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.

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