Returning from a book event in Rapid City, Kathy and I toured the site of Custer’s Last Stand. In 1874, our country was experiencing a deep depression. Immigrants of that period, most notably German and Irish, couldn’t find jobs back east but there was the lure of the wide open West. Custer took a surveying expedition to the Black Hills in present day South Dakota and two prospectors with the expedition discovered gold. Although by treaty, the land belonged to the Indians, the lure of gold attracted prospectors by the thousands. By 1876, after failing to purchase the land from the Indians, the government decided to take it by force. The government had decided they wanted the gold to pay off the national debt (we were still on the gold standard then). In June, the army descended on those Indians, Sioux and Cheyenne, who had fled the reservation because contrary to the promises of the government, they had not been provided with supplies on the res and Sitting Bull told them, correctly, that they could feed themselves if they joined him in the still untouched lands where the Buffalo roamed. Lands that the government had promised the Indians could use as long as they didn’t reside there permanently. Given the nomadic life style of the Plain’s Indians, that was a foregone conclusion. When Custer led his 400 men, mostly Irish and German immigrants with no prior combat experience (equipped with single shot carbines ) against 2000 warriors ( many equipped with Henry and Winchester repeating rifles ) the outcome of the battle was a foregone conclusion. The news of Custer’s defeat reached Washington at the same time the country was celebrating its first bicentennial. Although both revered as an American hero and reviled as a glory seeking martinet, Custer actually had a pretty good battle plan. Unfortunately, the numbers just didn’t add up and his subordinate officers, most notably Major Marcus Reno and Captain Fredrick Benteen let him down. Some three years after the battle, Crazy Horse, one of the Indian leaders, was shot dead while “resisting arrest.” After a stint with Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show, Sitting Bull, who took no part in the actual conflict, returned to the reservation. In 1890, as he had prophesied, he was killed by Indian police when he “resisted arrest.” With the Wounded Knee massacre and his death, America closed its chapter on “the winning of the west” and turned to taking on the rest of the world.
As historians have noted, Custer’s Last Stand was also the last stand for the Plain’s Indians and their way of life. As a country, we still bear the scars of a shameful time in our history when we committed acts of genocide against an entire race of people in the name of progress. While we jump to the defense of other minorities, we ignore Native Americans. When was the last time you read or heard a news report concerning the poverty, educational deficiencies, health problems, including rampant diabetes and alarming rates of alcoholism endemic among those very Indians that supposedly “won” the battle on the Little Big Horn river? As I stood on the hill overlooking the battlefield, I was struck by the parallels of that time to our own time. Today, as then, we face a lingering economic depression. Instead of subjugating a race of people to bolster our economy with gold, we subjugate ourselves and risk our children’s futures by printing money based on nothing. Today, as then, we refuse to deal with a new wave of immigrants who languish in poverty, often exploited by unscrupulous employers in an underground economy who offer as we then paid our soldiers, a pittance and “found.” Today, as then, we have politicians who seek to demonize and divide and engage in class warfare and whose rallying cry might very well echo those who proclaimed in 1876, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” I wondered if any of the other visitors who shuffled along the paths on the site of Last Stand Hill, Weir’s Point or Reno Hill were aware of the parallels between those issues our country faced in 1876 and the issues we face today. Probably not. I’ve found that despite the oft repeated phrase that “history repeats itself,” we seem to live solely in the present and egocentrically imagine that no one has ever experienced the problems we now face. I can only hope that if we really study our own history, perhaps we can still avoid the mistakes we made then. I guess only history will tell.