Thursday, 23 August 2007

A History Lesson

Funny how you can grow up thinking you know all about something and then learn you know nothing at all.
So it was for me with the Battle of Little Bighorn or Custer's Last Stand. I knew the Indians (because that's what we called them then) were the victors. I knew Custer and his men died at the scene. I knew Custer was a vainglorious man bent on destroying all Indians.
But I didn't know what led up to the Battle of Little Bighorn. I knew that the U.S. government had screwed the Indians but I didn't know all the details. I don't recall a single history lesson on this topic. Yes, I knew about Manifest Destiny, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush. But nothing about the relationship of Indians with the White Man other than the first Thanksgiving, Pocahontas and Sacagawea, tales in which the White Man comes off rather positively. Anything else I knew I learned from all the Westerns my dad took me to see. Other than Little Big Man, the Indians all are portrayed as brutal savages that try to massacre innocent white pioneers just trying to make a living.
The gentleman above on the left was Sitting Bull, a Sioux warrior and chief. His greatness and his claim to fame hinged on his refusal to move his tribe to a U.S. government-created reservation as so many other chiefs had done. He distrusted the White Man and was offended that they would try to take away the Indians' sacred hunting grounds. He rallied other tribes to join him in his stand against the White Man. More and more accepted this invitation, particularly after the White Man had tried to buy the sacred Black Hills from the Indians after gold had been found there.
By the time the gentleman on the right, Major General George Armstrong Custer, met up with Sitting Bull, thousands of Indians had joined the chief and his tribe. Custer, who graduated dead last in his class at West Point, had got lucky during the Civil War and somehow obtained the reputation of being a brave, though impetuous, fighter. His greatest strength, a lack of fear in rushing in against the enemy, was also his greatest fault. He didn't take time to assess his enemy's strengths and weaknesses. His arrogance and conceit led him to refuse the back-up
of other troops on the fateful day of June 25, 1876. He and the 7th Cavalry could defeat this ragtag group of Indians without any help, he declared. His last declaration. He hadn't bothered to see just how many Indians there were gathered in the plains.
Sitting Bull apparently decided he would remain in his tipi directing the Sioux on this day. His cohort Crazy Horse was apparently the real hero of the day. There are no photos of Crazy Horse as he refused to have his picture taken. He was killed not long after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull went on to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but also was killed some years later.
The Indians won the battle that day, but ultimately they lost the war with the White Man as they were forced onto smaller and smaller reservations and the White Man tried to grab back any land that had any value. Today, some tribes have built casinos on their reservations as a way of gaining revenue. All Indians with at least one/eighth Native American blood are entitled to money from the Government. Some plow that money right back into the casinos. Alcoholism is rife, and now crystal meth is apparently a growing problem as well.
And what is the lesson to be learned from Little Bighorn? For me, it has a modern parallel with how the U.S. Government is dealing with Iraq. During the Indian Wars, there was a weak and inept president with a drink problem, Ulysses S. Grant, who had a failing economy and a divided nation to deal with. Today we have a stupid and inept president with an inactive drink problem (though not, if you read the tabloids) dealing with a volatile economy and nation divided by race and religion, among other things. Then, the U.S. Government proved itself ignorant and intolerant of the ways of the Indians. Some of the Indians, in their brutal uprisings, fed this ignorance and intolerance. Today, the U.S. government again proves its ignorance and intolerance of Muslims and of the different factions in Iraq, and responds to brute force with the same. Then, the Indian's sacred hunting grounds were smack dab in the middle of the way of progress in the form of the railway and also on top of some valuable gold deposits. Now, Iraq is right on top of some very valuable oil. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Perhaps George Bush or Dick Cheney (who, being from Wyoming, should know better) or Karl Rove should have visited the scene of the Battle of Little Bighorn to try to gain a historical perspective on how the U.S. Government has treated those it doesn't understand. But then that might have required a bit of intelligence on their part.


DJ Kirkby said...


Pixie said...

That is a really good comparison, and one I'm certainly pleased to learn about, in relation to the Indians and Custer.
It does make me think how long will society allow the continued ineptitude of Bush et al to go on. But I suppose an election will take care of that and then America will spend many years undoing the damage that he and his henchmen have inflicted upon thier citizans. Let alone peopl ein other countries!

darth sardonic said...

hear hear! i love reminding people how the "american" way was to accept people at face value and bring them in, as the first native americans did with the pilgrims. then we summarily fucked them in the ass! (sorry, i feel very strongly about this) i wish we would quit running around telling everybody else how to live their fucking lives and clean some or our own shit up here at home. but that is just me, what do i know?

Anonymous said...

Historical facts of which a lesson could well be learned by the American bigwigs. For centuries, fighting has taken over peace and for what. Independence?

Crystal xx

Queeny said...

I second that "profound!" I found this blog to be quite engaging, not just because it was a history update for me (been some years since I even thought about this stuff), but also because it points out an interesting parallel.

As evidenced by current events, history continues to repeat itself. Will the powers that be ever learn?

lady macleod said...

Well said, very insightful I must say. I am doing research at present on the Indians of the Dakota Territory for my novel, fascinating stuff.

A well drawn parallel.

Kaycie said...

Nice parallels you've drawn between the two situations.

Growing up in Oklahoma and being of Lenni Lenape descent, I have my own opinions and prejudices regarding the treatment of Native Americans. My tribe lived in the Delaware Bay area when Europeans began arriving on the east coast. Now it is split into several factions with the bulk of the tribe headquartered in Bartlesville and Anadarko in Oklahoma. My tribe was literally broken, squashed by foreign governments that didn't care to understand it, killed by alcohol provided by Europeans and diseases they carried with them. The customs, heritage, and language of the Lenni Lenape have been virtually lost. Much of what we even know is tainted by the goods and ideas Europeans brought with them during the earliest colonizations.

The US government simply finished the job the colonists started. At present the Lenni Lenape, which means "original people", are not even recognized by the federal government. Imagine, one of the first tribes the white man dealt with is no longer recognized as an entity by the government.

I doubt the Muslim people will prove so vulnerable.

Wow. I'll get off my soapbox now.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Thank you all for your comments. Every now and again I become a thinker.

Lady M: Well you've piqued my interest in your novel.

Well said, kaycie. That is the sadness of the Native American peoples: having an oral tradition meant that so much was lost when the carriers of the tradition were gone. The tribes that seem to have done the best were those whose chiefs went along with the U.S. government the most. They may not have been the most influential at the time but because some white official decided they were important, so they became. Please don't ever get off your soapbox, for your sake and your people's.

Pantheist Mom said...

I don't remember being taught much real history, either. I wonder if it was all being skimmed over or if I've simply forgotten it?

The story of what the settlers did to the "Indians" is really heartbreaking if you think about it too much. Very nice post!


wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Thank you, pantheist mom, and welcome. I think we were taught a eurocentric view of history that skimmed over the bad bits. But I think all countries do that.

Iota said...

My perception (very superficial, but it's all I've got) is that modern day America feels hugely guilty about slavery and the history of black people, but doesn't have the same angst about the Native Americans. Nobody denies that they were incredibly badly treated, but the issue doesn't seem to carry the same emotion or guilt.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Hi Iota, and welcome. Yes, I was just thinking the same thing. I think it's because we're not very well educated on what was done to the Native Americans. It's all been brushed under the carpet, and we only find out if we seek it out.