribal councils. Citing the “imminent threat by coal bed methane development” to “the physical and cultural integrity of the waters of the Rosebud Creek, the Rosebud Battlefield, the Tongue River and the Battle of Wolf Mountain,” tribal councils for the Northern Cheyenne, Rosebud Sioux, and Upper and Lower Sioux Communities all passed resolutions to support the designation of “the Rosebud Battlefield State Park (including the Rosebud Spring) and the Battle of Wolf Mountain as national historic landmarks.” (Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council 2005; Rosebud Sioux 2006; Lower Sioux Community Council 2006; Upper Sioux Community Council 2006)

And on October 6, 2008, Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne signed the Rosebud and Wolf Mountains Battlefield NHLs into being, the successful ending to a six-year effort by the NPS; the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the Montana Preservation Alliance; and the landowners to achieve this honor.

Honoring the Spirit of Place

We are the answer to the prayers of the people who fought on this battlefield. (William Walks Along, Northern Cheyenne tribal vice-president at the first Rosebud Commemoration, July 17, 2006)

The Rosebud and Wolf Mountains encounters offer dynamic perspectives on the spirit of place. Battlefields hold powerful and faceted meaning for different cultural groups and audiences. In our experience, the differences can be profound, and they are often informed by sharply contrasting secular and spiritual values.

As historian and theologian Edward T. Linenthal noted, “battle sites are civil space where Americans of various ideological persuasions come, not always reverently, to compete for the ownership of powerful national stories and to argue about the nature of heroism, the meaning of war, the efficacy of martial sacrifice, and the significance of preserving the patriotic landscape of the nation.” (Linenthal 1993, 1)

From a federal and state government perspective, the significance of battlefields such as Rosebud and Wolf Mountains is largely viewed in a secular manner—these places commemorate battles in the sweep of American Western history, they mark turning points in campaigns to control land and resources, and they reflect patterns in cultural relations and national expansion. These battlefields are valued highly as military sites, providing places for military historians to study tactical maneuvers and strategies of engagement. They also are managed with a multiple-use philosophy, giving recreation and education equal footing with commemorative and contemplative activities

In meetings with tribal traditionalists on the future of the Rosebud Battlefield, we often heard people talk of cultural identity, of the spiritual significance of battlefields and their importance as burial places. These deeply held values are not often shared, nor understood by non-native agency personnel with little background in the history of these places. In addition, the tribes seek an active role in managing and protecting these places and in shaping the way that they are interpreted for the public.

In 2005 the Cheyenne came forward with information about this war and the battlefields, information they had held for more than 100 years. The tribe had maintained a vow of silence regarding these events, until such time that it was safe for the people to discuss the oral history of what had transpired. That year, for the first time, Cheyenne and Sioux people held a commemoration ceremony at the Rosebud Battlefield, marking a return to the place culturally and signaling their strengthened commitment to seeing it preserved.

The next January, they held a small and meaningful ceremony at the Wolf Mountains Battlefield, again memorializing the events that had taken place there and the people who had fought there so long ago. In both places, tears were shed and the families who had preserved the land and given access for tribal commemorations were thanked and honored.

Two years later, in 2008, the effort to commemorate and protect these places goes on. Faced with imminent development, tribal leaders, preservationists, historians, and conservationists have formed a broad coalition to draw attention to these fragile resources and build public support for their protection. Communities in the region are joining together to create alternative economic programs centered around heritage development and historic preservation. This fall a southeastern Montana partnership staged a rolling workshop to bus people through this historic region and alert the public to the threats to the spirits of these places. Rather than accepting unbridled energy development, participants offered preservation and promotion of the cultural landscape as a viable economic option for sustaining communities in the region.

The prospect to recognize Rosebud Battlefield as a national historic landmark “reinforced what Montanans and historians have long known,” Montana’s Governor Brian Schweitzer stated in January 2008. “Rosebud Battlefield is nationally significant in American history and culture.” (Schweitzer 2008)

In the end, it is an effort to preserve a common heritage and the identity of many unique cultures. The tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux recently noted, “We believe that long-term protection of these areas is an important first step in preserving not only part of our own tribal heritage but that of other tribes as well.” (Murphy 2005)

As the respected Northern Cheyenne historian John Stands in Timber reflected, “They [the old Cheyenne] are gone now and much of what they knew has been lost. But I am glad I have saved a part of it for those who will come after us. It is important for them to remember some of the things that made the Cheyennes a great and strong people.” (Stands in Timber 1967)


Black Elk, and John G. Niehardt. 1932. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. John G. Niehardt Trust; Reprinted by Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Crook, George. The Fellows in Feathers: An Interview with General Crook, at Red Cloud Agency, October 26, 1876. In Eyewitnesses to
the Indian Wars 1865-1890, The Long War for the Northern Plains, ed. Peter Cozzens, 385. Mechanicsville, PA: Stackpole Press, 2004.

Jenks, Jim. 2007. Historic Preservation Plan for the Rosebud Battlefield, Located in Big Horn County, Montana. Helena: Montana Preservation

Linenthal, Edward T. 1993. Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lower Sioux Indian Community Council. 22 November 2006. Resolution No. 06-162. Morton, MN.

Mangum, Neil. 2004. A Big Prelude to the Little Bighorn. Available from;
accessed 10 July 2008.

National Park Service and the Western History Association. 2002. The Clash of Cultures Trails Project. Denver: National Park Service, Intermountain Support Office.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council. 18 April 2005. Resolution NCT-125(05). Lame Deer, MT.

Murphy, Charles W., Chairman, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 16 May 2005. Letter to Lysa Wegman-French, National Park Service —
Heritage Partnerships Program.

Peterson, Bob. 2004. A New Battle Ahead? Available from; accessed 10 July

Rosebud Sioux Tribe. 15 June 2006. Resolution 2006-149. Rosebud, SD.

Schweitzer, Brian. 23 January 2008. Letter to Paul Loether, Chief of the National Register and National Landmark Division. Helena, MT.
Stands in Timber, John, and Margot Liberty.  1967. Cheyenne Memories. With Robert M. Utley. New Haven, Connecticut and London:
Yale University Press.

Upper Sioux Community Tribal Council. 20 October 2006. Resolution 038-FY2006. Granite Falls, MN.

White Bull, Joseph. 1931. Ledger Art Drawings. Joseph White Bull Manuscript Collection. Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

Wooden Leg. 1931. Interpreted by Thomas Bailey Marquis. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer. Midwest Company; Reprinted by Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Publication Date: Winter 2009


Author(s):Chere Jiusto and Lynda B. Moss

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