Living with the ghosts of the Indian Wars

  • General George Custer at the Little Bighorn, June 1876

    Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library

I live in enemy territory. The problem is, I am the enemy. Montana’s Department of Commerce calls it "Custer Country": the southeastern region of the state, a million or so acres of sage-dotted grassland, juniper draws and hillside stands of ponderosa pine, stretching east from Billings to the Dakota border. My husband and I raise bison here, near Ekalaka.

This area was ground zero for the 19th-century Indian Wars. George Armstrong Custer was, of course, the cavalry officer whose foolhardiness led to the U.S. Army’s only significant defeat, by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. But "Custer Country" nonetheless attests that history is ultimately written, and the terrain mapped, by the winning side. The racism that fueled the Indian Wars is encoded in this landscape.

Many of our towns are named after the "heroes" who enforced the federal government’s war policy against Native Americans. Custer, Mont., is a nondescript town right off Interstate 94 just a few miles east of the turn-off for Sheridan, Wyo. General Philip Sheridan spearheaded the Indian Wars, and famously remarked that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

Terry, Mont., is named for Gen. Alfred Terry, who arrived at the Little Big Horn too late to help Custer, but pursued the Lakota warrior Sitting Bull and his people to the Canadian border. And Camp Crook, S.D., after Gen. George Crook, who forced the Apache chief Cochise to surrender. And Forsyth, Mont., after Col. James Forsyth, under whose command the Seventh Cavalry massacred 300 Oglala Lakotas, most of them women and children, at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Miles City, the largest town in southeastern Montana, commemorates Gen. Nelson Miles, who after Custer’s death took command of one-fourth of America’s standing army, and pitched all its strength against the Indians of the Plains and Southwest. The mastermind in carrying out the campaign to force Natives onto reservations and into prisons, often hundreds of miles from their original lands, Miles was indirectly responsible both for the death of Sitting Bull and for the Wounded Knee massacre. He exiled the Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo to Florida, and through a brutal winter campaign forced the surrender of the starving Nez Perce under Chief Joseph.

Miles City is the county seat of Custer County. Its main drag is named Garryowen Road, after the Seventh Cavalry’s regimental marching song.

Garryowen Road houses the regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. My husband and I have collaborated on conservation projects with a wildlife biologist who works there. He traces his ancestry to the Hidatsa and Mandan people, North Dakotan tribes linguistically related to the Lakota. Every day he drives to work, every time he has to give someone his business address, it provides an explicit reminder of the near-total genocide of his people. We asked him, not long ago, what he thought about that. "Obviously," he said, "I don’t like it. Some of my people get crazy about it, but I suppose my anger is more subdued."

The conversation was awkward on both sides. There we were, a white couple working with a Native American environmental specialist employed by the government that stripped his people of their land, to restore wildlife habitat that had flourished before Native hunting and foraging traditions were displaced by farming and ranching. And this, in a county where some of our neighbors still refer to Indians as "Prairie Afros" and call curly buffalo grass "nigger wool," and where the local paper ran an ad for part-time help that unblushingly asked for an "Indian" to do some menial chores.

Ironically, our community is one of the handful of non-reservation towns in Montana with Native-inspired names: Ekalaka, the grand-niece of the Oglala Chief Red Cloud and a relative of Sitting Bull, is described in tourist brochures as an "Indian princess" who married the first white settler in these parts.

Down the road from us, tribal leaders on the Northern Cheyenne reservation are working to restore Cheyenne names to places named by white settlers. For example, settlers named the town of Busby, in the western part of the reservation, after an early white store owner, but many tribal members know it as White River. The last several years have witnessed initiatives across the country to change obviously offensive place names, like "Nigger Mountain" and "Squaw Creek."

Such moves, like the elimination of racially insulting logos for sports teams, are surely laudable and necessary. But they are far from enough. They don’t get at the more subtle — but deeper and more pervasive — racism reflected in place names that tacitly celebrate the near-annihilation of a people and their culture.

Forget the romanticized image of the cavalry rushing in to save settlers from Native savagery. When Forsyth’s troops descended on the encampment at Wounded Knee, they attacked with wagon-mounted Hotchkiss guns, cannon-sized early versions of the machine gun, which could fire 50 two-pound explosive shells per minute. The bodies of some fleeing women and children were discovered as far as two miles from the camp. In his dual biography of George Crook and Geronimo, historian Peter Aleshire documents instances of babies "thrown into the bonfires of burning wickiups, or dashed against stones," and of soldiers who "cut off the private parts of women, and made purses of them."

This is our history, and it is one of savagery. It’s surely time to exorcise the ghosts of the 19th century Indian Wars, banishing them from the 21st century landscape. And the first ones to go should be those of the army of the West’s conquering "heroes."

Mary Zeiss Stange operates the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch with her husband, Doug, and teaches women’s and environmental studies and religion at Skidmore College in New York.

Feb 08, 2006 11:28 AM

This sort of thing can go too far. Most places I've lived [NY, Wisconsin, Illinois, Louisiana and Utah], Indian-derived names have been well represented on the maps, both as names of natural features and town and county names. And, like it or not, the military history of the western states is part of the nation's history and as such, seems a reasonable source of places names to me. Granted, naming a town for the perpetrator of Wounded Knee is pushing it. But I'm not convinced that Custer and Sheridan don't belong on the maps. Sheridan, for example, played a not ignoble role in the extermination of slavery and the preservation of the Union. However, certainly majority opinion ought to prevail on the matter of most community names. Provided a community wants a change, I'm all for it.

But there may be a hidden cost in sanitizing the maps too much. I was unaware that any names like "Nigger Creek" or "Squaw River" remained, but if a few do, it might be wise to leave them in place. Some years ago, a black woman in Atlanta wrote an interesting piece that appeared fairly widely in the public prints. She'd been talking to her just turned teen-aged children about some bit of civil rights news, and she told them that when she grew up, she was not, being black, permitted to eat lunch in downtown store caffeterias in Atlanta. Her children laughed at her, and refused to believe it. The idiocy of locking blacks out of downtown eateries convinced them that their mom was exaggerating.

Clearly, it's wonderful that they grew up in an Atlanta where they could not conceive of such discrimination in public places. But their mother was worried that they had lost... indeed had never had... any sense of what it had been like, what the struggle to end it had cost, and how much things had changed.

So maybe leaving a "Nigger Bill Draw" or a "Squaw Creek" or two on the maps is not a wholly unwise idea. Maybe leaving a reminder or two out there will keep alive in coming generations some sense of how it was, what ending it cost, and how far we have come. Certainly it will prompt folks, especially the young, to ask about such names when they see them. I would think. Hope.

Besides, if we insist that every name be ideologically squeeky clean with respect to our racial, ethnic, political and moral history, we would soon be left with nothing much more than "Sunnydales" all across the maps.

Jan 21, 2008 06:37 PM

The above is the most ignorant, biased and completely anti American racism one can find on the internet. If one replaced the names with noted Black leaders or Latino leaders, it would soon come to light how racist thee above is.

What is most amusing was the absolute lies about the Mandan and Hidatsa having their lands confiscated by the Federal government as a form of "genocide". If the writer had researched beyond her propaganda sources out of Hollywood, she would have soon found that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Ree were all in danger from the 1740's onwards, but not from white Americans, but from the same people who were making genocide a practice in wiping out the Pawnee in Nebraska. That would be the Sioux Indians. Migrants from Canada, into Minnesota and Iowa who poured out onto the great plains and were on a murderous rampage driving the Crow from their Black Hills and all Indians into encampments under siege.

The fact is the above Indians were at the verge of being wiped out and joined the white Americans against their genocidal enemies, the Sioux, for their own survival. If it were not for white people, vast portions of smaller Indian tribes would be no more.
It is detestable the way the Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan and Ree have been brainwashed with absolute lies when the historical facts prove different. "Experts" like this buffalo raiser only add to the anger Indians now are stewing in by thinking either white people harmed them or "their lands were taken". It was the Sioux who harmed them, was harming them and had stolen "their" lands.
If one wants to examine the REAL historical foundations of the area, the Mound Builders were the known originators in the area who have now disappeared. The forensic evidence reveals that peoples like the Mandan and Shoshone are actually a mix of Viking and the bloodlines of an obscure Japanese mountain people who immigrated into America. One can check PBS for shows about this.

The attacks on white Americans in this article are ridiculous. Blaming Nelson Miles for the murderous choices of Sitting Bull to Geronimo and their punishment is without merit. Mentioning that Nelson Miles alone was out chasing Indians in the winter is bogus. History notes it was the war chiefs of the Nez Pierce who started this against the good government of Chief Joseph. There is a reason the Nez Pierce refer to them as WAR CHIEFS as much as Sitting Bull was a HOSTILE.
Oh and for the record, the Nez Pierce attacked, raided and murdered Crow Indians on their "winter ride". It was only Nelson Miles advancing under orders from OO Howard who stopped the rapine for all.

I will not continue in ripping to shreds the above ignorance post as "fact" online. If this was Canada, what is printed by the HCN would be reported as hate speech as that is exactly what it was and is. I will though close with another shredding in "babies were thrown into bonfires of wikiups".

Shred 1: A wikiup is a willow shelter with skin or blanket upon it no more than 6 feet in diameter. It is more in the size of a small sweat lodge.

Shred 2: A "bonfire" of a wikiup would be a smoldering wool blanket with widely spaced willows which would not burn anything.

If these propagandists would try the lies they write about, it would soon become evident how distorted their "history" is.

Peter Aleshire "documenting" this is an absolute liar. 

It would be of great addition of people writing about America and Indians knew the facts from research instead of reading them from some dolt with a troubled heart. It would also help if the writer of the above had a command of the English language as Indians were savages, Americans were civilized by Christian morals, but at times of retribution for Indian savagery would resort to BARBARIC behavior.

Try reading Francis Parkman who actually is a historian and lived among the Sioux for FACTS.

I would request instead of HCN deleting this that they delete the nonsense of Ms. Stange and send her back to raising buffalo with a factual historical book as America does not need propaganda fanning the flames of hate.

Thank you