Little Bighorn National Monument, Montana

Commemorating Custer’s Defeat

Today marks 141 years since “Custer’s last stand,” officially known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or commonly recalled among many Native American groups as the Battle of the Greasy Grass. It’s hard to say whether the flamboyant Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry under his leadership actually made a valiant stand when faced with a superior force of Native American foes on the Greasy Grass, or if their slaughter came as they attempted a last-ditch retreat. Either way, a crushing defeat was their destiny.

For native peoples, Greasy Grass was a resounding victory against an attempted ambush and massacre at the hands of the United States Army and its notorious Indian killer. It also marked a turning point that would have dire consequences for native peoples of the Great Plains.

How then, should we commemorate this day?

Little Bighorn National Monument, Montana
Little Bighorn National Monument, Montana (Photo compliments the National Register of Historic Places via Wikimedia Commons)

A National Holiday

Perhaps we should establish June 25 as a national holiday. Not one that celebrates heroism, valor, and national pride, but a day to reflect and grieve over the nation’s cruel and violent history. All holidays give pause for remembrance, and the mutilated bodies of the defeated 7th Cavalry strewn across the ridge above the Little Bighorn River seems an apt image for remembering the consequences of racism, arrogance, and self-righteous belief in a divinely ordained destiny of the American nation.

Custer’s fate turned on his own flaws of personality and cultural chauvinism. A conceit born in his own personal sense of insecurity and desperate need for recognition, and bolstered by deeply held cultural values of racist supremacy and the righteous cause of the American nation, spurred the vaunted Indian fighter and Civil War hero to charge beyond the bounds of prudent calculation and sensible military strategy as he led his men into the morass of ignoble fate. Not a single one of them survived.

For Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the hundreds of other Native American defenders who repelled Custer’s attack, their rout of the infamous golden-haired cavalryman marked a great victory, perhaps the greatest day in the entire history of conflict between the indigenous nations of America and the military apparatus of the United States government. Their triumph, though, did not deliver them from the persistent threat to their lands, their cultures, their lives. In fact, it had the opposite effect: the people of the United States reacted first with shock, then with outrage, and finally with resolve to avenge Custer’s death and to end the so-called “Indian problem” once and for all. By the end of the nineteenth century, native peoples’ resistance would be crushed. Nearly all who survived the United States’ genocidal campaign against them settled into reluctant acceptance of reservation confinement.

A Patriotism of Regret

Commemorating the tragedies of June 25, 1876, puts patriotism into a confused shadow; maybe this is why we have not seen fit to make this a national holiday. Memorializing Custer, not unlike remembering the Alamo or celebrating the Confederacy, venerates national defeat and shame. On the other hand, a holiday for the Battle of the Greasy Grass can offer opportunity for grieving, reflection, and reconciliation.

Instead of celebrations that valorize the heroism of blunder, perhaps this day is better suited for reckoning with our national shame. June 25 memorializes the unpleasant reality of a nation built on values embodied in Custer’s fate. Racism, self-righteous arrogance, patriotic commitment to a misguided national destiny, have given us a regrettable history at odds with the more admirable aspirations of the American nation. It also has made the United States a global leader in violent solutions to difficult problems, from a pervasive gun culture to a bulging prison system to imperialist military interventions in foreign lands. Our leading role in climate change and environmental degradation also has roots in these same national values. We have become, sadly, a society more attuned to violence than to human dignity.

The lessons of Greasy Grass need remembrance now more than ever. Custer’s defeat seems a prescient warning about our national fate. No society can sustain itself on arrogance and violence. Ignoring these difficult lessons can only lead to a destiny much like Custer’s, tragedies of our own making. ♨

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