Americana: Montana

The Telling of Custer
December 08, 2009 to January 16, 2010

History is a series of stories that we tell ourselves. Certain tales capture our imaginations, while others fall away over generations. One story that has fascinated American society, whether for the conflicting versions that surround it, for its colorful characters, or its ability to symbolize early American nationalism, is that of General Custer and his demise.

On the morning of June 25, 1876, making a decision that would ultimately bring both of their lives to an end, the United States Army officer General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) decided to disregard the warnings of his highly-esteemed interpreter and guide Mitch Bouyer (1837–1876). Camped on a hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana territory, Custer had been sent by President Ulysses S. Grant's government to force the uncooperative Native Americans to their designated reservations. Meanwhile, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux war chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890), who was actively leading a strong resistance movement against the US government, had assembled the largest ever alliance of Plains Indians, including Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. It was this coalition of Native Americans that Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment made their target that summer day. Although warned of the massive size of the village, Custer was preoccupied by the thought that his own camp had been sighted. Eager to strike before the village could scatter, he hastily prepared to attack in the rising noontime heat. What followed was the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as the Battle of Greasy Grass, in which no US soldiers survived. It has popularly come to be known as Custer's Last Stand.

Although many conjectures surround what exactly happened during the battle, and forensic evidence has been extensively studied, we will never know for certain how the action played out. As a result, the story is malleable and communicates shifting cultural values. Theatrical performances of Custer's death were devised as soon as the news reached the papers, and continue to this day as historical reenactments. Dozens of scholarly volumes have been published on the subject. Custer's persona has inspired both documentary and fictional characters in film and animation, from Errol Flynn's portrayal in They Died with Their Boots On in 1941; to Richard Mulligan's in Little Big Man, the 1970 revisionist telling; to the 1974 French-Italian absurdist comedy Don't Touch the White Woman! set in Paris; to Bill Hader's rendition in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, released earlier this year; to the controversial 1982 Atari adult video game Custer's Revenge, also known as Westward Ho and The White Man Came.

Through various media, the stories of Custer and Sitting Bull have contributed to collective American identity, from the philosophy of Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States was divinely destined to encompass the entire North American continent—to revisionist history. "Indian" becomes "Native American" in a gesture that, at best, represents a progressive shift in worldview; at worst, substitutes an empty, albeit politically correct, signifier for an outdated one. By considering some of the (hi)stories we tell ourselves about that battle, and how we tell them, we might unveil the historical and cultural specificity embedded in any and every account, thereby better coming to understand our own culture today.

Curated by Joanna Szupinska

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