At the corner of Cass and West Seventh streets in Monroe, Mich-igan, sits the two-story, three-bedroom house in which Libbie Custer was raised. In 1999, the house was bought by Steve and Sandy Alexander. Alexander is known as the country’s foremost Custer reenactor. Bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to the general, he has spent his life researching every conceivable aspect of the Custer biography and has become a fixture at the reenactments staged each year near the battleground. He can quote long passages of the general’s prose; he has studied the many photographs; he has a uniform for each stage in Custer’s multifaceted career. With an endearing humility, he has somehow managed to inhabit the personality of one of America’s most famous egomaniacs. As his Web site proclaims, “Steve Alexander is George Armstrong Custer.”
On a Saturday in late September 2006, Steve and his wife, Sandy (who plays the role of Libbie Custer with equal passion and commitment), hosted a noted guest: Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull.
“This is a monumental occasion,” Alexander said to a reporter from the local newspaper, adding that he doubted the Custers could have imagined “that a relative of Sitting Bull would [one day] be sitting here.”
When the two men shook hands in the living room of the house, Alexander was dressed in a replica of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry uniform. In real life, Alexander has never served in the military. LaPointe, on the other hand, is a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he served with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. Once seated in the Alexanders’ living room, LaPointe made it clear that he held no grudges against the man Alexander portrays. “Sitting Bull didn’t dislike Custer,” he said. “He realized he was a military guy following orders.”
LaPointe’s attitude in 2006 could not be more different from that expressed over thirty years earlier by the Lakota intellectual and activist Vine Deloria Jr. in Custer Died for Your Sins. Reflecting the radicalism of the Vietnam War era, Deloria described Custer, the righteous martyr of the first half of the twentieth century, as the quintessential “Ugly American . . . [who] got what was coming to him.” This is the Custer I came to know in 1970 when as a high school freshman I saw the delightfully iconoclastic Western Little Big Man.
By the start of the twenty-first century, however, attitudes had begun to change once again. After September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it was possible to recognize, as LaPointe acknowledged during his meeting with Steve Alexander, that no matter how misguided the conflict, soldiers such as Custer were only doing their duty.
As it turns out, Custer’s Native opponents had known this all along. In 1919, the Lakota warrior He Dog recounted what he had told an army officer looking for information about the Battle of the Little Bighorn on behalf of Libbie Custer. “[I]f he wanted to know the cause of that trouble,” He Dog told him, “he would have to look in Washington . . . [because] Washington was the place all those troubles started.”
But is this letting Custer too easily off the hook? General Terry, like Sheridan before him, had told Custer to do whatever he thought best once he came in contact with the Indians. At the Washita in 1868, Custer had attacked. As the campaign against the southern Cheyenne progressed the following year, Custer chose a completely different course. Even though Sheridan’s and Custer’s own officers remained skeptical, he chose this time to negotiate. No mere gunslinger in buckskin, Custer was too much of an opportunist to remain committed to any single approach.
Washington sent Custer to south-central Montana in 1876, but what Custer decided to do at the Little Bighorn was by no means determined by President Grant. In fact, if the Crow scout White Man Runs Him is to be believed, Custer viewed his actions at the battle as a kind of repudiation of his commander in chief. “I have an enemy back where many white people live that I hate,” he reportedly told the scouts. “I am going to take this village whether I am killed or not.”
Custer represented the government of the United States, but he was also a strong-headed officer known for going his own way. What that way represented was rarely clear to anyone—least of all to Custer himself.
In My Life on the Plains, published two years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he expressed his sympathies for the so-called hostiles such as Sitting Bull: “If I were an Indian,” Custer wrote, “I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.” If Custer’s sympathies for the Indians were indeed as deep as this passage suggests, then how do we account for his decision to desecrate the Lakota graves during his march up the Yellowstone toward the Far West? Several observers believed that Custer and his family members ultimately paid for this outrageous and needless act with their lives.
Despite his inconsistencies and flaws, there was something about Custer that distinguished him from most other human beings. He possessed an energy, an ambition, and a charisma that few others could match. He could inspire devotion and great love along with more than his share of hatred and disdain, and more than anything else, he wanted to be remembered.
Some are remembered because they transcended the failings of their age. Custer is remembered because he so perfectly embodied those failings. As Herman Melville wrote of that seagoing monster of a man Captain Ahab, “All mortal greatness is but disease.”
Custer and Sitting Bull were both great warriors. But Sitting Bull was something more. He was a leader, a prophet, and a politician. He was also convinced that he alone had his people’s welfare in view, a conviction that inevitably exasperated those Lakota attempting to meet the challenges of reservation life in their own way. As Bull Head shouted at Sitting Bull in his final moments, “You have no ears, you wouldn’t listen!” This, according to Kate Bighead, was the same sentiment the two southern Cheyenne women expressed on Last Stand Hill when they pierced Custer’s eardrums with an awl.
For a former warrior such as Sitting Bull, the glorious finality of a violent death had been a sore temptation all his life. When he was told only a few weeks after his arrival at Standing Rock in 1881 that he was going to be placed under arrest and shipped off to Fort Randall, he almost decided to end it then and there. Back in 1877, soon after surrendering to the authorities, Crazy Horse had been stabbed to death while resisting arrest. Sitting Bull initially vowed to go the way of his Oglala friend but eventually changed his mind. His Last Stand would have to wait.
During the final year of Sitting Bull’s life, his household was joined by two most unusual guests: a fifty-two-year-old Swiss-born widow named Catherine Weldon and her twelve-year-old son, Christie. The previous year Weldon, a member of an Indian rights group, had helped the Hunkpapa leader in his attempts to fight the U.S. government’s proposal to reduce the size of the Standing Rock Agency. In the summer of 1890, she decided to move to the reservation and devote her life to assisting the man she admired above all others. “I honor and respect S. Bull as if he was my own father,” she wrote to the agent James McLaughlin, who must have taken her letter as a kind of challenge, “and nothing can ever shake my faith in his good qualities and what I can do to make him famous I will certainly do and I will succeed, but I regret he is so universally misjudged.”
Weldon was what Libbie and Monahsetah had been for Custer—part promoter, part cultural intermediary—and she and her son lived with Sitting Bull and his extended family along the banks of the Grand River. It was a most unconventional partnership, and McLaughlin appears to have encouraged the rumors that the two shared a physical relationship, something Weldon, whom Sitting Bull called Woman Walking Ahead, indignantly denied.
By the fall of 1890, as the tensions surrounding the Ghost Dance came to a head, the two had a falling-out. Weldon believed that if Sitting Bull continued to support the movement, McLaughlin and the military would use it as a pretext to destroy him. By this point, the Hunkpapa chief appears to have grown increasingly despondent. His efforts to oppose McLaughlin’s totalitarian rule at Standing Rock had so far failed. Many of his own people were aligned against him. More than anything else, he was tired. “He said he would be glad if the soldiers would kill him,” Weldon wrote, “so his heart would find rest.”
When Weldon and her son left in November, what little hope Sitting Bull had for the future seems to have faded. On November 27, the teacher John Carignan reported to McLaughlin, “Sitting Bull has lost all confidence in the whites since Mrs. Weldon left him.”
That was the opinion of a white schoolteacher. Sitting Bull’s immediate family inevitably had a different view of the Hunkpapa leader’s last days. According to Ernie LaPointe, the agency police did not storm into his great-grandfather’s cabin. They knocked on the door and waited for him to get dressed. Sitting Bull’s son Crowfoot was not, as the agency police claimed, a fourteen-year-old boy. He was actually a seventeen-year-old young man. When his father started for the door, Crowfoot took up a gun and said, “I will protect you.” Sitting Bull paused, turned to his family, which included LaPointe’s grandmother Standing Holy, and sang one last song: “I am a man and wherever I lie is my own.”
With his son at his back, Sitting Bull opened the door and stepped into the night.
Not long after Sitting Bull’s death, a photographer from nearby Fort Yates staged a reenactment of the Hunkpapa chief’s Last Stand. Agency policemen who had survived the incident were placed around the cabin and photographed with their rifles at the ready. During the winter of 1891, some citizens from the town of Mandan, North Dakota, proposed that Sitting Bull’s cabin be purchased from his heirs and transported to Chicago for the upcoming world’s fair. Billed as “Sitting Bull’s Death Cabin,” the structure was reassembled on the midway of the fairgrounds and manned by nine Oglala who showed visitors where bullets had riddled the cabin’s sides.
As Steve Alexander remarked to the reporter from Monroe, it is doubtful whether Custer could have conceived of a future in which a fourth-generation descendant of Sitting Bull’s drank coffee in the living room of Libbie’s childhood home. The Indians, even their most fervent white supporters in the late nineteenth century believed, were about to disappear.
As a cadet at West Point, Custer expressed the conventional wisdom of his day in a paper entitled “The Red Man”: “We behold him now on the verge of extinction,” he wrote, “standing in his last foothold, clutching his bloodstained rifle, resolved to die amidst the horror of slaughter, and soon he will be talked of as a noble race who once existed but have now passed away.”
It was not the Indian who was on the way out in 1876; it was the Indian fighter. In 1890, the year of Sitting Bull’s death, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier officially closed. The Wild West of Custer’s greatest renown was defunct, but the Indians remained.
In 1944, the Army Corp of Engineers decided to turn the Missouri River into a series of lakes. It’s been called “the single most destructive act perpetrated against an Indian tribe in the twentieth century.” With the building of five dams in North and South Dakota, the U.S. government flooded 550 square miles of tribal land.
Since the waters of the Missouri were what sustained the Native peoples in this region, the dams eliminated their most fertile and sacred lands. Hundreds of Lakota families along the Missouri were displaced. But it was those peoples whose ancestors had assisted Custer’s Seventh Cavalry—the Mandan; the Hidatsa; and Bloody Knife’s people, the Arikara—who suffered the most. With the building of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota, these three tribes lost the very heart of their reservation at Fort Berthold, forcing approximately 95 percent of the agency’s residents to relocate.
Gerard Baker is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and for six years he served as superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. As a child growing up on the Fort Berthold Reservation, he often fished on the artificially created Sacagawea Lake. “[O]ld people would come to the bluffs around the lake to cry and wail,” he remembered. “They would look out over the water and cry for the loss of the graves of their ancestors and for their lost homeland, lost way of life and community.”
For legions of self-described Custer buffs, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is much like an unsolvable crossword puzzle: a conundrum that can sustain a lifetime of scrutiny and debate. Instead of the personalities of the participants, the buffs tend to focus on military strategy and tactics, the topography of the battlefield, and the material culture of the two opposing forces. Some, like Steve Alexander, participate in reenactments of the battle; others research and write articles and attend annual gatherings of fellow battle enthusiasts. In the tradition of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, the battle is, for this group, a fascinating diversion.
For the Lakota and Cheyenne, the battle is something else altogether. Instead of providing a refuge from the troubling complexities of the here and now, the battle and especially its aftermath are an inescapable part of that present.
In the almost century and a half since the Little Bighorn, the Native population of the United States has been steadily increasing. The reservations continue to be plagued by a host of serious social issues, including unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a frighteningly high suicide rate. But there are also some positive signs. Traditional practices such as the sun dance and the use of the Lakota and Cheyenne languages are making a comeback. Some tribes have begun buying back land the government took from them in the nineteenth century. Instead of settling for a multimillion-dollar government buyout of the Black Hills at the end of the twentieth century, tribal leaders continue to hold out hope of one day reclaiming this vast territory as theirs. Contrary to the expectations of their nineteenth-century conquerors, the Lakota and Cheyenne have endured.
On July 8, 2009, at a restaurant in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills, Ernie LaPointe spoke of his great-grandfather and the Battle of the Little Bighorn: “Historians are always saying that we are a defeated people, but slaughtering the buffalo, disarming and massacring old men, women, and children like they did at Wounded Knee doesn’t constitute victory. After all these years, after everything that’s happened, we still have the colors we won at the Little Bighorn, and that makes us strong.”
On the morning of June 28, 1876, Private Thomas Coleman was part of the burial detail assigned to Last Stand Hill. In his diary he composed a kind of prose poem entitled “Oh What a Slaughter”:
How many homes are made desolate by
The sad disaster, every one of them were scalped
And otherwise mutilated, but the General he
Lay with a smile on his face.
Others said Custer looked much as he did when taking a nap in the midst of a march: quietly relaxed and content, as if all were right with the world. Lieutenant Godfrey described Custer’s smile as a “calm, almost triumphant expression.”
As with so many aspects of this story, no one will ever know with any certainty what Custer was thinking at the time of his death. Did he look around and realize that, like the Spartans at Thermopylae and the Texans at the Alamo, all 210 troopers and civilians under his immediate command were dead or about to be? Did he, like Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, take consolation in knowing that he would have “glory by this losing day,” and did he smile?
Or perhaps the smile was a simple attempt to reassure the officers and men who were still alive that even if he had fallen, they should carry on and prevail. Or was the smile directed to his brother Tom in grateful thanks for a mercy killing? Or did it signal a more private acknowledgment that Libbie’s father had been right all along, and he was about to die, as Judge Bacon had predicted, as “a soldier”?
Or perhaps Custer’s expression had nothing to do with the circumstances of his death. Perhaps the smile was applied to his lips postmortem as a sardonic commentary on the mutilations inflicted on his body by the Lakota and Cheyenne.
In the end, Custer’s smile remains a mystery, and people will make of it what they will.
In 1876 the American public used that smile to construct the myth that has become synonymous with Custer’s name, the myth of the Last Stand. The irony is that if the archaeological evidence and much of the Native oral testimony is to be believed, Custer’s thrust to the north barely gave him time for the kind of epic confrontation commonly associated with a Last Stand. In truth, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the Last Stand not for Custer, who was on the attack almost to the very end, but for the nation he represented. With this battle and its sordid aftermath, climaxing so tragically in Wounded Knee, America, a nation that had spent the previous hundred years subduing its own interior, had nowhere left to go. With the frontier closed and the Indians on the reservations, America—the land of “Westward Ho!”—began to look overseas to Cuba, the Philippines, and beyond.
The Wild West of memory, however, continued to live on, and Custer remains an icon to this day. But the times have changed since Custer led the Seventh Cavalry to the Little Bighorn. Wars are no longer fought with arrows and single-shot carbines. There are weapons of mass destruction. Instead of several hundred dead and a guarantee of eternal fame, a Last Stand in the future might mean the devastation of a continent.
Sitting Bull is known today for stalwart resistance, for being the last of his tribe to surrender to the U.S. government. But at the Little Bighorn, he did not want to fight. He wanted to talk. This may be his most important legacy. As he recognized when he instructed his nephew to approach Reno’s skirmish line with a shield instead of a rifle, our children are best served not by a self-destructive blaze of glory, but by the hardest path of all: survival.