I have never been a big fan of Westerns or caught up in the romance of the Wild West. But a visit to the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Eastern Montana, long venerated in American hagiography as Custer’s Last Stand, does, I admit, stir some emotion. The story of the attack on the villages of the combined Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on June 25th, 1876 and the consequent decisive defeat of the U.S military was a true tragedy for both sides. It bespeaks the appalling toll that misunderstanding and miscalculation can wreak in any struggle over territory. And it gives pause to anyone who believes that right and wrong can be neatly parsed in determining the moral demarcations in that violent conflict.
Strolling to the top of the so called Last Stand Hill, where what remained of Custer’s battalion reputedly fought a desperate battle for survival against an overwhelming Indian force, ( although no one really knows because no white survivor lived to tell the full story), one can read the names of the 210 U.S. soldiers, citizens and scouts who died that day as well as view the 19th century markers of where the most famous among them – George Custer, his brothers Tom and Boston and his more junior officers, fell. Further down the hillside is the monument to the Indians who perished during the Indian campaign of 1876. That monument, erected only six years ago, offers a perspective on both the battle itself and the toll that the Indian Wars of the late 19th Century took on the culture and lives of the Great Plains Indians.
Yet where Custer and his impetuous actions of the summer of 1876 truly stands in American consciousness today, is almost impossible to determine with any clarity. On the one hand, he is lauded as both a symbol of American derring-do, courage and perseverance and yet on the other as a reckless adventurer, imperialist puppet and genocidal murderer. For the 136 years since his death he has divided historians, politicians and military enthusiasts alike – so much so that Custer National Battlefield was compelled to change its name to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991 for fear that it paid too much homage to the fallen Lieutenant Colonel and thus to the perceived 19th Century campaigns of extermination.
This new tweak on Custer mythology has penetrated into battlefield brochures and latter day re-enactments. Today the Little Bighorn Battlefield has been established as a place where the descendants of both sides can simultaneously claim the mantle of victory and the moral authority of defeat. The guides at the battle site and the announcers at the re-enactment itself all refer to an ineradicable clash of cultures and civilizations that began with the arrival of Europeans on the American continent and most probably continues today:
“The Battle of the Little Bighorn was but the latest encounter in a centuries-long conflict that began with the arrival of the first Europeans in North America. It reached its peak in the decade following the Civil War when settlers resumed their vigorous westward movement. These western emigrants , possessing little or no understanding of the Indian way of life, showed slight regard for the sanctity of the hunting grounds or the terms of former treaties. The Indians’ resistance to those encroachments on their domains only served to intensify hostilities”
Here is baldly stated, what multiculturalists, revisionist historians and Indian rights advocates have been arguing for decades: that the Indian narrative of the struggle over territory in the 19th Century was just as significant, if not more so, than the white man’s version of events – and that such a perspective must become part of America’s historical memory. This is of course argued in much the same way the black community demands that the memory of slavery should underpin relations today with African-Americans.
‘Well, what is wrong with that?’- might be the question that most might ask when presented with such a demand. After all, native Indians are no less American than whites and their history certainly deserves recognition, particularly since they have been here so much longer.
Well recognition is one thing. But when the promotion of a sub-national consciousness is used to promote separatism, hatred and violence toward the majority culture, then it is entirely another.
The militancy of native American Indians has absorbed momentum from the prevailing culture wars of the past three decades and the fragmentation of U.S. national identity. In 1969, Vine Deloria Jr., a Stand Rock Sioux Indian published Custer Died for Your Sins: An American Indian Manifesto – a political best seller. In that book Deloria described Custer as a blood sacrifice and a necessary sacrifice for the crimes of U.S. expansionism. Deloria’s book accelerated the American Indian Movement (AIM) and for the 1976 centennial the Indian activist Russell Means led a band of 200 Sioux Indians to the battle site carrying an upside down American flag, demanding and receiving unscheduled time on the speakers’ platform. He then prevented a descendant of Custer, Lieut. Col. George A. Custer III from being either officially recognized or presenting remarks.
Means upped the ante even further for the 112th anniversary in 1988 when he led a group that brought its own historical plaque of welded steel, planted it in the sod on Last Stand Hill and poured in concrete. The plaque read:
“In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated U.S. Calvary (sic.). In order to save our women and children from mass murder. In doing so, preserving our rights to our Homeland, Treaties and Sovereignty”
AIM has since forcefully promoted a reparations agenda and has argued that tribal law, rather than American law, should be applied on native American reservations and communities. That particular demand is eerily reminiscent of the demands of British Muslims for their own sharia courts to adjudicate family disputes.
Means and others like him have vigorously promoted the concept of Indians as innocents who led peaceful lives on the plains before they were victimized and then militarized by the advent of white incursion. But this is a total fabrication. The Plains Indians were already militarized, having spent centuries in mortal combat with one another, a fact attested to by the revelation that most of Custer’s scouts were Crow Indians, who bore their neighbors such an abiding hatred they were willing to provide vital details on the Sioux encampment. Not mentioned by Means or many other Indian archivists, is the brutal way in which white settlers were massacred at every stage of American westward expansion. In fact, in the recorded depredations of Indians against whites families, there are almost no instances where the women of the settlements, when attacked, were not raped and then mutilated by Indian war parties.
In addition, we should remember the barbarism of the Indian warriors and their cohorts at the Little Bighorn itself. How many people, with even a casual interest in the West, know that in the aftermath of Battle of the Little Bighorn, the bodies of Custer and his men were stripped naked by their Indian victors, that many were either decapitated or eviscerated, their hands, feet and private parts dismembered and that these depredations were carried out, not by the warriors who did the killing, but mainly by the women and children of the encampment, after the warriors had left the field.. U.S Cavalry divisions arriving on the scene on June 27th two days later, could barely make out the faces of many of their comrades, so flattened had they been by tomahawks and clubs.
The charge of genocide against 19th Century U.S. Administrations has often been leveled and indeed, an entire historiography has arisen in our universities which relies on the “facts” of a concerted U.S. campaign to exterminate the American Indian. And it is on this platform of guilt that American multiculturalists raise the banner of national rights for Indians. So described as a “holocaust”, in line with other “holocausts” of the Aztec peoples of Mexico and the Inca of Peru, it is all an attempt to give Indians the moral authority to make demands of the majority white population that they should not, in good conscience, refuse.
The effort to contemporize the “Manifest Destiny” policies of mid-19th Century American governments as genocidal campaigns has been a cynical exercise in capitalizing on the collapse of identity in this country, wherein those of Caucasian extraction are made to feel the burden of guilt for any number of depredations against minorities – complaints which can only be redressed by an acknowledgement that “white” culture is somehow morally and ethically bankrupt and inherently inferior to other cultures.
Yet, lets understand something. The roll of western civilization over the American continent and the attempts of successive American administrations to consolidate the American hinterland was a historical process that could not, ultimately, be resisted. In that process, U.S. governments, military leaders and citizens indisputably committed certain acts of betrayal, wanton murder and destruction. But these injustices, as egregious in some instances as they might have been, did not amount to exterminationist policies; nor do they warrant an unending apology from the descendants, to the point where whites are forced to acknowledge a superior Indian claim to moral authority.
These are the vulnerabilities that other “victimized” people, from the Palestinians to the many Muslims in European countries, have chosen to manipulate today. Multiculturalists would have you believe that such acknowledgements will heal old wounds. But if that is what is meant by “ burying the hatchet,” we would be better off recognizing that militant Indians are glad Custer died and if given the opportunity, would gleefully kill him all over again.