First published in the Brooklyn Rail, August-September 2002
Custer may have died for your sins but the way the slaughter went down was entirely his fault. Arrogant, vain, and not so bright, Col. George Armstrong Custer started his military career by scoring dead last in his class at West Point, and in his ultimate engagement made almost every tactical mistake possible. So giddy was the buckskin-clad dandy at the prospect of slaughtering a large camp of Northern Cheyenne, Hunkpapa, and Oglala Sioux families that he split his forces into three columns, left his pack train of water and ammo far to the rear, and did almost no reconnaissance. As Custer rode off toward his prey a colleague shouted after him: “Don’t be greedy.”
Instead, the end came fast. Custer soon realized his mistake and, according to recent archeological evidence, quickly allowed his skirmish lines to collapse. The cavaliers, now on foot, bunched up in terrified clumps making even better, more compact targets for the wave of furious and vengeful Indian warriors. Mounted and on foot, Indians rushed up from the banks of the Greasy Grass River where they were camped, swept over the invaders and destroyed them. After all, these were the men who would ruin a whole way of life; the beasts who wore the skin of dead Indian women’s vaginas as hatbands.
And so, the battle of Little Big Horn ended with 263 troopers of the Seventh Cavalry annihilated, their corpses strewn along a five-mile stretch of rolling ridge tops. Among the bodies was Custer’s little brother, Boston, who (though technically a civilian) had come out for some riding, killing, raping, and fresh air. An estimated 40 Indians also fell in the fight.
For a full account of this, the ultimate piece of payback in American history, you can read any number of books, or if you’re driving through South Dakota on Interstate 90, tour the extensive, well groomed and lavishly detailed National Monument at Little Big Horn. Just north of the highway, this site is “living history,” but of the highly mediate, politically neutered variety. The field of battle is accessed by a walking path in the valley near the river, and a blacktop road along the ridge. The road is fitted with over 20 pullouts and viewing stations each offering up an illustrated and text-rich placard mapping and narrating the experiences of the Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876.
The monument also sports a graveyard of American veterans from foreign wars, a gift shop, bathrooms, bus tours, and very vigilant post-9/11 security in the parking lot. By the looks of it, this is a favored stop for plump middle-class American ramblers and RV retirees.
At the visitors’ center I find a ramrod-straight former military park ranger in his 60s giving a long, meandering lecture to an entirely white audience in half-opened faux teepees. He paints a picture of something like a football game in which “our Native Americans” who were “camped just south of where your cars are now parked” did well. Any culpability is lost in a swamp of passive construction: “…a conflict existed” and “…the Native American way of life was receding.” And quite crucially, Custer was the underdog that day and his defeat sub-textually inverts reality, casting America as victim.
The ranger’s tone, like that of the viewing station texts, is not overtly offensive or backward. Custer is not portrayed as Errol Flynn, brave and valiant, putting down savagery in the service of civilization. That sort of off-the-hook bigotry would almost be refreshing, or at least entertaining. Instead, the Little Big Horn monument is imbued with a creepy and polite sterility. The language and images have all been updated for a post-’60s, “multi-cultural” America, but in the most technocratic I’m-okay-you’re-okay sort of way. This is perhaps best summed up in how we are told Custer was going to attack the village but never told what he would do there. Answer: massacre sleeping and unarmed Indians as he had done against Black Kettle’s already-beaten Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita in the Fall of 1868.
At the obelisk bearing the names of the dead troopers and marking the last stand, I unwrap a sandwich and sit on the edge of a mound marked “mass-grave-please keep off.” Fuck Custer and the PBS-style pap Americana he inspires, I think to myself. But before I can take the first bite of my sandwich, I get definitely hostile vibes from a VFW type who, with camera bouncing on belly, strolls back to his mammoth SUV. Under his glare I feel as if I’ve wandered into some sort of outdoor Aryan church.
There are other monuments in the area and to really understand the show at Little Big Horn—or to “complete the text”—travel south along the semi-paved Bureau of Indian Affairs Route 44. Skirt the lunar-like terrain of the badlands and visit the Pine Ridge reservation, America’s poorest county where 52 percent of the people live below the federal poverty line. There, hard looking young men sporting prison tattoos and wide red headbands nod hospitably as you stroll past. There’s a flea market on weekends, a sad supermarket, a gas station, and some government housing. In many ways it feels like a town in northern Mexico.
Next, travel on to the little hamlet of Wounded Knee. Here in 1890 the same Seventh Cavalry, so thoroughly mauled at the Little Big Horn, got its revenge. But the funny thing is—there isn’t much of a memorial. Here’s why.
By 1890 the Sioux had been subjugated to the minimum-security prison and constant humiliation of the reservation. Prohibited from leaving, they were watched over by government agents and armed guards. The buffalo, basis of the old life, were almost extinct: 30 million wiped out in two decades. Intensely loyal, buffalo form defensive circles around any one of their numbers that are wounded. This made them extremely easy to kill for the professional hide hunters who rode and shot from flatbed rail cars. Life on the res, always hard, was made even worse by the Allotment, or Dawes, Act of 1887, which mandated that collective lands be divided into private lots. These “enclosures” facilitated further white encroachment and indigenous deracination. To force recalcitrant natives to sell, the Bureau of Indian Affairs started cutting rations of flour and dried beef. To top it all off, 1890 brought drought and crop failure; Indian children began to die of hunger; influenza, measles, and whooping cough swept the reservation. And finally, some Lakota slipped into a collective madness.
Amidst the apocalypse rose a Paiute shaman named Wovoka, who preached a millenarian set of hybrid Christian and traditional nostrums. He promised the return of the old ways, the return of the buffalo, and the magical disappearance of the white invaders. His followers were to live peacefully, not drink, not fight, but instead pray and dance in massive circles As protection from the soldiers’ possible aggression Wovoka’s followers wore white shirts decorated with symbols and drawings of the old life. The shirts were to make the people impervious to bullets—and if enough people believed and danced and prayed, the ghosts of the forefathers would return, led by Jesus Christ, to usher in the past. The huge and desperate gatherings were called “Ghost Dances.”
The agents in charge of the reservations feared that the new cult might embolden believers into rebellion. So in December 1890, General Nelson Miles, determined to impose order, sent out 5,000 troops including the Seventh Cavalry. Among the Seventh’s planned operations was the mass arrest of hundreds of ghost dancers who were camping and dancing near Wounded Knee.
As the band, led by Chief Big Foot, was being rounded up and searched for weapons, the soldiers opened fire with rifles and grenade-launching Hotchkiss guns. Some ghost dancers managed to fight back with the few guns they had, but most were simply slaughtered. As the killing began, a driving snowstorm enveloped the valley. Through the blizzard the Seventh hunted down the fleeing Indians, cornering and killing unarmed women, children, and old people in windswept gullies as far as two miles from the main camp. When it was all over some 250 Sioux lay dead. Twenty-five blue-coats also perished, mostly from chaotic crossfire. The regiment received 20 Congressional Medals of Honor for its actions.
Better Not to Remember
Today the village of Wounded Knee is a dense cluster of government-issued two-story buildings—a housing project in the prairie. Just outside the villages are three kiosks made of dead saplings alongside a metal sign, which once described the “Battle of Wounded Knee,” but now, like a strange palimpsest, has a metal sheet reading “Massacre” bolted over the word “Battle.”
“Right here, this is where the massacre was,” says a laconic and weather-beaten young Lakota named John. He and a buddy are making dreamcatchers for the few tourists who trickle by. “You can go up there to the mass grave, just drive up that road; it loops around like a big tear drop.” I mean to ask questions but the journalistic impulse drains away.
At the top of the hill above the massacre site lies the mass grave: a ragged little plot with a short granite obelisk listing the names of the dead. Just off from the grave sits a new church, on the site of the same church that American Indian Movement activists occupied during a 71-day armed stand-off against the F.B.I. in 1973. AIM had been demanding a return of the Black Hills, illegally seized by means of a few irrelevant signatures, in contravention of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which states that only a two-thirds vote of the entire Sioux nation could cede any more land to the U.S.
As I stand dumbly looking at the mass grave and the few little offerings tied to the fence around it, two young Sioux women stroll over the hill and past toward the village, never glancing over.
Empire Goes Better With Myth
The massacre, the cheap federal housing, the raggedy graveyard, the quiet pride and nonchalance of the young Indians in Tupac T-shirts and Wranglers; the contrast between the terror of the past, the tenacity of people here now; and the ubiquitous silent politics of the landscape all against the mental backdrop of the lavish, heavily policed, RV-centric at the Little Big Horn are almost overwhelming. Here you really see it: America as disease.
Indian people live in poverty yet sit on some of the most valuable land in the US. According to Native American scholar Ward Churchill, Indians—whose reservations control 2.5 percent of the nation’s land mass, but whose treaties give them right to one-third of the lower 48—are per capita some of the most mineral- and land-rich people on the planet. Too much attention to Indians as victims, or to Indians as living people still here demanding rights and property, could cause problems for the uranium, oil, coal, and natural gas industries, which operate in large part on treaty land.
No wonder Wounded Knee lacks a federally funded park, with a walking path and placards illustrating the spot where Chief Big Foot bled into the snow. No wonder there have been no big archeological excavations with forensic analysis using the latest technology to match specific slugs to specific rifles and thus reconstruct during the massacre, as has been done at Little Big Horn. No doubt the VFW types and the retired cop I chatted with at Little Big Horn might find a Wounded Knee monument harder to digest. If America were portrayed as thief and thug in the past, might not school children ask awkward questions about the present?