Thoughts on 1876 -- Little Bighorn
The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn, by Joseph M. Marshall III, is a short and poignant history of a significant event. Everybody knows that Sitting Bull's warriors overwhelmed Custer's Seventh Cavalry, just as everybody knows that the Army of the Potomac defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg in 1863. But what does this tell us? After all, these were not soccer matches. The battles themselves were lengthy and complicated. Mr. Marshall is himself Lakota, and in his book, organizes the various facts and figures of Little Bighorn somewhat differently than the usual Homeric recitation. Like Troy, Little Bighorn had its share of larger-than-life characters and drama. But especially for westerners, the fight in Montana helps explain why the American demographic landscape is the way it is. Reservations are located here and there, at more than ample distances from the main drag. No one expects wild Indians to suddenly appear on the horizon, but the geographical arrangement of the two main parties afterwards continues to reflect a belligerency that has not quite subsided. The separatist resolution between the U.S. and its native population is an uncharacteristic compromise of the nation's most cherished abstract ideals.
Whites in America may have improved upon their conditions in Europe, but they spoiled the existing civilization (more familiarly characterized as savage and primitive) in the New World. In 1804, Clark, of Lewis & Clark renown, called Lakotas "vilest miscreants". In 1830, steamboats helped spread smallpox, a disease deadlier than instruments of war. In 1854, a certain settler could not punish local Indians enough for a cow that wandered off and was slaughtered for food. Incidents like this one shaped the young, impressionable mind of Crazy Horse -- a participant in Little Bighorn -- growing up at the time. Certainly, White settlement was becoming more and more a reality that the displaced tribes found intolerable. Today, it is basically a given that their land was, simply put, stolen.
Marshall need hardly remind us: these were days of unforgiving massacres that bring to light the extreme prejudices of the obscure, human heart. Generals Sheridan and Sherman invited English gentlemen to sportily shoot buffalo, depended upon by Indians for subsistence. Treaties failed to keep prospectors from mining the Black Hills. Those who considered them sacred were forced onto the dole. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail harassed new arrivals on the Bozeman Trail. Whites, naturally, found alternate routes. It is difficult to discern the divine mind, but it must have manifested itself in America's centennial year. How Custer's downfall must have been mourned. How, years later, it is marveled at as the miraculous outcome of Little Bighorn.
Little Bighorn was a watershed. Henceforth, U.S. policy hardened. It took few prisoners en route to the relentless pursuit of Chief Joseph and, ultimately, Wounded Knee. The 7th Cavalry detachment that shot, chased, and killed unarmed innocents in South Dakota by no means represented American values. But why instead of providing needful lessons are the tragic memories of the Indian Wars readily dismissed and shunted aside? Marshall goes on to explore an amazing lack of progress post-1876 that took place between Native America and the status quo. Obviously, Whites still finesse the use of equality in speech as opposed to action. Despite the best efforts of several Congresses and Presidents, as well as, from the other side, the American Indian Movement, no laws or measures have managed to eliminate lingering resentments and bitterness.
This book is a tribute of sorts to the human spirit, however, which somehow rebels against all odds. To be sure, there is not much to add or subtract from what has entered the historical record on Little Bighorn. But The Day the World Ended, subtitled a lakota history, might by means of the re-organization and re-telling of a well-documented event serve to bring about the peace that has not yet been won.