Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bloodshed at Little Bighorn

Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer and the Destinies of Nations by Tim Lehman (Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95

On July 10, 1876, the New York Daily Tribune published a poem by Walt Whitman entitled, "A Death-Sonnet for Custer."

The poem began, "Far from Montana's canyons, / Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lone-some stretch of silence, / Haply, to-day, a mournful wail -- haply, a trumpet note for heroes."

Whitman called the encounter an "Indian ambuscade," never mind that Custer was attacking the Sioux and Cheyenne encampment (its women and children included) in the early morning, just as the Indians began to stir. He was more accurate in describing the results of the battle a "slaughter," for that, indeed, it was.

Whitman concluded his poem by praising Custer, the architect of the slaughter, painting a romantic picture of the doomed general, "bright sword in thy hand."

In all, 211 members of the "Fighting Seventh" cavalry division lost their lives in what later became known as Custer's Last Stand. From the native point of view, the last stand took place over the next several years as the U.S. government carried out a ruthless campaign to subjugate both the Sioux and the Cheyenne.

Historian Tom Lehman of Rocky Mountain College retells the story of that fateful battle in his new book, Bloodshed at Little Bighorn. The second volume in Johns Hopkins' Eyewitness to History series is told primarily through the voices of the participants and onlookers on both sides of the cultural divide.

The Book Serf asked professor Lehman the following questions:

BS: I'm fascinated by how such a relatively small scale action (211 soldiers and Crow scouts dead) could become such a large part of our national mythology/psyche.

TL: For one thing, the details of the battle are shrouded in mystery. The question of "what really happened?" has had remarkable staying power. For white Americans the idea of the "last stand" represented the Indian wars as primarily defensive, as if the Sioux and Cheyenne were the aggressors that day. Of course, for the Sioux and Cheyenne there was no great mystery. The better side, the ones defending their homeland, simply carried the battle. For them, the real "last stand" was the army's systematic campaign of subjugation that came in the aftermath of the famous battle.

But the story also has staying power because it has a rich cast of charismatic characters on all sides, Custer and Sitting Bull most notably, but even the supporting players are layered in complexity. Lastly, the battle tapped into a sense of nostalgia for the "vanishing frontier." The "last" stand, in this sense, symbolizes not only the end a brand of heroism deeply ingrained on the American imagination, but also the end of a place associated with the idea of undiluted freedoms.

BS: Was the eventual defeat of the Sioux and Cheyenne inevitable? Can you discuss your use of the word "Destinies" in the title of your book?

TL: I wanted the word "Destinies" in the title to remind readers of the phrase "manifest destiny," a source of much mischief in western history. The term needed to be plural, I thought, to suggest how the Indian wars had very different outcomes for different groups of people. But part of the mischief of "manifest destiny" is that it relieves us of the moral and creative responsibility of imagining different outcomes.

Eventual defeat may have been inevitable, but there was a difference between honest and dishonest treaty-making, between provoked and unprovoked aggression, just to take two examples. I wanted to suggest that defeats -- and for that matter victories -- are not inevitable, but to a great degree depend on choices made by individuals, organizations, and governments. To the extent that history informs the present, some of those choices still have meaning. The ongoing struggle over control of the Black Hills would be one example.

BS: Americans love a good mystery (JFK's assassination, Area 51, etc.) but, really, why did so many people persist in asking the question, How did a band of savages defeat the Fighting Seventh?

TL: For a nation of people who expect success, we have a strange fascination with failure. During the 19th century the two most famous failures, the Alamo and Little Bighorn, generated a compelling mythology of heroism in defeat. Part of the mythology was to build up the image of Sitting Bull, who had to be portrayed as a worthy opponent. One rumor even had it that he was trained in Napoleonic tactics at West Point. So conspiracy theories abound about Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or any other famous defeat. At bottom I think this reflects an assumption of superiority--success for Americans is natural, failure requires an explanation.

BS: You quote Libbie Custer as saying her hope was to ensure that "tradition and history will be so mingled that no one will be able to separate them." Does the historian set as his (or her) goal the disentangling of tradition and history?

TL: One rich vein of historical writing about the Little Bighorn and the Indian wars has tried to sort out the history, to set the record straight about what really happened. Another approach has been to examine the sources and mythmaking functions of the tradition. I've tried to do a little of both. For instance, some of the mystery about the battle has been dispelled by recent archaeology that pretty much discredits the traditional views of a "last stand." In this instance, we know more now about the battle than people did one hundred years ago. I set out to write a battle account that describes what actually happened, as best as we can know from recent research, not what Libbie wanted us to think happened. But the chapter I had the most fun writing was the final chapter, the one which deals with the creation and uses of the last stand mythology -- both in Indian country and in the dominant culture.

BS: Can you expand on your contention that Cody's "theatrical version was realistic, just as the original event was theatrical"?

TL: Cody's Wild West show played a major role in the mythological version of the last stand. He moved back and forth from his scout duties on the western frontier to his stage responsibilities in eastern cities, and both roles reinforced each other. He had more respect in each place because of his role in the other. After the Little Bighorn, he was involved in a minor skirmish in which he killed a Cheyenne warrior and claimed "the first scalp for Custer." Going into combat that day, he actually dressed in his stage costume, which was of course modeled after his frontier scout attire. This allowed him to return to the stage wearing the actual clothes he had worn in battle. He had staged a real fight so that he could recreate that reality on the stage.

Another example: After the Civil War, when Custer moved west and took his part as a fighter in the Indian wars, he began dressing in the buckskins of a frontier scout. In his writing and his photographs he took on the persona of a frontiersman, very different from his Civil War soldering days. Then after Custer's death, Cody grew his hair long so that he could look more like the image of Custer, so much so that Libbie commented on how much Cody looked like her deceased husband. Looking similar to Custer helped to sell tickets, but ironically Cody was imitating Custer who had been imitating Cody.

The larger points is that the West began representing itself to the East not after the fact, but as part and parcel of the lived experience. Westerners invented the myth of the West even as they were living the history.

BS: When it comes to interpreting the events at Little Big Horn and during the Great Sioux Wars, tempers understandably run high on both sides. Your book avoids sensationalism and sentimentality. Did you feel at this juncture the facts could finally speak for themselves without you having to polemicize?

TL: The passing of time may make some truths easier to tell. In this case, there have been pro-Custer and anti-Custer stories told for quite some time. Who can forget the megalomaniac, crazed Custer of the movie "Little Big Man?"

In my case, I had the faces, voices, and questions of my students in mind. I teach at a small college in Montana not far from the Little Bighorn battlefield, and I have taught students who are the descendants of battle veterans on all sides -- Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow, white. I wanted to find not some bland middle ground that offended no one, but rather an approach that could command the respect of all sides and become the basis for vigorous, informed discussion and debate.

BS: What was the best quote you had to leave on the cutting room floor? Also, what's your favorite quote in the book and why?

TL: Many of my near favorite quotations come from Sitting Bull, who deserved his reputation for eloquence. But probably my favorite is this from the last chapter: when Cody's Wild West show was touring England, during off hours the Lakota participants often went out to see the sights. Once an English soldier approached Rocky Bear, a veteran Wild West show performer, and attempted conversation in his best pidgin English, "How! Heavy wet." Rocky Bear responded in his best English accent, "Yes, it's rawther nawsty, me boy."

I like the humor, the completely unexpected response, and the ironic turnabout of stereotypes. Philip Deloria has a book with a delightful title, "Indians in Unexpected Places." I tried to be aware of that throughout the book. Many of the Indians in my classroom have a rich and often wonderfully ironic sense of humor. I wanted to let that come out in the book.

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