Introduction to Legacy
by Charles E. Rankin
Little Bighorn. Long ago, the name became a symbol for much more than the small high plains stream that courses its way northward through southeastern Montana. The battle that occurred along its banks 120 years ago easily eclipsed any geographical designations. In the collective American mind, the site of George Armstrong Custer's demise became an absorbing, enigmatic symbol that reverberates to this day in the national consciousness.
Still, the Battle of the Little Bighorn can be described, aptly perhaps, as a mere skirmish by military standards. Indeed, as Richard S. Slotkin argues, it was a relatively minor military engagement involving a man of marginal historical importance, although others insist that the battle ultimately, if ironically, was crucial to the defeat of the resistant Lakotas and their allies. Questionable historical significance notwithstanding, Little Bighorn has become, in the words of various contributors to this volume: the preeminent icon of controversy; a military monument; a national shrine; the symbol for a defining national moment; a multifaceted, malleable story fraught with ironies; a mirror of contemporary social, political, and cultural values and at times a window on the historical past and what we might make of it; a lonely place that haunts the American consciousness. The Little Bighorn's power, it would seem, is that it continues to be all these things; indeed, more than their sum. Hence, the fascination.
The hundreds of books on George Armstrong Custer and his famous denouement on June 25, 1876, are ample testimony to the Little Bighorn story's enduring appeal. But this volume is about more than that fascination. Rather, it reflects change, or more accurately an attempt to fashion a proper response to change. It is based on the lectures and presentations offered by leading scholars and writers from a diversity of disciplines during the three-day Little Bighorn Legacy Symposium held in Billings, Montana, in August 1994. Collectively, those who advanced their thoughts at the conference sought a broader, more inclusive story. For a century, the conventional interpretation of the Little Bighorn had been decidedly narrow. As Paul L. Hedren documents in an essay included here, in the aftermath of the battle at the Greasy Grass the United States Army quickly appropriated both the story and the battlefield, making the one a testament to blood sacrifice for a worthy cause and the other a national cemetery. To the nation, the story became one of a heroic offering on behalf of the advance of white civilization, the archetype for the winning of the West from what were perhaps wronged, but nonetheless uncivilized people who inevitably had to be swept from the path of progress.
During the past twenty years, however, new scholarship and a growing awareness—as well as acceptance—of Native American historical voices has exposed the inadequacy of such a limited view. Unable to accommodate cross-cultural and multicultural viewpoints, the conventional interpretation of the battle's meaning has impeded understanding by excluding Native American perspectives on the story—their views on why they fought, why they won that day, why the aftermath of their ultimate defeat was so tragic—in brief, what the Little Bighorn has meant to them. The use of the plural Indian perspectives is intentional, for as Colin G. Calloway shows, many native groups—from Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho to Crow, Shoshone, Pawnee, and Arikara—were caught up in the events surrounding the Little Bighorn, some fighting against each other. As a consequence of new scholarship, new investigative techniques, new evidence, and especially because of a growing Native American insistence on inclusion in the Little Bighorn story, the conventional interpretation has become hopelessly outmoded. No longer can it accommodate such a diversity of perceptions and potential meanings for so many different groups. A reinterpretation is needed. The legacy symposium in Billings, then, in conjunction with the renaming of the battlefield and planning for an Indian memorial, represented a tentative step toward fashioning a new, more inclusive explanation.
As Douglas C. McChristian explains in his preface, the purpose of the legacy symposium was to obtain a historiographical cross-section of state-of-the-art scholarship on the Little Bighorn with which the National Park Service might better interpret the site. Assembling scholars and writers from a broad range of disciplines, the park service was able to draw from the work of Native American authors, historians, and narrators; environmental historians; archaeologists; communications scholars; historians of federal Indian policy and military strategy; and approaches ranging from the anthropological to the myth historical and art historical. From these presentations, the park service and the more than three hundred people who attended the symposium heard appeals for reinterpreting the Little Bighorn in a larger context, for using other disciplines and other sources to enhance and deepen our understanding, especially material evidence and Indian testimony, and for greater appreciation of the significance of myth—what it can reveal as well as what it often obscures. More than anything else, the symposium underscored the need for greater recognition of Native American perspectives and their meaningful incorporation into the story. Responsible for interpreting as well as administering the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the National Park Service sought and found guidance on how it might convert the site from a place enshrined for a single, celebratory purpose into a national monument where, as Edward T. Linenthal puts it, different groups might play a role in constructing a collective memory.
In keeping with such a worthy undertaking, creation of a permanent record seemed imminently fitting. Consequently, the Montana Historical Society, one of the symposium's several sponsors, tape recorded the entire proceedings for its oral history collections. These tape recordings are on file with the state archivist at the Society in Helena and are available to anyone upon request. In addition, the Montana Historical Society Press has undertaken to publish in one volume the essays that grew out of the lectures and discussions offered in Billings those three days in August. Sixteen essays appear here. As one would expect, such a diversity of approaches required a certain standardization for editorial consistency. Little Big Horn, for example, became Little Bighorn. Otherwise, the essays and their scholarly citations, which are grouped for the sake of continuity into three parts—the Context, the Battle, and the Myth—appear as the authors crafted them.
In the book's opening essay, Dan Flores deploys an interdisciplinary approach to provide context on a grand ecological scale. He shows how the Great Sioux War perhaps hastened somewhat but nonetheless played only a small part in a much larger drama. Victim to a convergence of ecological, cultural, and technological forces, the bison ecology that had flourished in North America for ninety centuries and on which the Plains tribes had based their buffalo cultures came crashing to an end in a mere twenty_five years. Next, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., explains how the Little Bighorn was the logical result of an Indian policy that, however fraught with independent actions, corruption, and well-intentioned philanthropy, offered only three alternatives to Native American societies: become white on your own accord; be driven onto reservations where you will assimilate to white ways or starve; or die. As Josephy asserts, the Little Bighorn battle was supposed to achieve the policy's third alternative.
If the policy-making in Washington was rigid, Joseph C. Porter shows how the Native American response on the high plains was surprisingly fluid. Through the life and times of the enigmatic Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, Porter relates the Indian worldview, one in which proud people sought to defend their homeland, their families, and their way of life against invading armies of another culture and in so doing, changed their own culture even as they defended it. As Colin G. Calloway cautions, however, the world created by white invasion was not a simple one with fixed racial lines. There were, he reminds us, "other Indians." The Crows, Shoshones, Pawnees, and Arikaras intentionally allied themselves with strength—with the United States Army—to defeat their traditional enemies, the Lakotas and Cheyennes. Hardly the white man's fools, these Indian allies, like the Indians they fought against, struggled against formidable odds for cultural survival. For these native groups, the Little Bighorn represented disaster, but for reasons much different than for the United States military.
From the army's perspective, meanwhile, as disastrous as the Little Bighorn was, it represented a turning point in the larger Sioux war. As Jerome A. Greene argues, the Little Bighorn, a battle among skirmishes, was a pivotal moment that shaped all subsequent events. Until the Little Bighorn engagement in late June 1876, the army's fortunes during its campaign that year were in decline and those of the opposing tribes in ascendancy; afterward, it was just the reverse. Rounding out this section, John D. McDermott describes why the Little Bighorn is so multifaceted as a historical event. The Little Bighorn says as much about flawed federal policies and national attitudes toward settlement, Indian prowess, national mythology, and a standing military as it does about individual personalities and unique circumstances.
In part two, Native American author Joseph M. Marshall III shifts the focus to a different set of heroes by providing an insider's view from the village Custer opposed that Sunday in June 1876. Those who fought Custer as well as generations of their descendants have felt pride for having won and defended themselves well that day, and sadness for ultimately losing the clash of cultures. Such views are best expressed through the memories and histories of Native Americans, and Margot Liberty argues for the indispensability of such information. As with all historical sources, using Indian testimony can be problematic, but such evidence is essential if we are to arrive at a fuller understanding of the events surrounding Little Bighorn.
Building on Liberty's appeal for putting Native American evidence to greater use, Richard A. Fox, Jr., argues that when combined with archaeological data, these sources help begin to resolve such questions as the location and size of the Indian village, which in turn is critical to interpreting Custer's strategy as well as the actions the Indians took on the west side of the river. Similarly, Douglas D. Scott explains just how archaeological evidence has been gathered at the battlefield to reveal a number of insights and confirm other evidence. As well, the archaeological techniques pioneered at Little Bighorn have served more contemporary investigations, including cases of suspected human rights violations in Iraq, El Salvador, and Croatia. Finally, as noted earlier, Paul L. Hedren traces the army's efforts to render the Little Bighorn battlefield holy ground in a fashion similar to the nation's response to the sites of Civil War engagements.
Beyond the context and the battle itself lies what is arguably Little Bighorn's most powerful legacy, its mythology. Creation of the Custer myth had many sources but none perhaps more influential than the visual record fabricated by artists. In a study of the art of the Little Bighorn, Brian W. Dippie contends that in creating Custer's Last Stand, artists made real in the public mind a gloriously heroic fiction that no one could effectively prove or wholly disprove. Ironically, to accommodate their dedication to accuracy in the minute details of saddles, firearms, and uniforms, artists fashioned a larger context—and a mythology—that assumed enduring power. Similarly, Paul Andrew Hutton shows how Hollywood, ever dedicated to entertainment, paid little heed to historical accuracy in its many depictions of the events surrounding the Little Bighorn. Rather than historical fidelity, Hollywood's treatment of Custer and the Little Bighorn over time reveals with surprising precision the nation's willingness to use historical characters and events to reflect changing perceptions of its villains and heroes.
If the mythology surrounding Custer has provided a window on popular notions of our national identity, it also has obscured dangerous fallacies embedded in American self-perceptions and hindered needed cultural reconciliation. As John P. Hart shows, the Little Bighorn provides rich potential for communications studies, especially in how the myth complicates the problems of intercultural communication. Underscoring this theme, Richard S. Slotkin asserts that if Custer and the Little Bighorn are important to understanding the nation's wrenching transition to modernity, they are important to Native Americans also as symbols of the intercultural clash over values and beliefs. The myth of exclusion, which identified Native Americans as "alien others" and justified their elimination, Slotkin argues, not only led the nation to Little Bighorn-style confrontations but perpetuated exclusion of Indian peoples from the American social compact thereafter.
If exclusion is the obscurant myth, Edward T. Linenthal believes we have taken the first steps toward a more inclusive reality by renaming the battlefield and attempting to convert it from a shrine to manifest destiny to a historic site where a variety of peoples and perspectives might construct multifaceted memory. The act of naming a place, Linenthal asserts, is an act of ownership. Renaming the battlefield, and thereby allowing for a broader ownership, constructing an Indian monument, a process still ongoing as this book is being published, and the Little Bighorn Legacy Symposium itself all reflect attempts to fashion a more inclusive approach to interpreting a site that is and will remain a powerful symbol.
As these essays show, the mystery and irony of Little Bighorn give the story remarkable staying power. Indeed, the battle and its participants are being reassessed with an increasingly complex array of evidence and from a widening range of viewpoints. To be sure, in inviting not one but many cultural perspectives, we complicate what once seemed a comfortably familiar story, but the gains would seem worth the risk. The fabric of national memory has never been uniform, one dimensional, or solo-voiced, though it may have seemed so at times. All along, other historical meanings waited for a chance to become known. By adding more voices, Little Bighorn will gain relevance to an ever-widening audience and become more truly universal. That, at least, is the hope.
The book, which includes a 24-page illustration section, is 360 pages, is priced $19.95 paperback (plus shipping), and can be ordered by calling toll free 1-800-243-9900.