Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee- probably one of the most well-known of the Indian Wars, right up there with Custer’s Last Stand. Somehow I made it to my junior year of high school without ever really researching the Battle of Wounded Knee, but our literature assignment gave me perfect reason and opportunity to knuckle down and get that done. For the assignment, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, one of the most critically acclaimed accounts of “the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century.” (see back cover) After reading it, I think this is a pretty great summary of the book. It truly is a thorough, logical account of the Midwestern and Plains Indians, but it doesn’t lack emotion like so many nonfiction history books these days. I wept for Black Kettle, cheered for young Crazy Horse, shook my fist at Army General after Army General, and felt my soul drop into my shoes at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
One of my favorite details about Bury My Heart was that at the beginning of each chapter, Brown listed a sort of timeline for the rest of the world so that going in you would have an idea of what was happening around you. That helped me connect a lot of events and realize more fully how recent these tragic events are to our nation, which brought the facts home even more. Understanding that 1890 was only 126 years ago was huge for me- this was only what, three generations ago? My grandfather’s parents were probably alive then, and yet I know more about the Revolutionary War and the Black Plague than I do about the Indians’ fight for their homeland and battles like Wounded Knee.
Another thing I loved was the open perspective. Anymore, modern historical literature seems to be under the impression that the whole Western Expansion deal was good guys versus bad guys- and it wasn’t! Nothing is here. It wasn’t ‘angry white men murdering all the Indians for no reason,’ and it wasn’t ‘angry redskins murdering all the white men for no reason.’ Brown took a fair look at men like Custer and Red Cloud for who they were and what they did, not what various prejudices ask us to buy into. The fact is, Indians were just as mean as white men sometimes, and white men were just as innocent as Indians other times. It fascinated me how quickly the Indians learned cruel and disgusting ways of retaliation from the white men, which made me think about how much we teach others in everything we do. Even in war! The white men arrived and fought dirty with the Indians, hacking off their limbs and ravishing their women, and the Indians learned to do it right back the next time.
The book focused mainly on tribes like the Sioux and Cheyennes, the ones who fought a number of the major battles. Even at that, it was a little hard for me to follow which chief was from where and did what with whom, but if I focused hard and flipped back a few pages I could usually figure it out. Being unversed in nonfiction, I was worried about getting bored with just the facts, but Bury My Heart was so much more than just the facts. Brown takes facts and cites a billion sources in the back of the book, bracketing chapters with quotes and heartbreaking paragraphs from Indian lips, but in between he fills the pages with emotion and compels the reader to follow the brutal, tragic tales of tribe after tribe fighting for everything they had and losing anyway- losing everything they had and being sent to barren reservations with no food in drastic conditions. I don’t cry over books and I don’t really get into nonfiction well, but I literally could not put this one down. Brown makes their struggles become more relevant to me than the riots in North Carolina today.
The information is well-ordered, being strictly chronological and generally well-flowing. Brown took a wider focus with Bury My Heart; instead of zeroing in on just the Cheyenne or just the Sioux, he compiled all of their histories into one. This makes it easy to get a lot of information all at once, but that information is a little jumbled up at least in my own head. I know I’ve got a pretty hefty list of deeper research projects right now.
It’s hard to narrow down the book into a few paragraphs of ‘this is what it was about’ because truly, it was about so much. Bury My Heart is about the Indians’ war for their freedom, it’s about the white man and his arrogance at times, it’s a heart-wrenching story of a desperate people struggling to survive while the men in power run amuck over everything the Indians thought they could count on. It’s a story of failed interpretations and miscommunications, as demonstrated by the many treaties that were signed and then turned out to not mean what the chiefs thought they meant at all. It’s almost a picture of why democracy is so hard to pull off- the big centralized government back in Washington may have meant well for the Indians; at least, President Grant was certainly not out to annihilate them, but the government’s good intentions meant nothing to the rugged army generals whose first thoughts were to take out the Indians altogether.
Every chief or warrior comes alive on these pages, making it more than just a list of facts. There’s distinct dialogue between chiefs and generals, similar to a novel but this rings truer than that- this is more satisfying. This is my nation’s history, and it sure isn’t pretty but it’s what made us who we are today.
I’m left with a lot of questions after reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It’s a stellar book, it’s full of information and it’s beautiful to read, but it does something very few modern fiction authors know how to do anymore: it makes you think. Brown will tear your heart out as you watch Black Kettle fight for every inch he has, and ultimately lose everything- but he leaves you with no “this is what was right, this is who was wrong.” In some ways, that may be the best part. Instead of being a shove-it-down-your-throat-until-you-see-it-my-way kind of book, this is a these-are-the-facts-and-I
‘M-going-to-break-your-heart-with-them-but-what-you-do-with-it-is-up-to-you kind of a deal. That’s the kind of empowerment we need more of today; just giving people the honest facts and making them think about it without forcing an angle down their throats.
It took me about a week to read Bury My Heart, and it shouldn’t even have taken that long because I read about three hundred pages in one night. Riddled with cliffhangers and action scenes, the deadline wasn’t the only thing making it impossible for me to put this one down. History is getting so boring these days- people are forgetting how to teach it, but Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee surpassed my expectations of a history book. Instead of being slow and dry and factual, this book came alive and draws readers in by the heartstrings. It’s obvious that Brown cared a lot about his topic, just from the passion and emotion in the writing. If all history books were written like this, I’d wind up with a doctorate and a Ph.D in history.

All sources are from Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Dee Brown, copyright 1970.

Libbie Custer: Boots and Saddles

I’ve heard it said that behind every strong man is an even stronger woman. This may not be true in every case, and quite frankly, I’m not inclined to believe it’s true very consistently, either -- but the fact remains, in healthy, married life, much of the energy and well-being of one person is derived from the other half of the relationship. I see this in my parents and those around us, and it’s a joy to watch. And make no mistake, I know some pretty strong women. I could write for hours about my mother, or about the lady in my church who’s outlived three husbands and four heart attacks, or the woman next door who finally stopped doing weed and now runs an adorable little business.
But I’m not going to. These women are all strong, at least in the eyes of the twenty-first century. You want to see strong? Let’s take a look at Libbie Custer, wife of General George Armstrong Custer, first woman to travel with a division of the Army, and author of the first reliable history on the General, “Boots and Saddles.”
Going into her book, I was perfectly convinced that General Custer was a cruel, heartless man who deserved his death in the battle of Little Big Horn. About four pages in, I was a little less certain. Libbie begins her tales with her marriage to the General, barely introducing herself before diving into a delightful anecdote wherein the General learned he was to be deployed into the West, plopped Libbie on the dinner table, and proceeded to dance and holler with excitement. It’s obvious from the first few paragraphs just how much Libbie loved her general, and that love truly held out through the entire book -- throughout his entire life.
She reports that their honeymoon was interrupted by a summons to the West just after the wedding, which turned my stomach just a bit, but Libbie didn’t regard her own feelings. While I would have cried and probably been most upset, she joyfully packed up, skipped her honeymoon, and followed him out to the fort. Time after time, she proves how much she loves him as she follows him everywhere, into the depths of no-man’s-land, through multiple-day-blizzards in a shanty, from Fort Lincoln to the Dakotas and chest-deep in unexplored Indian territory. She leaves nothing out in regards to his courage, stamina, and heroism -- but surprisingly, she writes with little regard to her own emotions throughout their travels. She describes the harsh weather, the grueling travel, and the constant battle to be in control and not hinder the men. Libbie was fully aware that women had never traveled with army commands before, and she knew that, being a woman, she was regarded as weaker. But she was determined to keep those fears unfounded, consistently hiding tears or exhaustion or hunger, simply because she knew that she was expected to keep up with the men. At one point, she describes a time when the command was traveling and ran into a band of Indians that had potential to be savage, and Libbie knew right then that she could die. The men were instructed that whoever was watching out for Libbie was to kill her if the group was attacked. This would have spared her from a brutal murder at the hands of the “savages” and also made the men more free to fight, without having to worry about a woman on top of the Indians. Thankfully, Libbie lived, and kept her head even while knowing that if it came to blows, she would probably be the first fatality. She literally handled it all, without complaining or pitying herself, but always with respect and admiration for her general. This inspired and impressed me, and gave me a deeper understanding of just how weak we are today compared to women like Libbie.
Another thing that fascinated me was the way she referred to Custer himself. He was never “George” and very rarely “my husband,” but always “The General” or “General Custer.” She spoke of him very formally, which I understand was the social norm in those days, but the formality still struck me. It’s so obvious that she loved him, but she never called him sweetheart, baby, or hubby like we do today. She never even used his first name. That degree of respect is astonishing, and it’s beautiful to realize that she could show us just how much she adored him without ever saying his first name.
Her love for him was so fairy-tale ridiculous that I worried a bit at the beginning of Boots and Saddles. I worried that it would be a one-way street, that he wouldn’t reciprocate her love, that she was just an infatuated dreamer and he loved his military more than he could ever love her. The whole skipping-the-honeymoon-to-go-to-a-fort thing was really concerning to me. I also knew going in that Custer fathered a child by an Indian woman, which only added to my fears for Libbie.
But those fears were unfounded! She may have been fairy-tale ridiculously in love, but her general cared for her just as much as she did him. At one point, Custer was court-martialed for leaving his regiment to go visit his wife, just because he missed her. There were very few times when she didn’t travel with him, and when she didn’t it was because he feared for her safety (or possibly because he was working out his little affair? I’m not sure, but I’d definitely like to think of him as more gentlemanly than that.). Regardless, the Custers’ love for each other was by no means a one-way street.
Libbie was a beautiful writer, someone other writers today should aspire to equal. However beautiful her writing was, though, she remained rather intensely biased in regards to her husband. She adored him to the point of being unable to see or document any of his faults, for any reason. She backed him up and believed in him no matter what. While this made their love something incredible, it also skewed the American public’s view of George Armstrong Custer until forty or fifty years ago, when historians really started looking into who he was and what really happened at Little Bighorn. As a result, I had decided that Custer was a “bad guy” of the West way before I even heard of Libbie or considered reading her book.
Finishing the book left me with a pile of tissues, ragged nerves, and intensely conflicted opinions. I know that he led his entire regiment to their deaths because he was arrogant and cocky. I know that he straight-up hated Indians and made no bones about massacring them. I also know that he was the perfect gentleman to every woman in his camp. I also know that he adored his wife. I know that she portrayed him as the most beautiful human being to ever walk the face of the planet, and that she completely convinced me to fall head-over-heels for him.
So what’s my final opinion? I don’t have one. That’s uncomfortable for me, because I always have an opinion. I’ve been known to just ramble about a topic for eight minutes until I circle around and decide what my opinion is. But on this one, I’m going to have to sit out. I loved the book, I loved the way Libbie wrote, I loved learning about life on the Western frontier as an army wife, and I loved every detail she packed into that book. I adored it. I’m in the process of hunting down a copy for myself. If she was still alive, I would be chasing her down for an autographed copy.
But my opinion about Custer? Your guess is as good as mine. He’s like an extreme version of all of us. We all have good sides and bad sides, we all have reasons to be adored and reasons to be hated, we all do dumb things and brave things and kind things and mean things. Custer just took that to an outer extreme that most of us don’t reach, thank God.
I'll leave you with this: he was human, just as much as you or me. We can make him a hero for loving his wife and protecting her and fighting for his country and being a gentleman to his fellow American, or we can make him into a demon for massacring hundreds of Indians for the simple reason of hate. But at the end of the day, he's still just another human being. So who am I to call down judgement upon him?