Honorable hog: Motorcycle pays tribute to Little Bighorn

A Minot man has taken his interest in frontier history to a fascinating level. Mark Hamilton has always been intrigued with Native American history and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Now he has brought his enthusiasm and knowledge of a transformational era in U.S. history to life through an imaginative venue a 2004 Sportster Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“I did a lot of research. I thought for a long time about what I wanted on the bike,” said Hamilton. “I knew I’d have Sitting Bull and Custer and also decided on Gaul. Gaul’s presence is such a magnificent physical specimen. He has great character in his face.”

Gaul was a Sioux chief and one of the leading inspirations for fellow warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Hamilton is a former educator and long-time owner of Wild Things Gallery in Minot. As such, he has developed a keen sense of what comprises meaningful art, especially when blended with history and story telling. This project was very different from framed prints and presented some interesting challenges.

Artist Andrew Knutson of Towner was approached by Hamilton during the planning stages of turning a motorcycle into a one-of-a-kind historical tribute. Knutson was reluctant at first, but eventually was convinced by Hamilton to do the work. The result is stunning.

“He does excellent work. You can see he really put his heart into it. No question about it. I got the right guy,” remarked Hamilton. “Andy did a magnificent job.”

Hamilton did considerable research, contacting notable historians who have extensively studied the period, and comprised the images later created by Knutson. An example is a scene that is painted on the rear fender of the motorcycle. Called “Custer’s Last Parley” it depicts the final officer’s call conducted by Custer prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It includes remarkable images of Indian scouts and well known officer’s of the 7th Cavalry. Hamilton made certain that everything, from horse color to accouterments, was historically accurate.

“The rear fender is really the hallmark of the bike. I spent a lot of time researching it. The meeting took place on June 25, 1876, at 12:05 p.m.,” said Hamilton. “The scouts told Custer he was about 10 miles from the Little Bighorn.”

Not even the background was overlooked in Hamilton’s quest for historical accuracy. The Minoter connected with a man in Montana who knew the precise spot where the 7th Cavalry conducted its final officer’s call. A trip to the site was vital to accurately recreating the location.

“In 1909 Walter Camp interviewed survivors of the battle. One of the scouts took Camp to the exact spot and a marker was set there,” explained Hamilton. “It is on private land today but the owner gave permission for a visit and I took a picture of the background from the exact spot where the parley was.”

Although scenes from the Little Bighorn and its key participants are painted on the cycle’s gasoline tank, drive belt guard, front and rear fenders and on the oil side panel, the motorcycle has been named Ta’ shun-ka was’te Lakota for “Good Horse.” The theme is remarkably well carried throughout the bike.

At the rear of the motorcycle is a horse’s tail, tied up and ready for battle as was customary among the Sioux. Beadwork covers the hand grips. There are feathers, buckskin fringe and even a set of braided reins made from elk hide. The seat has been replaced by a saddle authentic to the period.

“Larry Bayless, historical consultant for the movie “Dances With Wolves,” did the saddle,” said Hamilton. “It’s a prairie chicken saddle, mainly for transport but also for riding. The pummel is deer horns and the seat brain tanned buffalo hide sewn with real sinew, not sinew thread.”

Despite all the work put into the bike, it is not yet finished. A quote from Sitting Bull has yet to be painted in Lakota onto the perimeter of the speedometer. It will read, “We only wanted to be left alone, but even a bird must protect its nest.”

Additionally, a horse mask is still being constructed that will be mounted to the front of the bike, a finishing touch for the Good Horse.

“It is captivating. It keeps you looking,” noted Hamilton. “It’s a classic.”

Others think so, too. The bike recently captured top honors in its category at a motorcycle show in Minot. Those who examine the bike are captivated by what they see, down to the medallions at the end of each handlebar to the message written on the gasoline cap – “Benteen come quick. Bring pacs.”

It was Custer’s last message, hastily scribbled by adjutant W.W. Cooke, before Custer’s five companies were overrun by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

Hamilton has plans for the motorcycle. He intends to display it during the annual reenactment of the Little Bighorn battle near Hardin, Mont., and also take it to the Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally. Primarily though, he intends to fall back on his teaching background and use the bike as a venue to teach school children about an important era of American history.

“That’s my contribution, to use it to teach,” said Hamilton. “We are not teaching enough history and this is one of the most fascinating periods, the passing of the frontier. That bike tells a story.”