When I was a kid, my uncle had given me a now-famous advertising poster, “Custer’s Last Fight.” The image was commissioned by Anheuser-Busch in 1884, eight years after Custer’s “martyrdom,” from painter Cassilly Adams—but was printed well into the ’50s, which was why my uncle had given it to me. He was the mayor of our city, and people were giving him gifts all the time—most of which could not be passed along to a young boy. But the poster could be.
I wish I had that poster today, because I have seen it valued at as much as $1,800, although I’m sure its value was negligible back then. But my real reason for wanting that poster is not its monetary value.
The main reason is that it is unlikely to ever be reprinted again. It is a politically-incorrect image of George Armstrong Custer, the “boy general” of the Civil War and most prominent icon today of the White displacement and subjugation of Native Americans in their land-grab of the West. When I had that poster, our local museum had a wax head with long golden curls of Custer in its collection; he was still considered a fallen hero.
That all changed during the Vietnam War, when Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man, was published in 1964 and the movie starring Dustin Hoffman was issued in 1970. A picaresque comedy about a white boy raised by the Cheyenne nation during the 19th century, it is largely concerned with contrasting the lives of American pioneers and Native Americans throughout the progression of the boy’s life. In this revisionist account, Custer was depicted as a vain madman as a way of coming to terms with our nation’s history of what we see today as genocide.
In Little Big Man, the Native Americans received sympathetic treatment and the United States Cavalry were depicted as villains. The book and movie had a clear social conscience about prejudice and injustice. Little Big Man is considered an example of anti-establishment films of the period, protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War by portraying the US military negatively.
The American Experience show, “Custer’s Last Stand,” tells a more complex story. Custer was clearly doing the bidding of his superiors (including President Ulysses S. Grant and General Philip Sheridan), who wanted the US to abrogate its treaties with the Native Americans and take their land for White settlement.
In the Dakota Territory in April of 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Sioux nation ownership of the Black Hills, which were considered sacred grounds for the Sioux (also known as the Lakota) and Cheyenne Indians. There the Native Americans would live on the newly-created Great Sioux Reservation. But not all of them went. Although many did move, they frequently traveled seasonally to pursue better hunting opportunities.
In 1874, the US government sent Custer on the Black Hills Expedition to choose a location for a new Army fort and to investigate the area’s natural resources. The expedition’s confirmation of gold in the region drew thousands of Whites to the Black Hills, ultimately fueling tensions between the Whites and the Native Americans, leading to the Great Sioux war of 1876 and Custer’s Last Stand.
Custer was not a madman, but a reliable instrument of official domestic policy. If anything can be said to discredit him, it is that Custer was an extremely egotistical and ambitious man who carefully honed his image with the Eastern press and resorted to acts of outrageous selfishness and nepotism to bolster his personal gain and glory.
All this attention on Custer is a way to avoid facing a choice made by our ancestors: that they could not tolerate co-existence with the roaming, nomadic native peoples they encountered in their expansion into the West. In the nearly 500 years that European explorers and White settlers had been encountering native people, the settlers were so invested in their conceptions of private property and the subdivision of land into little square parcels, they failed to see that the entire North American continent was under intensive management, which was misinterpreted as “wildness.” The native peoples had evolved an ecology and economy which was based on living light on the land and living by Nature’s laws of sustainability and conservation. The White men, on the other hand, were committed to ideas of control over Nature, exploitation, extraction, and wanton, heedless destruction.
I am fascinated by the intolerance of White people towards people who are fundamentally different from themselves. Many people prefer to believe that this intolerance is based entirely on race, but the experience of the Amish forces this notion to be dismissed. As long as the Amish reflected the acceptance of technology comparable to their “English” neighbors, the Amish were tolerated. However, when the mainline population began driving cars, installing telephones, and electrifying their homes, the Amish (who rejected these innovations) were subjected to increasing levels of disapprobation and harassment. It was not until the 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder in which the United States Supreme Court found that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, and that the parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion outweighed the state’s interest in educating its children, that the Amish were validated in their desire to pursue the Amish lifestyle unmolested. But the friction between the Amish and the main culture still persists on other fronts and in other ways.
I believe this intolerance results from a flawed analogy of an ideal state for a life of Freedom in America. We have this image of a great “melting pot” in which all people are to be treated the same. This is utter nonsense and leads to countless win-lose decisions in our daily life.
I prefer instead to see the human body as the correct analogy. If you look at the organs of the healthy body at a cellular level, you will see that each organ has its unique, distinctive cells. If a liver cell were present anywhere else in the body but the liver, that would be a form of cancer and the organ in which it is found would probably malfunction and the host would likely die. The preferable ideal is for each organ to have its integrity preserved, its unique needs met, and for each organ to work harmoniously with all others, rendering the whole body healthy.
How different would it have been had our ancestors and native people worked out a shared use of the land? Private ownership is merely a man-made paradigm. A fiction. An illusion. A thousand years from now mankind may have destroyed itself and become extinct, but the land would remain. We should raise our sights and be building towards sharing the Earth, doing no harm to others, and surviving.
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