Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who needs an Indian fighter?

We didn't take many big vacations when I was a kid. Instead, we usually spent long weekends visiting my grandparents in the dusty little towns of Duchesne (pronounced doo-SHANE) and Roosevelt in eastern Utah. There wasn't much to do out there unless you liked trout fishing, and luckily Grandpa Jay was always happy to go fishing. We'd show up with our poles and state fishing licenses but he'd insist we get permits for the Indian reservations because - I assume - the fishing was better there. Sometimes we'd meet some Indians from the Ute tribes, and they'd always stop and talk to Grandpa - he seemed to know everyone.

So when I was growing up, "Indians" weren't really the bad guys I saw in the old western movies. In fact, when you're a kid playing "cowboys & Indians" with your friends, it was usually more fun to be an Indian. And while I'd heard stories of "Indian fighters" like General Custer and Kit Carson, I never really understood why there was a need for "Indian fighters," or - more importantly - why they were treated like heroes in popular culture. Couldn't everyone just get along?

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little BighornApparently not.  The Battle of the Little Bighorn occupies an interesting and somewhat awkward place in American history. It was a resounding defeat for the US troops, but it only delayed the inevitable suppression of the victorious Native American tribes. It's often referred to as "Custer's Last Stand," where General George Armstrong Custer, a flamboyant and iconic "Indian fighter" and soldier, met his death when his severely outnumbered troops attacked an immense gathering of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne led by the warrior-chief Sitting Bull.

Nathaniel Philbrick has written an excellent history in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn that brings to life the people on both sides of Little Bighorn, starting with Custer and Sitting Bull. For most of the book I thought he seemed overly partial to the Indians by his tone and language, but by the end it mellowed and seemed almost impartial and this is when the book became most interesting and human. Since the precise details of Custer's demise are unknown, Philbrick offers his own speculation based upon the various accounts and evidence available. He presents the different eyewitness stories and how they measure up against what he believes was the most important factor in the battle: the physical terrain. Numerous maps and photos (b&w and color) help put faces to the names and places.

I received the book from Amazon Vine and after I posted my review I soon learned that when you wade into the tall grass of the Little Bighorn opinions run pretty strong. Apparently this is a part of history that is still avidly studied and hotly debated. Nonetheless, this is a good introduction to the subject - and a really good read, too!

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