On June 25, 1876 the U.S. Seventh Cavalry led by General George Armstrong Custer mounted an attack on the largest gathering of Sioux in history. The Sioux were camped on the Little Bighorn River with all their families, ponies and possessions. The Northern bands of the Sioux gathered to resist the pressure from the United States government to give up their traditional ways and move into the agencies. They wanted to remain free. Custer couldn’t see the immensity of the gathering. The might and resolve of the northern bands was invisible to the General. On that day in June, when Custer’s men descended on the Sioux, he was carrying out one part of a three-pronged strike to choke out the northern bands. He failed miserably. By June 26 all the U.S. soldiers were dead including Custer himself. Custer was instantly mythologized for dying tragically in his “last stand”. The newspapers of the time referred to it as a massacre. Much was made of the scalping and mutilation of the soldier’s corpses. The Indians were described as being “lucky” or “outnumbering” the hapless soldiers. Neither military prowess nor a tenacious homeland defense was cited as part of the Sioux victory. After the battle, the United States government doubled down its pursuit of the remaining bands of free Sioux. This Indian victory led to their quick and total demise. In that battle, two Sioux leaders emerged as icons of Indian resistance- Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The following year after Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse would be coerced into a reservation and then murdered. Sitting Bull lived another twenty years after being extradited from Canada and similarly assassinated. The humiliation at Little Bighorn burned in the hearts of many military men. Even as late as 1891, at the massacre at Wounded Knee, revenge fueled the soldiers’ ethnic rage. The Wounded Knee Massacre destroyed any semblance of Sioux independence. The Sioux exit the historic stage. They then occasionally make cameos as foils for John Wayne or to weep over highway trash.
The battle and its aftermath occupy different perspectives of what’s called “the Indian problem”. First the problem was how to get them off resource rich land, and then having done so how to turn them into white people. The Sioux, and all indigenous peoples of the Americas, have the unfortunate position of being confined in history and simultaneously excluded from it. They are not allowed contemporaneity. Take a moment and try to think of a modern Sioux (and no, turn off the flute music and eagle cry in your head). When an Indian appears in contemporary culture he or she gets one of three roles– drunken fool, wise shaman or greedy casino owner. Several recent books and shows give new context to the history and the aftermath of that fateful day in 1876. Thomas Powers’ book The Killing of Crazy Horse gives us a multifaceted view into the events surrounding the death of the Sioux leader. It has the pace of a mystery novel with the sensitivity of a journalist building a case. Powers gives the reader a portrait of Crazy Horse by inference and creates the political and cultural context leading up to the murder. By the time the titular act happens, the reader feels the emotional weight of an entire people. History is made alive and immediate. Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s comic book series Scalped from Vertigo tells the story of the contemporary Sioux reservation. At heart, Scalped is a sordid story of low-life crime centered on a corrupt casino owner named Chief Red Crow. On the surface it traffics in the above-mentioned stereotypes. By setting a crime story on the rez, Aaron gives us neither saints nor fools, but real characters inside noir genre. Finally, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-2006) is a kind of anti-western. Deadwood was the illegal town of gold miners in the Black Hills that spurred the US government to renegotiate its treaty with the Sioux. Custer kick started the gold rush by declaring that “there was gold from the grassroots down” in the Black Hills. Deadwood set itself up inside Sioux territory as an independent camp while it awaited annexation to the U.S. The town was a willing tool of empire.
The Killing of Crazy Horse makes the history around the Sioux wars matter to us in the twenty-first century. Frontier history is often framed as a tragic, but inevitable flow of events. Told this way history is stuck behind glass. It can’t breathe. A reader is left with a feeling of helplessness. There’s nothing that can be done now and anyway, we have bigger fish to fry these days. Why read a book about the murder of a historic Sioux chief? Read this history and you see echoes of the now– echoes of genocidal policies, echoes of deeds swept under the collective rug, echoes of national amnesia. The United States was building a glorious new democracy and the Indians were the noble but extraneous blockage to that goal. Powers builds a case history by focusing on different characters around Crazy Horse. One such profile is of General George Crook. Crook was a deeply frustrated, vain and prickly man. He always felt overlooked in the public eye. He was to be one prong of the three-prong attack. He was routed by Crazy Horse and then sat waiting for orders while his men fished and hunted. Had he moved to the aid of Custer, some 30 miles away, Little Bighorn would be a different matter. He was never blamed explicitly, but innuendo dogged Crook. As a result, he was particularly keen on bringing down Crazy Horse. Powers paints a picture of tragic misunderstandings, missed opportunities and duplicitous power plays. Crazy Horse’s murder happens at the end of a long line of such mishaps. His own people did him in, but the means were placed there by an imperial system. Powers gives a brief history of the Sioux after consolidation on reservations. After his death Crazy Horse diminished in public memory. Sitting Bull emerged as the iconic Indian resistance fighter. However, Crazy Horse’s memory was kept alive by relatives. Like an ancestral relay race, Crazy Horse still touches the hands of contemporary Sioux via family histories. By the twenties and thirties Crazy Horse was restored to a position of influence in the historic register. These days, his name is synonymous with warrior culture.
Indians don’t have much presence in HBO’s Deadwood. All the action happens in the stinking mud streets of the boomtown or various saloons and hotels. The Sioux are major forces outside the town, but they live offstage in dialogue only. In the first season, saloon owner Al Swearengen (played by Ian Mcshane) says, “I'll tell you this, son, you can mark my words, Crazy Horse went into Little Bighorn, bought his people one good, long-term ass-fucking. You do not want to be a dirt-worshipping heathen from this fucking point forward.” This quote puts not too fine a point on the consequences of such a sweeping Indian victory. The victory focused all the forces of the young nation on the Plains tribes. The only live Sioux that shows up in the three seasons fights Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) to the death. The fight is accidental and brutal. Bullock takes the time to respectfully inter his victim in the traditional Lakota way on a scaffold. In the third season Swearengen takes to carrying around a severed Sioux head in a box. The head becomes the object of Swearengen’s increasingly melancholic monologues. Like Yorick, the Indian head is an occasion for the crime lord/saloon owner to recognize his own mortality. Swearengen, a pioneer hoping to capitalize on his claims and power in the mining camp recognizes that the coming of larger, more bureaucratic forces spell the end to his small time crime. Deadwood aired during the height of the Bush economic bubble. It took the classic western (of which the Bush administration tacitly identified with) and stripped it of romantic vistas and individualistic heroes. Deadwood showed what really made the west and America tick in boom times- thuggish greed and corruption. Deadwood ran on gold speculation. There were no innocents or noble heroes.
As vulgar and raunchy as Deadwood, Scalped spares no politically correct feelings in its story of corruption and crime on the fictional Prairie Rose Reservation. Aaron gives the reader a portrait of desperate poverty, clannish rivalries and an ever-present rage bubbling beneath the surface of a people. Scalped is the story of Dash Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent who returns to the reservation he hates to bring down Chief Red Crow. Scalped is like Donnie Brasco meets Incident at Oglala. Bad Horse’s mother was an activist in the mold of A.I.M. (the American Indian Movement). Gina Bad Horse and Red Crow were lovers who along with their group of radicals are involved in the killing of two FBI agents. Aaron fictionalizes the events surrounding the killing of two agents on Pine Ridge reservation in 1975. Leonard Peltier was convicted for those murders but many questions surround his case. Peltier even mirrored Sitting Bull’s move to Canada before being extradited for trial. Scalped has a Peltier stand-in later in the series.
Like the best of serial television (The Sopranos, Deadwood etc.), Scalped slowly builds a multi-character story of a place. All the characters occupy a morally ambiguous territory, but we end up rooting for them anyway. R.M. Guera’s drawings have the grit and dirt suited to the storylines. His characters live and breathe. When occasionally another artist takes up the story, it’s a little disappointing. It’s like having James Gandolfini’s understudy play Tony Soprano for an episode. Scalped allows the history of the Sioux to bubble up into the present of the characters. In one issue, a three-page progression moves from the Little Bighorn battlefield and the death of Custer to Wounded Knee to 20th century consolidation to the present. Guera’s drawings and Aaron’s script condense the history in a way only comics do well and the condensation and distillation manifests the urgency of those wrongs in the character’s lives. A subterranean anger burns slow and smolders. Mass culture might ask us to forget and move on– “keep buying, keep shopping”– but history aches. There’s a real cinematic quality to Scalped that might seem it wants to be on the big (or small) screen. The storytelling is pure comics however; it exists in the space between the drawn characters and the written word. Like Deadwood, Scalped is a lesson in what the American character really is. It’s capitalism, brutal and blunt not sunny democracy that drives our stories.
The Indian problem then becomes one of story. The original name for reservations is agencies. How can the indigenous people have narrative agency- the agency to tell their story and live now? How do we have the agency to tell a multi-branched and contradictory national narrative that allows for coexistence? Redress and guilt are not particularly useful responses to such a horrific history. Guilt can be narcissistic. The world is global. Culture, even at its most local, is affected by international winds. The national story mentions the original tribes and then with a bit of creative erasure, lightens the dark spaces. They were here but now they’re gone. A recent article in the New York Times about the Denver Art Museum’s American Indian art galleries discusses the museum’s new policy of attribution. For the first time in the history of the collection, objects will be given a maker’s name. This trend is beginning to take hold. In the past, artifacts would be grouped according to geography or tribe. We deny Native Americans a place in the story of modern art even though their imagery is hugely influential. We deny individual Native American artists and writers a place in mainstream histories, arguing some cultural exceptionalism as a reason for a defined niche. In another recent Times review of the show Tipi: Heritage of the Plains at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Ken Johnson senses the old confusion. In looking at the mix of contemporary artists and craftsmen next to historic artifacts he says,
“The display suggests that there is no important difference between the old and the new. But how can that be so? The Plains Indian culture that gave rise to these kinds of objects was practically destroyed by the United States government’s campaign to clear land for settlement by white people over a century ago.”
In the 80’s and 90’s the rise of multiculturalism and politically correct nomenclature went a long way toward redressing public blind spots. Unfortunately, those same trends were easily co-opted by corporate linguists for amnesiac purposes. Political correctness, while well meaning (it’s tendency for finger wagging seems an extension of our Puritan past), scrubbed our language clean of honest idiosyncrasy. 9/11 gave us something else to focus on and fear. Who’s got time for a bunch of whiny Indians on the public tit when you’ve got sleeper cells in the neighborhood? But listen to the words of generals in the war on terror and read historic accounts of the Indian wars. You’ve got almost verbatim the same language; the same tactics and the same buried agendas. Listen to the racism of Tea Party rhetoric (by the way the Tea Party taking it’s name from whites who dressed as Indians to commit acts of vandalism, not unlike road agents in Deadwood who disguised their own murderous marauding as acts of Sioux aggression) and you will see that the story of the Sioux is the story of our nation. Until we can restore the full human agency of the original peoples and bring them into our larger narrative as equals, we have no agency. The whole thing needs to be told, and not as little side compartments off of the larger triumphal story. History is easy to think of as something behind us, a gone train missed. But that attitude renders the true contours of the present invisible. Why did Custer die on that day in 1876? He died from hubris. He died of blindness.