History class was always my least favorite in school. I just didn’t understand why I’d need to learn all these facts about people who were long dead – it’s not like I was going to run into them at a party, and need a conversation starter. But on this trip, I’m starting to have a new appreciation for history, and the lessons it can teach us about life today. Take, for example, what I learned about branding on a battlefield in Montana…
Custer’s Last Stand
Before I get to that, let me preface this with the admission that I usually only focused on retaining historical facts just long enough to pass my tests (after that, they were free to disappear into the ether). So, my recollection about what I was taught in school about this particular battle may be a little… “flawed”.
But when I heard the name “Custer’s Last Stand”, I immediately got a picture in my head of Custer and his men being attacked by a band of invading Indians. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and ultimately slaughtered while nobly fighting to defend their country. Custer, himself, fought to the bitter end, until he was ultimately killed. Forever remembered as an American Hero.
I mean, it’s an engaging tale. The problem is that it’s a decidedly one-sided view of what happened, and falls far short of the full story.
If, like me, you have totally forgotten (or never knew) what happened, here is a painfully brief overview of what went down1.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
Let’s begin by setting the stage. In the late 1800’s, as European settlers migrated West, American Indian tribes had their land downsized (translated = taken from them). The U.S. Government got them to sign treaties identifying certain land as tribal reservations, and all the rest as belonging to the United States.
Then a couple years later, a Custer-led expedition happened to find gold in the Black Hills region of modern-day South Dakota. The spot was off limits though, as it fell right in the Great Sioux reservation. But – and this is a big but – the people of the U.S. wanted the gold. Like, really really really really really badly. And once word got out, prospectors started streaming in – violating the heck out of that treaty.
In response, the U.S. government tried to buy the land. But, the Sioux considered it sacred, and did not want to sell, thank you very much.
So, like a bratty child, the U.S. then decided to take the “Treaty? What treaty?” approach, and just go ahead and take the land (and gold) anyway.
They started imposing deadlines by which Indians had to report to newly restricted reservations. Some reported peacefully, but others resisted – refusing to be relocated and confined.
Side note, ever shared a room with an older sibling? Where they drew an arbitrary line across the room and threatened all kinds of consequences if you crossed it?…
Anyway, many Indians kept up their nomadic way of life, moving around without paying any attention to the borders drawn by the U.S. Government. And after some of them missed one of the U.S. deadlines, Custer was dispatched to “return” them.
However, because of their seemingly random movements, it wasn’t really possible for Custer to plan a coordinated attack on any particular village in advance. But, he eventually caught wind of an unusually large encampment in present-day Montana and headed that way. Turns out that Members of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes were celebrating their annual Sun Dance ceremony, and had gathered at the mouth of the Little Bighorn river.
As Custer crept up, planning an attack for the following day, he ended up losing the element of surprise. Fearing the tribes would scatter before they could be returned to the reservations, he ordered an immediate attack without waiting for reinforcements2.
What Custer didn’t expect was that the American Indians seriously outnumbered his men, and were better fighters to boot.
So, within about two hours and 15 minutes, Custer and his men were defeated.
History, as written by the victors
While the Indians won that battle, the U.S. ultimately won the Indian War – and the history that was documented certainly reflected that. In the years after the battle, tribal leaders like Sitting Bull were vilified and hunted down. And within five years, almost all American Indians had been forced onto reservations.
And the Black Hills that had all that gold in it? Yeah, the U.S. Government still hasn’t made that situation right… 140 years later3.
History, as branded by the victors
I’d love to write a story here about how the History books of my youth taught the tale of vicious Indians attacking poor old defenseless Custer, and have only been recently updated. But, I suspect that’s not really the case. They’ve probably been fair for a while, and I probably just didn’t remember what I was taught. But that brings me to the point of the previous 839 words.
What I find so fascinating is how my “recollection” of this battle was so affected by its branding. I mean, look at the name – Custer’s Last Stand. It evokes all sorts of other underdog stories from history – the 300 Spartans fighting the entire Persian army, or Davy Crockett defending the Alamo.
Without knowing a thing about the battle, you can think you know everything. “There must have been some dude named Custer, and he must have been faced with overwhelming odds that he valiantly fought against until he died. Got it.”
That is incredibly powerful. And scary.
How many other stories from history have endured because they have a good name that evokes a good story? And how many more meaningful ones have been lost from memory due to poor branding? Is Climate Change an appropriately severe name for that situation? How about all of these “school shootings” – why don’t we always refer to them as massacres?
Shit – do they already teach that in History class?
In any event, if you’re ever in the Montana area, check out the memorials at this battlefield. There used to only be a monument to Custer and his men, but in the 1990’s it was finally updated to include a memorial to the Indians who died there as well.
In my opinion, the sky sculpture memorial for the American Indians is far more interesting and meaningful than the obelisk for Custer and his men.
And with that, on to South Dakota…
Footnotes and junk.
1. I wanted to make sure I got the broad strokes of the story correct, so I did some research before writing this up. However, no two sources really tell exactly the same story… so, this is a best effort at piecing it together based on what I found. It’s also greatly simplified and basically focuses on telling the story from over Custer’s shoulder, largely leaving out the other major players in the events of the day. This is not to intentionally snub them, just an attempt at keeping this brief summary… brief. If there’s an historian reading this having a “WTF” moment, sincere apologies. For more reading:
2. Given that Custer’s men were all killed, details on exactly how this went down are sketchy, at best. There are all sorts of detailed maps of theoretical troop movements that archaeologists have deduced based on relics found at the battleground. However, their exact movements aren’t necessary for the story I’m telling. Use the Google to find out more.
3. Seriously. It’s been in the courts since 1920, but there’s some hope that the Obama Administration will finally help resolve this 140 year saga. As per usual, there’s a primer to the issue on Wikipedia.