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Killing Custer: The Battle Of Little Bighorn And The Fate Of The Plains Indians Paperback – Jan 30 2007

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“The Great Spirit must have created James Welch so that he could tell of the Little Bighorn from the viewpoint of the tribes that fought there.” — Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

“For those who many wonder about the 'Custer Had It Coming' bumper stickers they see in the West, James Welch provides the answer, in a book which reads with the same poetic prose that has made his novels American classics.” — Tony Hillerman

“A moving and thoughtful meditation on the history of America's wars of conquest and dispossession, and on the necessity—and the difficulty—of recovering that history, and making it a part of living memory for modern-day Indians and whites.” — Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation

About the Author

At the time of his death in 2003, James Welch was considered one of the most important authors of the American West. His books include Fool’s Crow and Winter in the Blood.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 30 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Gifted artistry and perception Jan. 29 2010
By Chris Wilson - Published on
Format: Paperback
Let's get something straight. Nothing new can possibly be written on Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Every shadow, contemporary account and hidden ridge have been combed over. The truth is there and the mystery is solved. So it was with great surprise while reading James Welch's "Killing Custer" I discovered a few interesting perspectives not yet studied, and what a refreshing contemplation this is.

Welch, an accomplished Native American writer of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, was initially a reluctant participant in the superb documentary American Experience: Last Stand at Little Big Horn directed by Paul Stekler. He became a dedicated activist in the film's cause and this book is a result of his own spiritual examination. The documentary, first broadcast on PBS in 1992, recounts the battle and aggressive eastern encroachment through the eyes of Native American descendants of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Crow. The film was an earnest attempt to emphasize stories of the people attacked by Custer and the 7th Cavalry, who essentially made a last stand for their culture.

Welch accurately notes how most Native Americans roll their eyes at America's obsession with this battle. He cuts through the mythology and tells his version without military glorification. As Welch states, Custer's plan was to kill Indians, and when he rode down into that valley in 1876, he planned to kill as many as quickly as possible. Welch's version of the battle is largely inspired by Native American accounts handed down through generations. It's a harsh rendition, having little to do with Errol Flynn or Hollywood (They Died with Their Boots On), owing much to the brutal realities of prehistoric battle and human flight. Men panicked, men retreated, men ran for their lives.

One of Welch's great contributions to history is his investigation and discovery of a forgotten episode, also noted in his brilliant work Fools Crow (Contemporary American Fiction). He recounts a massacre in 1870 on the Marias River where more than 170 Native American women, children and old men were mistakenly slaughtered by the military, a heinous act having much in common with the now infamous Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado (Finding Sand Creek: History, Archeology, And the 1864 Massacre Site). In "Killing Custer," he goes so far as to track down the forgotten location of the battle, asking a local rancher for directions. Today, people now regularly visit the Marias Massacre site, leaving gifts and contemplating the treatment of Native American people during these killing wars of the 19th century. If Welch had one great achievement during his life (much to my sadness when writing this post, I discovered he passed away in 2003), in addition to his extraordinary body of writing (Winter in the Blood (Penguin Classics), Heartsong), it was his refusal to allow these victims to be forgotten. This senseless massacre was swept under the rug by the U.S. government. Welch rips up the carpet for all to see.

The strength of "Killing Custer" is not necessarily his own portrayal of the Battle of Little Big Horn, which is interesting. It's his modern day account of his travels with Stekler in an old station wagon as they drive from location to location, conducting often times difficult interviews with ancestors of battle participants. Welch is essentially Stekler's guide, and they visit Lodge Grass, Lame Deer, Hardin and numerous other towns and historic locales dotting the husky Montana landscape. They stay in motels having not seen the slightest renovation since the 1950s and find pockets of unique souls little changed since the early 20th century - elder cowboys watching black and white TV, seathing tribal elders with boxes of historical artifacts, Crow farmers weary of tourists and endless flows of documentary filmmakers. This is a land rarely explored, revealing modern-day Native Americans having suffered lives of alcoholism, U.S. military duty and eventual redemption to preserve their culture.

Welch's considerable observations, in many ways a journal, are poetic and insightful. He recounts Sitting Bull's famous sundance (Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy), where on the banks of the Rosebud he danced two days before having visions of soldiers falling into camp. Custer, en route to his Little Big Horn destruction, came across the site and the signs terrified his Crow scouts. A huge tree trunk used in the ceremony, painted multiple colors, remained many years after the battle, eventually paved over when a highway was constructed. Other anecdotes, including Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West was not one of the many books sold at the battlefield gift shop, are enlightening.

Welch's "Killing Custer" is not particularly interested in the legend of of the golden haired general who loved to charge, but in the stories of the Native Americans he rode down into the valley to kill. He recounts their agony and the lives of their descendants living near the battlefield to this day. It is Welch's inspiring vision, told with gifted artistry and perception. One of my favorite books written about the battle, and I have read many of them.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
it's a good day to die May 8 2001
By JEAN-MARIE JUIF - Published on
Format: Paperback
It's a good day to die; the book was issued in France under this title.Looking for other books on this american site,I was surprised and shocked to read some of the reviews.I think this book is important . Of course, I guess that many books have been written about this subject, and I don't know if this one gives us more informations than the others.But what is important to me is the fact that this book has been written by an indian,a man who has more than anyone else, the right to speak about what happened to his people. The 20's century great democracies, including France,can't be proud of their foundations.America with indian and black peoples,France in the West Indies ,and North Africa.One thing surprises me in the reviews of this book:a reviewer only writes about the Little Big Horn battle,although the book goes from 1869 to Sitting Bull's death in 1890.He is sad not to have been able to see the Reno site while visiting the country; personnaly,I would have prefered (and hope I'll have the opportunity) to spend a few hours on the place,near the river,where the Sioux and Cheyennes were living with their families.Another reviewer complains about "the political subtones of the author".And so what? Senator McCarthy fortunately died,no? And I think Mr Welch ,like any other human being, can and has to have a political conciousness.YOu can agree with him or not,but you can't reproach him with telling what he thinks .I was glad to read this book,and I recommend it to you.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
a lot of army vs indians history April 19 2008
By Catharine T. Kolb - Published on
Format: Paperback
James Welch, a Blackfeet/Gros Ventre novelist, turns his hand to history after writing a screen play on the same topic, The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The book is very smoothly written and easy to read and follow; there are maps and photos to augment the text.
For anyone interested in the events which led up to "Custer's Last Stand" and more importantly to the effect it had on Native Americans this book provides a great deal of understanding.
Welch has the wisdom to write for his readers, some white, some not and maintains a clear eye throughout without devolving into blame or distortion.
The book is particularly interesting if you have been to or plan to go to the National Monument in southeastern Montana , an hour north of Sheridan , WY and the Bighorn Mountains.
The site has a moving quality to it, bare hills with white markers for fallen soldiers flanked by steep gullies leading down to the valley floor where a three mile long village of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho gathered in late June 1876.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By B Ardell Young - Published on
Format: Paperback
The value of this book lies in the ability to present the Indians as humans rather than the evil savages ingrained into most American s during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mr. Welch succeeds in showing the indecision and doubt that plagued Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse during the latter years of the Plains War. The passages explaining the negative aftermath of the Little Bighorn for the Plains Indian because it is overlooked or ignored by history books.

I thought Mr. Welch's decison to weave the Little Bighorn into the story of making the film about the battle made the book more interesting. It allowed the inclusion of unrelated items, such as the gravesite of Bill Thomas, which provided additional background to some of the major points of the book.

It is an interesting and easy read that would be enjoyable to anyone slightly interested in Custer, Little Bighorn or the Plains Indians.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A very balanced book on a tough subject Feb. 13 2010
By Brad Allen - Published on
Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed James Welch's book for a number of reasons. Most importantly, though, is its objectivity. I had some stereotypes and biases going in (probably still have some coming out, just different) on what a Native American writer would write about this conflict. I think I expected a straight-forward story with different good guys and bad guys than the history I had read in the past. What I found instead was a book where there really are no good guys.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone exploring this portion of history and especially for those who will be visiting the memorials and battlefields associated with it. It will tend to lend an air of objectivity and context to the slanted views at the museums throughout the West. This was a tough time in the history of both nations, the United States and the various Native Tribes. James Welch understands this and lays out the stories and facts to help us understand.