Custer Battlefield Museum interns bring strong historical knowledge
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 5:00am admin
By Andrew Turck, Big Horn County News
The Custer Battlefield Museum has recently picked up two new interns with a well-rounded knowledge of the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn. Museum Director Chris Kortlander picked the interns – Alex Amerling and Rachel Smith – out of a pool of 14 and each has a degree in history.
As he talked while sitting on his home floor next to a shield that may have belonged to Chief Sitting Bull, he coordinated with Smith via radio in regards to press releases and Facebook posts.
“I’m very blessed,” Kortlander said. “They’re both really brilliant and bright, and without them, the museum would be a lot more work, especially during the tourist season.”
They will be helping with various projects in addition to greeting and showing visitors an introductory video.
Amerling became interested in history in seventh grade, when he learned about the Holocaust during World War II. From there, he went backwards chronologically.
Battles interest him in particular, because they are action-packed and often helped shape the course of history. He holds the nineteenth century Bighorn skirmish between Custer’s 7th Cavalry and the tribes in particularly high regard.
The battle, he said, started a couple hundred yards from Gas Pump No. 1 at the museum, where three companies under the command of Major Marcus Reno were routed by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors.
“The thing I found interesting was five companies wiped out to a man,” Amerling said. “They’re still trying to piece together how that battle went, so I’m always interested in what kind of theories they have.
“This was the culmination of 400 years of conflict between the Euro-American settlers and Native Americans. The Native Americans, I always like to view this as their last stand, because after this victory, they were pushed continually by the army onto reservations.”
Smith became an intern after graduating from Texas A&M University in College Station, Tex. with a degree in communications in addition to history. She has loved museums since she was a kid and “wanted something different”.
“I come from the Houston area and know what a big museum is; we’ve got a lot of great, fantastic, huge, grandiose museums,” she said, “but I’ve always been kind of fond of the smaller ones.”
While in college, Smith delved further into western history and she “stumbled onto” the Custer Battlefield Museum during an internship search. She was excited to find the building and wanted to see if she could work there.
“I immediately found one of my professors and said, ‘I just found the perfect internship’ and I applied right away,” she said. “The rest is history.”
Both Amerling and Smith have thus far enjoyed their time working at the museum. Smith said one of the best parts of the job is talking to people and finding out where they’ve been and where they are going.
“I have heard that people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe were interested in the American West, but I thought it was more of a passing fancy,” she said, “but we get people in here who have almost equal knowledge to me – and I promise I’m well-read on the battle.
“It’s a pretty small world and a lot of people know this place.”
Amerling traveled to Germany for three months, where he learned that many of the people there sympathized with Native Americans.
He speaks German fluently and had already used this skill in the museum on 10-20 occasions at the time of the interview.
In the end, Smith said, learning about historical figures draws them into closer focus and allows one to better see them as a people who lived, breathed on the Earth. Take Custer, for instance.
“Lots of people call him a complete idiot with a huge ego,” she said. “Some of that may be true, but what you have to understand as well is that he’s a person, he’s a person who lived and died right in this area. It’s worth it to get that backstory, so that you’re not just talking about either Custer and their side or the Native Americans and their side as archetypes instead of human beings.”
For now, Amerling and Smith believe they’ve found a “kindred spirit” in Kortlander, who they said matches their enthusiasm in history. Smith said she liked seeing his eyes light up as he talked about various historical subjects.
“He has a telescope where he can look through and see the Last Stand hill monument from his room, which is awesome,” Amerling said. “He says, ‘The battle started here and it ended up there.’”
Amerling and Smith are scheduled to work in the museum until October.