June marked the 145th anniversary of Custer’s debacle at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s death as a hero fighting for white dominance of the Plains against savage and hostile Indians contributed to the increased military pressure that ultimately did clear the West for white expansion. The true history of that day and Custer, shrouded in the hero mythology promulgated by, among others, his widow, Libby, has been debated and recreated in more books and movies than almost any event in American history.
We now know that Custer was a blunderer and a boaster, a man who had promulgated atrocities against Indians and led his troops into certain death; in less than an hour, the Sioux and Cheyenne had won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, killing Custer and every one of his men. The country was shocked—and ready to believe a story of heroism against the savages.
Alvin Josephy often blasted standard and textbook American histories that “omitted Indians completely when they didn’t lie about them.” We are learning now that the lies and omissions do not only pertain to Indians, and that the standard histories, the ones we see in our textbooks and, for the most part, dominate our non-fiction best-seller lists, have often been reworked to facilitate American political and social agendas. Sometimes consciously, but most often unconsciously.
The big story, the big myth, is that benevolent and god-fearing men led a nation that was morally and physically destined to fill a continent. The corollary has always been that these men were and this nation is somehow exceptional in the grand history of the world. If there have been some missteps, if slavery persisted too long, if Indian lands were taken unjustly, if socio-political differences rose until they erupted into Civil War, the nation itself has followed a zigzag but true course laid out in its founding documents. Most spectacularly, the phrase that “all men are created equal” has grown from its original form, in which white men who owned property were the beneficiaries of those freedoms outlined in the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights, to include all white men, then African American slaves and their descendants, and then women, American Indians, and immigrants from different countries and continents.
This march of political, social, and racial progress has grown on the strength of movements—Revolution, Abolition, Suffrage and Civil Rights primarily—and on the shoulders of heroes. We might not remember the details, but we know the names and maybe can identify a few words from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, and Caesar Chavez.
Recently, the lid’s been lifted on history; omissions and long-standing lies get their own books. Howard Zinn’s Peoples History of the United States, published in 1980, and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, in 1995, drew large audiences but rested on a kind of alternative history shelf, assigned in some college classes, making some incremental impacts on textbook history, certainly helping to open doors for the rash of important new histories of the last few years.
Now we can read Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson, Paul Ortiz on the brutal history of racism underlying the practice of slavery and the continuity of Jim Crow and racial discrimination in America. We can get the real goods on Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and the Alamo: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, urges us to reconsider the Alamo, not for heroism and independence, but as an effort to defend slavery. And Blaine Hardin takes the frosting off of another Western hero, Marcus Whitman, in Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West. Whitman was not the hero who saved the West from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British—though the story launched literary and ecclesiastical careers and a successful college.
What a difference a century makes. The famous photographer, Edward Sheriff Curtis, after living with the Sioux in the Daktotas, learned the true Custer story from his Sioux interpreter. Curtis was Teddy Roosevelt’s White House photographer, and used his clout for an audience to tell the President the true Story. TR, who had his own mythologies about the American West and Indians, said that the Country didn’t want or need that story.
Curtis and the Custer myth were exposed by Tim Egan a decade ago in his book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Other stories tumble out in books, articles, and documentaries almost daily, and the critics—lumping things into “critical race theory” and anti-patriotism—are jumping up to dispute and disparage.
Those of us who believe that true history makes a better road to the future will be tested.
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