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