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Little Bighorn Tour Guide Brings Battle To Life

Seasonal Ranger Mike Donahue (right) discuses the Battle of Little Bighorn with Jon Jones atop Custer Hill.
Jim Kent
Seasonal Ranger Mike Donahue (right) discuses the Battle of Little Bighorn with Jon Jones atop Custer Hill.

On a scorching hot summer afternoon along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana, seasonal ranger Mike Donahue brings the historical Battle of Little Bighorn to life with remarkable enthusiasm and passion.

At a recent presentation, Donahue welcomes a crowd to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. "Why did it happen in the first place?" he asks during the presentation. "Because you had two peoples that really didn't understand or appreciate one another very well."

Mike Donahue spends most of the year as an art professor at Temple College in Texas. But for the last 24 years, he's spent his summers as a park ranger at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Donahue's interest in the battle goes back to 1958, when he saw the Disney film 'Tonka' about Comanche, a horse from Custer's command that survived the carnage. Donahue is also deeply involved with the study of his Irish heritage, and there's a direct connection with the battle.

"Most of Custer's men were of Irish descent. After the potato famine, a lot of them came over looking for a job in America. They arrive at the worst possible time," he says. "The Panic of 1873 has 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."

And Donahue's work at the Little Bighorn site isn't limited to just giving tours or presentations. He's also participated in archaeological digs on the battlefield that have fueled his desire to tell as accurate a story as possible about what took place here in 1876.

"I find that just fascinating, because we learn more about the battle from not only reading the Indian accounts, but also from the tremendous amount of information gleaned from the archaeological digs," Donahue says.

During the presentation, the audience hangs on to every word as Donahue tells all sides of the Little Bighorn story. They ask questions and eagerly interact with the ranger whenever he offers them the chance.

"They felt it was their God-given right to change this land. They called it 'Manifest' what, folks?" Donahue asks. The audience responds emphatically with, "Destiny."

"Yeah. You've all heard that: 'Manifest Destiny.' Donahue continues. "How did they look at the Native peoples then? They looked at them as less than human. They called them savages and barbarians and uncivilized. And they said, 'It's our job to make a Christian farmer out of each and every Indian out here.' Folks, those were the attitudes in the 1870s."

Washington state resident Phil Levenseller says Mike's presentation was much more than he expected.

"I think it was truly remarkable," Levenseller says. "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 Donahue dodges questions about why he returns to the Little Bighorn each year with humorous answers like: 'It gets him away from the summer heat of Texas.' But it's obvious to visitors that Donahue possesses an unrivaled passion for bringing to life what occurred at the Little Bighorn Battlefield more than a century ago — and taking his audience there along with him.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Kent is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. A freelance writer and radio journalist who currently lives in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Jim can be heard on a variety of radio programs including National Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He is also a columnist for the Rapid City Journal and a guest columnist for the Lakota Country Times.