Thursday, 25 November 2010

Where's Custer?

Yesterday Consuela (my Tejana maid) pointed to the blanket under which I was snuggling on my chaise longue. You may remember it. It depicts an incident after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in which Custer, having been captured alive, was bludgeoned to death by an old Cheyenne woman wielding an iron skillet.

“How can you be sure that’s what happened?” she asked.

I can’t, of course, but on the other hand Native American accounts of historical events are at last being listened to, particularly as they are seen to agree with modern battlefield archaeology.

The mythical, European-American stories, the so-called history of “Custer’s Last Stand”, or the “Battle of the Little Big Horn”, are falling down all around us. The Hollywood Custer – the image of Errol Flynn, sabre in hand, doggedly defending the cavalry flag and the last man to fall, even Arthur Penn’s gibbering, delusional figure from Little Big Man – is beginning to fray. Even the name of the event is under question. The “Last Stand”, always a one-sided concept, has not seemed credible for some time. Now the term “Battle” looks shaky. The event, in Lakota and Cheyenne records, doesn’t seem to be important, not as important as, say, the Battle of Rosebud Creek even though that battle was not decisive, not as important as the domestic affairs of the ad hoc confederation of tribes. When you consider that it amounted to a foolish incursion by less than two hundred soldiers (the approximate size of Custer’s detachment once troops under Reno and Benteen had separated from them) towards a sizeable native encampment, and that the defenders dealt with the incursion in “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner” (according to a Native American description) it is hardly surprising that the event is not given much prominence.

The famed 7th Cavalry were not the elite of the army. The minimum recruiting age was 21, but many recruits were much younger – presumably either they lied about their age or a blind eye was turned. The amount of time spent on horseback brought about damage to the troopers’ spines which must have been permanently agonizing. Skulls found at the scene of the fighting had bad teeth, presumably from army diet. Life in the 7th Cavalry, stationed in remote forts must have been dreadful. There is no record, as far as I know, of the names of the troopers who rode with and died with Custer. The only positive identification from the battlefield was made by reference to the dimensions of a skull, an image of which was superimposed upon a photograph of a renowned scout, Mitch Bouyer. Bouyer was the son of a French Canadian man and a Santee Lakota woman, and was one of the most expert scouts ever to work for the cavalry. To my mind even Custer himself was not definitely identified, although the spot where he is supposed to have been found is marked.

Having poked a stick into a hornets’ nest, Custer’s contingent of cavalry had taken up the best defensive positions it could on three linked rises. Initially the dismounted troopers on each position formed skirmish lines, each man a few metres away from the next, and fired down with their standard single-shot rifles. These rifles would have had the advantage at first, having a greater range than the arms carried by their enemies. The attackers were not armed with bows and tomahawks but with a variety of repeating firearms, which meant that when they got within range, by moving from cover to cover while the troopers were reloading, they had vastly superior firepower. The skirmish lines broke and the herding instinct took over – the troopers huddled together, becoming in fact an easier target, and only a handful could have made it to the next piece of high ground as theirs was overrun. Eventually a number of troopers ran from the last position towards a ravine, either as a diversionary tactic or in a panic retreat. The last high spot having been over-run, these fleeing soldiers were cut down before they reached the ravine. It was there that Mitch Bouyer’s remains were found.

Mitch Bouyer, posing for the camera!

All the cavalrymen’s and scouts’ bodies were mutilated, a typical post-mortem punishment amongst some Plains peoples designed to curse their enemies’ time in the after-life. It is said that Custer’s body was found, naked but relatively untouched, and speculation ran that the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors left him unmutilated out of respect for a brave commander. However I don’t buy that for several reasons. Firstly there is no proof that they could have recognized him. Secondly he had no reputation amongst the Lakota and Cheyenne, having not been engaged in any significant actions against them. Thirdly, he was probably not the only officer in the contingent to be wearing buckskins. The nakedness I can credit, as the buckskins would have been worth taking away. I honestly doubt that there would have been a single unmutilated body; I think that Custer’s body wasn’t “found” any more than anyone else’s, it was simply that it was expedient for the myth if the place where he fell could be “identified” for the purpose of putting up a marker, and it had to be on the last height to be overrun.

There were no white observers of the scene. The only accounts of the action are those of native witnesses, and as I said the event was probably seen as no big deal by them. These days experts give most credence to the claim that a warrior by the name of White Cow Bull killed Custer. But then, what of the story of the enraged Cheyenne woman? I like that story, but if there were no cavalry survivors it falls; if Custer was unknown to the Lakota and Cheyenne, it falls.

Why is this all so important to me? It is important because it draws attention to the fact that European minds, so immersed in the tradition of documented “fact”, have found it not only difficult to accept oral, handed-down histories, but actually easy to dismiss them. This assumption of superiority has dogged our consideration of history. Granted things can change in oral history – its greatest drawback is that it can be corrupted by “Chinese Whispers” – but it is never the product of an inferior; it is always another window upon historical truth, and a valid window too from which we can gaze out at a different perspective to the one we are used to. Meanwhile, the Western way of considering history is not in itself perfect; facts are lost, historical records are lost, those that remain are subject to individual interpretation, history is seen through a cultural filter. On the 8th of October this year, British historian David Starkey (speaking on BBC Radio's "Any Questions" programme) said words to the effect that History should be based solely on facts. Good luck with that.

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