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

Page 2

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 Classifieds