LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD – Denice Swanke has a lot on her plate as superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, but she said there is no question what is most important to her superiors in the National Park Service.
They want her to figure out some way of bringing home the battlefield’s invaluable collection of archives and artifacts. Safety concerns prompted the removal of the 150,000-item collection to Arizona three years ago.
“That will be my No. 1 priority as long as I’m here, because those were my marching orders,” Swanke said Tuesday.
Her superiors are giving her something besides marching orders. Swanke said the Park Service recently approved a request for $1 million to plan for the return of the collection.
That funding request was submitted by David Harrington, who served as interim superintendent between the departure of Kate Hammond in March 2012 and Swanke’s arrival in October of that year.
Swanke said she hopes to use the money to study any options that would make possible the return of part or all of the collection. The funds would be used for environmental studies, travel for consultation with Indian tribes and preparatory work by engineers, architects and other professionals.
The collection, which includes documents, books, clothing, flags, guns, gear, photographs, shell casings and Indian artifacts and sacred items, used to be housed in the basement of the battlefield’s small, 70-year-old visitor center.
When Hammond announced in 2011 that the collection would be moved to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, she said it was being done “because of the potential for irreversible deterioration of items or catastrophic loss by fire or flood in its present, substandard location.”
There was no fire protection system in the basement, no special climate controls, no access for people with disabilities. It was also very cramped, and exposed plumbing presented the possibility of water damage.
In Tucson, the collection is being thoroughly inventoried for the first time. Swanke showed an Accession Receiving Report that is supposed to be completed for each object, listing, among other things, its condition, where it came from and whether it needed any preservation work.
“Someone’s sitting down there going through this process for every single item in the collection,” she said.
The next step for Swanke is to obtain permission from the Park Service’s regional office in Denver to amend the battlefield’s General Management Plan, drawn up in 1986. She would need to obtain that permission to explore most of the options on the table.
One is to renovate a portion of the battlefield’s administrative offices, downhill from the visitor center, to house all or some of the collection, at least temporarily. Long-term options include working with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Crow Tribe, which are exploring the possibility of building a rest area and Crow museum just north of the battlefield across Highway 212 on tribal land.
Swanke said she has been talking with both parties about building a facility there to house the battlefield collection, but the state and tribe are on track to proceed with their plans, including an independent Crow museum, with or without the Park Service.
Another possibility would be to lease a building in Hardin to house the collection. Also still alive is the proposal at the heart of the original management plan, to demolish the existing visitor center on Last Stand Hill and build a new center, with a museum and collection storage area, down in the Little Bighorn Valley near Garryowen, where the battle began.
But that option would involve expanding the park from 765 acres to many thousands of acres. The Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee owns or controls 3,500 acres on or around the battlefield and would like to donate it to the Park Service someday. But the Crow Tribe has resisted that proposal, and the donated land could not be accepted without an act of Congress.
Swanke said she just wants to get Park Service approval for changing the management plan so she can start involving the public in the planning process.
“I want to get to the point where we throw something out there,” she said.
Some previous proposals didn’t involve “robust” public participation and tribal consultation, Swanke said, but she promised that this planning process will.
Mike O’Keefe, of Placitas, N.M., president of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, said he has been impressed by Swanke, especially her commitment to return the artifacts and archives.
“We’re very excited that Denice is really on top of this and working to get them back,” he said. “We think she’s the right woman. She’s very savvy.”
Jim Court, of Billings, a former battlefield superintendent who is active in the preservation committee, worries that the Park Service might not have the money to bring the collection home, which he said would be a big mistake.
“The collection is just sitting in Tucson and really nobody has any access to it,” he said. He said there are just four people there overseeing an enormous collection of documents and artifacts from 71 parks in the Western United States.
Another priority for Swanke is to start rotating items from the visitor center’s small exhibit cases to the facility in Arizona, and bringing in new items from there. That was to have been done soon after the relocation of the collection, she said, because certain items like fabrics and leather are not supposed to remain on display too long.
But with so many other unmet needs at the battlefield, the rotation never began. Swanke hopes to have an orderly rotation in place by the end of this year.