Black Hills, Custer, George Armstrong Custer, Gold, Lakota, Little Big Horn, Native Americans, The West, Western History
Aside from being my birthday, last Saturday (June 25th) was the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I finished a book about the man that afternoon. A 336 page volume written by Terry Mort, it’s called Thieves Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to Little Bighorn (Prometheus Books, 2015). No, the book doesn’t cover the events at Little Bighorn. As the subtitle suggest, this book is about Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills, which is to say that this book is about the reconnaissance expedition that lead to the war that lead to Little Bighorn. Officially the expedition had been tasked with helping to establish a Fort in Sioux territory. Unofficially, they were looking for gold. The discovery of that gold would lead to the Great Sioux War of 1876 (and among other things the death of Custer and his men). This particular expedition is a subject I’ve wanted to know more about for sometime, so I was happy to pick this one up.
I’ve written about Custer before, minor tangents here and here, and of course he is the principle villain in the movie Little Big Man, which is an all-time favorite of mine. So, anyway, this isn’t the first time things-Custerly have made their way into my blog. All references to significance of the date aside, it probably won’t be the last either.
For me, the most interesting part of the book would have to be Mort’s efforts to connect this expedition to the larger political economies of the gilded age. All-too-often people (even historians who should know better) speak and write about the the events of western history as though their significance could be understood entirely within the confines of life out on the frontier. We may appreciate that immigration is pushing folks out there or that the civil war affected the availability of troops, and so on, but rarely does anyone make a serious effort to elaborate on the connection between events occurring out west and the larger patterns of U.S. and world history. Mort is definitely an exception to this pattern.
Mort links the effort to find gold in the Black Hills to the financing of the civil war (in particular the need to pay off war bonds in gold currency), to the failures of the Northern Pacific Railway (due in part to fears over Indian raids … fears ironically triggered by Custer’s own reports), and by a cascading series of bank failures stemming from post-war sales of Yankee wheat to Britain (a problem for Russian nobles). If all of that sounds interesting to you, then well, …you know what to do.
I am less impressed with Mort’s approach to activities of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne during these events. He doesn’t embrace stereotypes, but his account of Native American lives never strays far from them. In fact, much of Mort’s approach to native culture and native actions in the days leading up to the Great Sioux War consists of a rather incomplete critique of the very stereotypes held by whites of the day (particularly those in western states). He gives us just enough to appreciate that those stereotypes are not accurate, but not enough to outgrow them altogether.
What makes this problem particularly interesting to me is Mort’s claim that the Lakota did not really want peace, at least not a lasting and general peace with everyone around them. This, according to Mort, would have left Lakota men without any means of proving themselves. In Lakota society, according to Mort, one became a man primarily through honors that had to be earned in warfare. Significantly, it is this incentive to raiding that provides the critical moment in history as far as Mort is concerned, because it was Sioux raids that provided the reason Custer’s expedition was authorized as a means of establishing a fort in Sioux territory (p.296). It was Custer, according to Mort that chose to combine this expedition with a search for gold, and it was of course the discovery of that very gold that lead to the Great Sioux War.
Don’t get me wrong. Mort’s treatment of the Sioux is very respectful, but respectful and a buck will buy you a beer. The question here is whether or not his treatment is actually fair to them, and frankly I don’t think it is. Mort places the ultimate responsibility for the coming war on their shoulders, and specifically on their interest in perpetuating war for its own sake. The critical moment in history, the moment when things could have gone some other way, is thus one determined by the Sioux themselves. To be sure, Mort has a lot to say about the decisions of any number of parties in events leading up to this war, but the foibles of non-natives are largely those of individuals in his treatment, and I at least cannot help but sense a kind of fatalism in the overall story. However Custer might stumble, his direction seems a foregone conclusion. This is not simply because we know the end of this particular story; it’s a sense that the U.S. would inevitably go after the Black Hills. It’s just what we do, apparently, at least when vast stretches of land lay in the hands of people like the Lakota and the Cheyenne.
The historical moment that settled everything was, as Mort understands it, the one in which young Indian men took to leaving the agencies in the summer and engaging in raids before coming back to those same agencies for the winter. For all we can say about the vagaries of finance, the consequences of greed, or the recklessness of Custer’s particular quest for fame and fortune, in the final analysis, the cause of the coming war at the close of the book is a feature of Lakota society.
To say that I am uncomfortable with this is putting it mildly. I suspect others might choose to pick apart the centrality of warfare among Sioux and Cheyenne. For myself, I am more concerned at the failure to find comparable incentive to warfare in other circles, particularly in those of American society itself. Lakota are not the only society that has struggled with the question of what to do with young and violent men, nor would they be the first (or last) to answer that question by sending such men off to visit their violence on someone else. The honors accorded to warriors can be seen all across popular U.S. media, both in Custer’s day and our own. If an eagle feather might be thought a cause of war to a Lakota, can a medal be any less for a U.S. soldier? If such honors may be thought the reason nations go to war, is this any less true of the U.S. army than it is for indigenous peoples?
Of course, we normally account for the warfare of nation-states by looking at the larger political and economic forces guiding hands of key decision-makers not the ambitions of particular warriors, and Mort does that very well for both the Indian and white side of this story. Yet, he sees in the actions of native warriors a sort of cultural pathology that seems absent in his treatment of U.S. soldiers.
It’s clear enough that Custer sought honors comparable to those of Sioux warriors, as Mort himself points out, but the cultural significance of those honors doesn’t seem as fatal in Mort’s treatment (except perhaps for Custer and his troops). Of course not every American male goes to war whereas such conduct would be far more normative in Lakota society, so perhaps there are some dissimilarities. Yet the same markets that provide for diversification of labor also create the need for resources that send particular troops to particular paces (like the Black Hills) even as others stay home. Mort himself does a great job of explaining exactly how that happened in this instance. So, if it is fair to say of the Sioux that they didn’t want a lasting or general peace, I think that is every bit as true of the U.S. (then and now). We may not all be warriors, but in a nation like the U.S. that simply isn’t how things work. We have the likes of Custer to secure needed resources for us.
As Vine Deloria might have reminded us, Custer died for our sins.
Skyscapes for the Soul said:
I’m not really into historical reading, but my other half is! I’m going to forward your link to him, likely as not it will result in yet another book purchase (oh please oh please let this be available on kindle) if he hasn’t already read it.
I believe it is available on Kindle. Hope he enjoys it!
Daniel Digby said:
I’ve always been disappointed that Lame White Man (a.k.a. Rabid Wolf or Mad-Hearted Wolf as Wikipedia translates it) couldn’t have dealt personally with Mr. Custer. (Wikipedia neglects mentioning the meaning of the Cheyenne name.)
…and we’ve always treated Indigenous Americans with the utmost respect just as President Jackson did with the Cherokees when gold was discovered on their land in northern Georgia. Let’s keep our history straight for the Texas School Board; we don’t want to confuse their students (or the ones here in Tennessee).
E Mockingbird (@Uncle_Zeno) said:
Danger there is to promulgate the myth of “noble savage.”
As though there is inherent purity or magical quality about simpler, more direct lifestyles.
I would suppose you likely agree.
Daniel Digby said:
This has nothing to do with noble savages or anything of that nature. It has everything to do with arbitrarily abrogating treaties that we forced them into in the first place. It’s history — not sociology.
I certainly agree that is a danger. I think another danger lies in being so concerned about the myth of the noble savage that we reflexively respond to pro-native views as though they are promoting that myth. One needn’t see Native Americans as noble to acknowledge value in their lives and ways of life, nor to critique the actions of those who have harmed them.
Well I for one am always up for disappointing the Texas School Board. They have done more than their fair share to prevent the education of children in their state and the rest of the country.
Good review! I believe I shall at least try a sample of this book on my Kindle. Thanks!
Hope you enjoy it.
Skyscapes for the Soul said:
Hi – I’m letting Doug write this because he doesn’t wordpress and we can’t find an email for you:
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the Sioux/Dakota, particularly around the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. That war was the result of bad judgment on the part of white men as well as red men. The Sioux were never peaceful people. But the primitive culture will always come out on the short end of the stick when pitted against a modern one. Its the way things are. The American pioneers were a vigorous people and were determined to make the whole land ours. That was a good thing as it turns out in my opinion. No apologies needed for it as far as I am concerned, political correctness notwithstanding. I will read the book with an open mind. Thanks for the blog. Douglaslee.
E Mockingbird (@Uncle_Zeno) said:
The review of the book prompts me to want to read it. To see how the author juxtaposed today’s sensibilities with those of a march across the continent.
Should you terminology really read “primitive culture?”
Is there a moral component in determining primitive & advanced cultures?
We have enough myths about the relative standings of cultures.
I would wonder about what makes one culture more primitive than another, unless your reference is to technological advantage. The tech superiority & therefore war dominance of cultures seems to dictate outcomes. Certainly it has in the past.
That fact does not bode well for the species future as we over-populate the planet & despoil available resources until their very future use requires processing to be usable.
I think that is important in the development of this country – it was late to be discovered by the leading technological nations at that time & therefore rife for plunder, as a “new world” provided one could remove current residents of said land: the system was able to recycle itself to some degree in earlier times.
We are a vain species that has to see ourselves in outcomes & conclusions & as such, historical writing needs to inform our life today & possibly our future.
One notes we killed buffalo for sport, shooting them from moving trains as though they were pop-up targets in this same march across the continent.
Ultimately, all books not strictly scientific are efforts to express their authors worldviews & conclusions, irrespective of whether those are well-analyzed or beyond the author’s grasp.
Skyscapes for the Soul said:
Hi Mockingbird – I have only a few minutes to read your response to Doug’s comment before heading out – and will not be able to show it to Doug until Thursday evening, but thought I would at least show now I am not ignoring you. Subsequent to writing his comment, he and I had an interesting discussion about ‘advanced’ definition of societies. You and I probably agree that industrialization is not necessarily the same as advancement. As there is more pressure for us to consume in a sustainable manner, perhaps it shows that the more advanced societies were ones who always lived that way.
I do totally agree with your last sentence. But I gotta run – I have an art show I need to sell some work at!
Interesting. Your comment has me thinking about the relationship between expansion and exploitation of others and over-use of natural resources. Unfortunately, the two seem to go together.
I don’t see the point in apologies myself, but neither do I see the need to defend the actions of our ancestors, not even on the basis of inevitability. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of contrasting ‘primitive’ with ‘modern’. Lakota had modernized in many ways, not the least of them being control of trade and use of new horse-based technologies. The question to me isn’t so much whether or not they were modern as it is a question of their relationship to the global economy. Custer’s expedition may well seem inevitable, but that is at least partly 20/20 hindsight. What other options could have played out we will never know.
Mr. Wall, you may or may not be aware that Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (Regiment) lives on, through the Third Brigade, of the First Cavalry Division. In Vietnam, the brigade caused a problem, when the division moved north to relieve the Marines, so that they could re-enforce their fellow “Jarheads”, who were encircled at Khe Sanh.
The enlisted men in the First Cav’s Third Brigade say “Garry Owen” when they salute an officer. The problem was that the Marine officers say “Carry On” when they return an EM’s salute. Thus, the Marine officers felt that the Army EM’s were dismissing them. “Garry Owen” and “Carry On” DO sound quite a bit alike.
Garry Owen was the name of the horse in the Scottish drinking song, which Custer supposedly “borrowed” as a song to be played when his cavalry regiment passed “in-review” on the parade ground.