Fool On The Hill
Brave, Media-Friendly, Flamboyant, Custer Was Also A Bully And An Idiot
By Jeff Smith
SEPTEMBER 29, 1997: GARRYOWEN, MONT.--The Stars and Stripes are flying straight as a pair of starched pantyhose, pointing due east on a 40-mph breeze howling out of British Columbia through Idaho before it takes a hard left and whips across the Montana grasslands, carrying the last, sweet scent of summer sage and the first sad hint of an eight-month winter.
Day before yesterday the tourons were sweating as they hiked the hill to stand where Custer died for his sins; day after tomorrow they'll be bundled in L.L. Bean.
Today we're on the cusp: The air is warm but the wind carries a chill. Everybody's in T-shirts but their nipples are hard. Already over the potato fields of northeastern Maine the harvest moon is rising. This is Indian summer, and what better place to appreciate the bittersweet irony of it than this place, where 121 summers ago American Indians harvested the sweetest of victories...that led inevitably to the bitterest of defeats.
Well the only thing worse than landing a lucky punch to a bully's nose is to grovel at his feet. The Indians of the northern plains were too proud a people to grovel, too much tutored in the path of the warrior...and way too tough. We're not simply talking fighting tough here--ride like hell, shooting arrows and musket balls, counting coup and taking scalps kind of fierceness--we're talking getting-out-of-bed-on-frozen-cold-mornings tough. Playing-fetch-with-the-dog-with-no-shirt-on-in-14-below-weather-because-the-sun- is-out-for-the-first-day-in-a-week tough. Digging-edible-roots-under- two-feet-of-snow-for-supper sort of tough.
Anybody would have to be an idiot to pick a fight with people who, by choice, spend their winters in Montana. In a tent. Without indoor plumbing. No central heat. No airtight stove from Vermont Castings.
That was our boy, George Custer: brave, media-friendly, flamboyant, popular with the folks back home--but ultimately an idiot.
And a brute. He had some pretty tight buddies among his Indian guides--Crows, mainly, feuding enemies of the Cheyenne and the Sioux--but Custer was afflicted with that pathological racial arrogance that let him to believe the Indians were an inferior life form. A more challenging species of game animal. Sort of a thinking man's mountain lion. This attitude allowed him to slaughter whole villages, as at Washita, and to ride eyes-wide-open into suicide here at the Little Bighorn.
That was the prevailing attitude among your European-Americans toward your Native-Americans during the 19th century. Give a guy a brick house, the cotton gin and an organized religion with regularly scheduled indoor meetings and he thinks God is on his side. And dresses like him.
Churches, schools and stump-shouting politicians universally preached the doctrine of Manifest Destiny--that the United States and people of Euro-America were divinely ordained to conquer and occupy the continent from sea to shining sea, and that anything and anyone standing in the way was to be knocked down.
Custer's destiny, as manifested June 25, 1876, here in southeastern Montana, was to serve as the exception that proves the rule. The rule is that numbers equal power. The white guys ultimately beat the red guys because they outnumbered them thousands to one. The red guys beat the ultimate white boy at the Little Bighorn for the same reason. Custer's command numbered about 600 men. The combined Sioux and Cheyenne under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were perhaps 10 times that strength. Plus they were fighting for their home and their very survival, while the 7th Cavalry was essentially guarding the greedy economic interests of miners and railroaders. And doing it for poor pay under worse living conditions.
Comparison to my generation's moral conundrum in Southeast Asia is a delicious temptation. In both instances our army had to go a long way off its turf to pick a fight with a people who hadn't come hunting trouble with us, and who just wanted to be left alone on their home ground.
We like to flatter ourselves that we're smarter, better-educated, more highly evolved than the mainstream Americans of the 19th century, and that we would not act with such shameless aggression and brutality toward an isolated and outnumbered culture, with clear sovereignty and rights to peace and place antedating any claims we might wish to make.
Such self-congratulation ignores Vietnam and ignores the fact that until just recently, this historic site just off Interstate 90 was called Custer Battlefield National Monument.
Named for a bully, a loser and a fool. Wept over by generations of Americans for the "tragedy" of a war hero and his 210 brave lads who were massacred, to a man.
To appreciate the true import of the place, the name, the sentiments attached to this place for the first century after-the-fact, imagine if you will that the Memorial for the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor lay under the flag of the Rising Sun, created and maintained by the Japanese, to honor their few bomber pilots unlucky enough on December 7, 1941, to catch the odd AA round sent skyward by sleeping American defense crews.
You get the point.
It wasn't the Indians' fault that the arrogant fools, Custer and Reno and Benteen, came helling into their sleeping camp that summer morning, only to find to their embarassment and ultimate dismay that every Indian in the tri-state area was invited to the party. What about the Indians who died during "Custer's Last Stand?"
What about the Indians who died before it and after? Indian babies, women, old folks and young warriors? What about their way of life? What about their homelands?
Well let's not get too sentimental. History is the story of conquest. The Indians who whipped Custer at the Little Bighorn and were whipped for this effrontery by Custer's fellow West Pointers, were the granchildren of conquerers who ran the previous tenants off to God knows where. We don't know very much about what the more familiar Native Americans did who deserve the karma the European immigrant Americans visited upon them, and just now there are no Visigoths on the beaches, poised to conquer WASP-America. So in our contemporary comfort and continuing cultural dominance, white America has begun to take it upon itself at least to note, and somewhat to correct, a few of our history's more egregious sins.
So now the Custer Battlefield National Monument is officially named Little Bighorn Battlefield, and honor is given the Indians who died here warding off those idiots in the blue uniforms. A Native American tour guide in the earth-toned uniform of the present-day National Parks Service gives his "interpretive" lecture on the battle, and the fine mess Col. Custer got himself into. He is soft-spoken and his message is understated. The whole thing is a little ironic, but nobody seems to notice. He points southeastward along the river bottom, where huge cottonwoods dwindle to specks in the distance, a slow, five-mile hike or horseback ride to where Reno and Benteen, Custer's only hope for help, sat in comparative safety.
None of us listening to the interpretive history is a military expert, but it's obvious to everybody that Custer stepped on his dick.
For this a grateful nation made him a hero.
Like Elvis, Custer's best career-move was to die young.
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