Reviving Custer: Re-enactment and revision at the Little Bighorn

by Sierra Crane-Murdoch

Rick Williams always bore an uncanny likeness to George Armstrong Custer. It was the nose, beakish and narrow, and the plush, platinum mustache. This was fortunate for a Civil War re-enactor. One day in 2002, a tailor outfitted Williams in a red tie and Union general's coat. "It was scary," he recalls. "Everyone was saying, 'Oh, my God, you look just like him.' "

It would take more than physical resemblance to make Williams the nation's most sought-after Custer impersonator. He had never been much of a student, but now he read all he could about the man. He took particular interest in the Civil War years, during which the 23-year-old Custer became one of the youngest brevet major generals in the Army and, after winning several battles, made the cover of Harper's Weekly twice. Williams became so well versed on Custer that, when invited to speak on the subject, he went without notes. Sometimes, his audience addressed him as though he were the officer himself. He took pride in this; he had come to think of Custer as a hero.

But Custer is a complicated character. Most Americans remember him for the battle that he lost, when on June 25, 1876, during a federal campaign to force Indians back onto reservations, thousands of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors overcame the 7th Calvary, killing every last U.S. soldier. The Battle of the Little Bighorn immortalized Custer. Historians wondered how he had lost so badly; Hollywood loved that he died cinematically. Indeed, it was not the loss that clouded his reputation but the slaughter that preceded and followed it. After the battle, the government pursued Indian eradication even more vehemently. Custer became a symbol of racism and Manifest Destiny, and whether he had believed in the mission or was a puppet of policy mattered little amid the horrors of which his story was a part.

Williams seldom thought about these things until 2007, when the Hardin, Mont., Chamber of Commerce hired him to play Custer in its annual re-enactment of the battle. "Their main concern was that I could stay on a horse," he recalls. Arriving in Hardin was like "walking into a dark room": He sensed his role was more serious this time, but couldn't make out why. When he parked his truck in the Chamber lot, a Native American man pulled up beside him. "You must be the new Custer we're going to kill," the man said.

This June, in an army-green trailer on a dusty lot four miles west of Hardin, Williams dressed for battle: white duck pants, a red necktie, a fireman's shirt, and a belt into which he tucked a pair of gloves. "Custer wasn't wearing this when he died, but everyone loves seeing me in it," he explained as he pulled on an elk-skin jacket. "We want to be accurate, but we also have to play to what the public expects."

Williams is quick to point out where he and Custer align: Both were soldiers and teachers. Williams' friends often call him by Custer's moniker, "Autie." His living room in Delaware, Ohio, is cluttered with Western memorabilia, as though to remind him that he is not living another's life but acting it out. Still, he says, there have been times when "Rick ceased to exist" -- when he was one person, not two, and that person was George.

During his first performance in Hardin, he says, "We went thundering across the field, and all these Indian warriors rose up. Being killed never really got to me. Now I was like, 'I don't believe I'm doing this.' Then I'm on the ground. I open my eyes, and there was this huge warrior standing over me screaming this victory scream." Williams couldn't take his eyes off the man. "That's when it becomes so real that you lose yourself for a moment."

William's favorite sport used to be skydiving. Then, in 1995, he saw his first mock battle. Re-enacting delivered the same thrill and lasted much longer. Only later did he come to think of it as a way to remember the past, honor those who died, and learn from their mistakes. When asked about those mistakes, he hesitated. Then he said, "This was a time of tough people going out over a vast new land and making it their own. Unfortunately, that meant taking it away from the ones who already had it. I've had Native American women hand me their babies and take pictures, and then there are people who won't look at me at all."

On May 30, 2010, at the Veterans Administration's Patriot Freedom Festival in Dayton, Ohio, Williams, dressed as Custer, walked into a powwow circle at the invitation of an organizer. A week later, a protest erupted at the VA. Its leader, Hunkpapa Lakota Guy Jones, told Indian Country Today that Williams had committed a hate crime. "Would you take a Hitler impersonator to a synagogue? Would you take a KKK member to an African-American church?"

Williams -- uncertain just why he had incited such anger -- agreed to an interview with ICT:

ICT: For some, Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn are "history" -- long ago and thrilling. … Others recall family members, including women and children, who died there. Is there a terrible mismatch in these re-enactments?

RW: I've met people who are comfortable with the past and those who are not. I've never met anyone who lost family at Little Big Horn. … I hope to meet them, and I hope the meeting ends with a handshake. … I meant no disrespect.

That summer, in Billings, Mont., a man pounded on Williams' car window. "Custer, you killed my people!" the man screamed. Williams, frightened, drove away.

If even our most regrettable histories demand remembrance, then how should we remember them? And had Custer won at the Little Bighorn, would we celebrate at all? On the battle's 10th anniversary, infantrymen and Cheyenne and Sioux leaders gathered to fire salutes and engage in mock skirmishes. On the 25th, members of the Crow Tribe, dressed as Sioux warriors, staged a battle with the Montana National Guard. On the 55th, 50,000 visitors attended, and by the 1960s the event had become a regular occasion. The fact that white people had lost made the battle easy to commemorate. The Saturday Evening Post reported that "nothing has brought the white citizens of (Hardin) and the Indians of the neighboring Crow reservation closer together than a full-scale re-enactment of the worst licking the Indians ever gave us."

The problem with seeing the re-enactment as a kind of reconciliation was that the Crow, who have long been at odds with the Sioux, organized it. A Crow tribal historian and descendant of a Custer scout wrote the script, which, despite its expansive coverage of Western history, largely circumvents the Sioux story. In 1874, the federal government reneged on its promise to protect the Great Sioux Reservation from white settlement. Custer, on an expedition into the Black Hills, reported that he had found gold, and prospectors rushed onto Sioux land. Instead of expelling the settlers, the government offered to purchase the Black Hills. The Sioux refused. Two months after its loss at the Little Bighorn, the U.S. annexed the Black Hills anyway. That year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote to Congress, "Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children's children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice."

From the bandstand, the re-enactors were the size of toy soldiers. Williams appeared on horseback over a far hill and descended onto the field. As the Indians attacked, he dismounted, shooting in various directions until Sitting Bull clubbed him from behind. Williams dropped to the ground. He rose once more before he fell again and lay still. "We -- red man and white man -- live in a united fortress of democracy," boomed a voice from the grandstand. The audience cheered. "Want to get your picture with that Indian?" a father asked his son, pointing at Sitting Bull, but the boy was too shy.

Later, Sitting Bull drank a beer in the back of his pickup. His name was Jim Rowland. A Cherokee by birth, he had been adopted by the Northern Cheyenne. This was his 16th year at the re-enactment. "It's a good feeling," he said. "People come out and they get to hear the Indian point of view." He laughed, sipped his beer. Then he said, "It makes me sad, because it was a win, but it also was a great loss. They decided they were going to put us back on the reservation, and they got the job done."

Williams rinsed his face in a sink propped against the trailer. He would repack his revolver with gunpowder and Cream of Wheat, and die twice more before heading home. Did he ever tire of being Custer? "No," he said. "If I got sick of Custer, I'd be sick of myself." In the beating sun, two dust-covered boys played chase with plastic guns. "I get one kid fired up about this," said Williams, "and I feel like I've done something. We want to embrace history, not fear it or hate it. That's all I'm trying to do."

© High Country News