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.