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Know the West

Prejudice by degree


In “It’s time to end Custer worship,” (HCN, 8/3/15), writer Todd Wilkinson asks whether George Custer should “be celebrated as a hero of conquest or recast as the bigoted, egotistical, narcissistic villain he apparently was? Does he deserve to have his name attached to towns, counties, a state park and a national forest, or should his name, like the Confederate flag, be removed?”

There is a small and humorous counter to Custer’s memorialization. On the Crow Reservation, not far from the site of Custer’s demise, is the small town of Garryowen. “Garryowen” was the doomed cavalry’s marching song. Taking it as the name for a reservation town makes it a kind of a scalping.

Wilkinson suggests the totality of a historical personage should be brought into question because that person held prejudices that are unacceptable today. He quotes New York Times columnist David Brooks: “We should remove (Robert E.) Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.”

In coming to terms with our past, we have to acknowledge that views abhorrent today were often broadly accepted then. Mark Twain, in Roughing It, writes of his encounter with a Native tribe in the Great Basin: “We came across the wretchedest type of mankind we have ever seen … considerably inferior to all races of savages on our continent.” Twain was reflecting the biases of his times, and I doubt anyone would suggest we reject his writings.

Historical personages are products of their times. We are rightly proud of our advances, but prejudices remain deeply entrenched in our society. We differ from the time of Custer, Lee and Twain by degree, not by kind.

Richard LeBlond
Richlands, North Carolina