Billings, Little Big Horn, and the Montana Plains Feature
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Past & Future on the Plains
It's no wonder that in the 1870s the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe hid out in southeastern Montana; 130 years later, this region may still be the last best place to hide in the Lower 48. Most of the Montana plains didn't see white settlers until the 19th century was well along, and in some places nearly over. As a result, Montana's plains have an extremely brief documented history—perhaps that's why locals hang on dearly to remnants of the past. Even tiny settlements and cow towns have museums, which are essential community fixtures. Although often modest, such places are important for preserving the heritage of one of America's last frontiers. Among the finest are the C.M. Russell Museum Complex in Great Falls and Fort Benton's Museum of the Northern Great Plains.
It was in southeast Montana that Native Americans marked an epic and pivotal victory against the U.S. Army on the banks of the Little Bighorn. Here, a cavalry leader who may well have become president instead met defeat. The dramatic death of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer redoubled the federal government's resolve to eradicate Native Americans; the policy of genocide endured until the massacre at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, 14 years later.
Woven through the conflicts between whites and Native Americans is the ageless story of humanity's struggle with nature. This is a rough and often unforgiving land, where too much rain and too much drought often defeated even the most dedicated settler. The government responded by building giant dams and laying asphalt ribbons. In large measure, they succeeded. Even where the horizon remains unbroken by power lines, residents have been brought into the mainstream by the Internet, satellite TV, and GPS navigation.
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