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Little Bighorn Tour Guide Brings Battle To Life

Jul 22, 2013
Originally published on July 22, 2013 11:04 am

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.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's join a Nickel Tour now, something we're having fun doing this summer. Today one of the most visited sites in the National Park system: The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. Reporter Jim Kent introduces us to one man leading tours there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARK TOUR)

MICHAEL DONAHUE: Well, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the National Park Service, I'd like to welcome you today to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. My name is Michael Donahue, and I'm a seasonal ranger here just for the summer.

JIM KENT, BYLINE: It's a scorching hot summer afternoon along the banks of the Little Bighorn River, just like it was in 1876 when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his entire immediate command were killed here by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. You don't have to go far to find a book or documentary about what took place on that day. But Mike Donahue brings the historical event to life with remarkable enthusiasm and passion.

DONAHUE: Why did it happen in the first place? Because you had two people 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.

KENT: Most of the year Mike Donahue is an art professor at Temple College in Texas, but for 24 years he's spent his summers 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. Mike's also deeply involved with the study of his Irish heritage, and there's a direct connection with the battle.

DONAHUE: 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. 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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF TOUR)

DONAHUE: They felt it was their God-given right to change this land. They called it Manifest what, folks?

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: Destiny.

DONAHUE: Yeah. You've all heard that word Manifest Destiny. 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. 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 of the 1870s.

KENT: The audience hangs on every word as Mike tells all sides of the Little Bighorn story. They ask questions and eagerly interact with the ranger whenever he offers them the chance. Washington state resident Phil Levenseller says Mike's presentation was much more than he expected.

PHIL LEVENSELLER: I think it was truly remarkable. 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.

KENT: 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 Mike 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. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.