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

  • Rick Williams impersonates George Armstrong Custer. Williams specializes in the controversial military leader's Civil War experiences, but some of his performances have raised the ire of Native American groups.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • George Armstrong Custer.

    Courtesy Library of Congress
  • Williams flinches from a "fatal" blow during a 2011 re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn near Hardin, Montana.

    Casey Page/Billings Gazette
 

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.

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