Thursday, April 27, 2006

Last Stand

As I reflect upon the wild, wild west, it occurs to me that I was a confused child. Not only did I think that Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill were two sets of the same people, I thought General George Armstrong Custer's name was Custard and his last stand was a roadside operation in Montana.

Author's note: There is a chain of frozen custard stands called Custard's Last Stand.

Eventually I figured out that General George Custer was a famous general who died at the Little Bighorn in a battle with the Sioux Indians in what would go down in history as Custer's Last Stand. At the time, Custer was considered a martyr and his defeat became the rallying cry to justify a full blown war on the Sioux. Today, most people have mixed feelings about whether Custer was a hero or a meglomaniac who epitomized the Peter Principle: Everyone rises to their level of incompetence.

I lean towards the latter.

I visited the Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana with my parents when I was about 14 years old. I came away from it with a sense that, judging from one of Custer's buckskin outfits they kept in a glass case there, he was pretty short. And judging from some of the documentaries I've seen on the Discovery and History channels, Custer's Last Stand was more of a last sprint. I saw one program where they used metal detectors to find bullets at the battlesite and were able to trace the course of the battle. Their conclusion was that it was everyman for himself as the men of the 7th Cavalry just ran around randomly trying to find their happy place to get away from the bullets and arrows.

I can't say I blame them.

I do think that the Sioux were in the right defending their property and reacting to the atrocities committed by the U.S. Army against their people. However, they were only able to bask in the glow of their victory over Custer for a brief time before the inevitable tide of America swept over them.

And I think it was a sad footnote that Sitting Bull ended up performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show reenacting attacks on the white soldiers. But in the gaudy gaslight of the stage performing before his enemies, he had to pretend over and over again to lose.

History is funny that way.

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