Farewell from John Doerner

The time has now come for me to say farewell to all of my friends as I work my final day as Chief Historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I will now prepare for a new chapter in my life and retirement from NPS-LIBI after almost 21 years.

As I write this I want to let each and everyone know that I am so very grateful for your friendship, kindness, prayers, and support that you have given me all these years. I am truly fortunate and blessed to have worked at this very special place. A place that is dear to my heart and soul, and unlike any other place on this earth. A place that bonds all of us to a common story of epic struggle here on 25-26 June 1876 during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

An all powerful cultural landscape that witnessed a horrific battle of supreme sacrifice, bravery and courage under fire; a place of self-lessness, of sacrifice of ones life for what one believed in and to protect their women and children and elders; bravery to fight for their fellow brother in arms; a place where two cultures met and fought for what they felt was right and just, to protect their culture and their way of life, knowing that in doing so, they may forfeit theirs. For that and for future generations who visit here, that must never be forgotten.

The battlefield is a place that must be preserved and protected. It is a place that one
can reflect back on the events that took place here and return again and again with their family, especially their children and remember with great pride and with great sadness what occurred here on these peaceful ridges in 1876.
I will treasure the fond memories that I experienced here for the rest of my life and hope that people will remember me in a good way and that I did my utmost to interpret the battle better for all visitors and for future generations to recognize Cheyenne and Sioux, and 7th Cavalry and Arikara scouts, and 7th Cavalry Horse casualties with fitting markers so that they are honored and remembered by all that visit this special place.
John A. Doerner
Chief Historian (Retired)
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

The Last Historian?

By Tom Heski

NPS Historian John August Doerner retired on April 29, 2011. John served 21 years at Little Bighorn Battlefield. He also worked as an interpreter and program director prior to being selected as Historian at the Battlefield. John was second generation National Park Service, following in the footsteps of his father.

I have known John Doerner for almost 35 years and throughout his National Park Service career. He is an unassuming, humble man who doesn't take credit for his success. He speaks from the heart. Although others bask in the limelight, John has always worked to get the job done.

John is the most courageous person I have ever known. What we call pain is everyday living for him. If it wasn't for a previous life-changing injury forcing a Federal disability retirement, he would have become the longest serving Historian at the Battlefield. He didn't care for a move up the career ladder. He wanted to stay in order to protect the Battlefield and the resting places of the “Boys of ’76” and the warriors who fought at Little Bighorn.

I rank John Doerner as one of the best historians, among the likes of Supt. Luce! John's knowledge of events that transpired at the Little Bighorn is beyond comprehension. He has forgotten more than most of us will ever know. He has worked for many superintendents and was highly depended on for his knowledge and expertise—often doing tasks not related to his official duties.

Anyone who has come into contact with John Doerner (including members of the CBHMA, Little Big Horn Associates and Friends of Little Bighorn Battlefield) were greeted with a professional, no-nonsense approach to events at Little Bighorn. His impromptu talks (told with passion and conviction) almost made you feel as if you were there. He made time for everyone especially during Anniversary week.

Above all, he was instrumental in researching and locating the sites of warriors who fell at Little Bighorn. He ordered the Warrior Markers and worked with the families of those Native Americans who fell. The historical record had to match oral family history and tradition before any marker was ordered.

I know—I saw the research!

John is the first historian that really had the confidence of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Arikara and Crow tribes, given the name “Earth Man.” John is also a “Pipe Carrier.” He was also honored last June by the Arikara and given a tribal headdress for the day. The Indians trust and respect him more than anyone at the Battlefield.

John Doerner is a first class historian and as a friend is one of the best. I wish him all the best and only hope that he can enjoy a richly deserved retirement. He will be missed by all who knew him as an historian and a person, especially by those true historians. As John has often said:

“It’s all about the ‘Boys of ’76.”

With all of the change at Little Bighorn Battlefield such as the relocation of its priceless artifacts is John Doerner “The Last Historian”?

Battlefield Profiles

A Day in the Career of the Chief Historian

By Joe Creaden

Although we have so many fond memories of former Chief Historian John Doerner and his work at Little Bighorn Battlefield, we would be hard pressed to place one accomplishment at the head of his impressive work at our beloved Battlefield. During his enduring legacy at the park certain qualities were always visible: His love and devotion to the Battlefield and his heartfelt respect for he soldiers and warriors who fought on the remote Montana hills over the Little Big Horn River.

John’s commitment was never more evident than on June 23, 2007 during the CBHMA Field Trip. With the temperature at 95 degrees, he stayed with us every step of the way. He delivered a moving talk on Reno Hill speaking of the markers honoring the Arikara scouts who died in Major Marcus Reno’s Valley Fight. He also spoke eloquently about the markers for the Reno dead in the valley. He also expressed his wish to move the Arikara markers and place them in their proper locations in the valley.

Near Deep Coulee, John oversaw dedication of the marker for Corporal John Foley. During this moving ceremony one could not avoid experiencing the deep feelings of heroism and desperation exhibited during the course of this event in the Battle of the Little Big Horn known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” All those present better understood that the battle was fought by many ordinary human beings, not just famous officers and chiefs. [See “Foley’s Last Ride,” Fall 2007 Battlefield Dispatch.]

Finally at Last Stand Hill John addressed a crowd of CBHMA members and visitors explaining what the end of the Battle must have been like for the soldiers and warriors. He spoke with great emotion of soldiers shooting their beloved horses, a final desperate act of survival. He recalled warriors defending their  families, sacrificing their lives to protect them. Looking around the Hill as he spoke, one could not help but notice how many people had tears in their eyes. John had captured the emotions of the crowd and made them understand that the Battle of the Little Big Horn was not just an historical event. It was a true human tragedy impacting many lives.

Anyone who was there on that hot June day will never forget John’s talk. After each of these moving ceremonies John would sound Taps in honor of all who fought in 1876. Despite the heat you could feel a chill go up your spine as he played with the conviction that can only come from deep within a person’s heart and soul.

We meet many people in the course of our lives but some are never forgotten. John Doerner is one of those people who, once you meet them, leave a mark that endures.

We hope that John enjoys retirement but will often return to Little Big Horn Battlefield and attend our annual gatherings  where his countless friends will be waiting to see him.

John Doerner, we salute you!


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