For the record (Tuesday, November 14, 1995): James Welch will read from his novel “Killing Custer” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Auntie’s. Also, the Battle of the Little Bighorn occurred on June 25, 1876. The reading time and battle date were incorrect in a Monday IN Life story.
It’s an enduring image: George Armstrong Custer, his long blond locks flowing in the wind, standing tall on a ridge above Little Big Horn, firing his pistols as a mass of screaming Indians closes in on him and his few remaining men.
The United States of 1876, caught up in a serious economic depression, took that image to heart and made it a part of American history.
And to generations of American schoolchildren, Custer’s Last Stand has taken its place alongside a few other notable rallying cries, including the Battle of the Alamo, the sinking of the Maine and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lost in this single-minded look at history is the fact that Custer and his men were not the only participants in the battle. And while no one among Custer’s immediate command survived, hundreds of witnesses to his final hours did.
It is those voices, the various chiefs and braves of the Sioux and Cheyenne bands who had been attacked that hot July day, that James Welch gives voice to in his nonfiction book “Killing Custer: The Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians.”
Welch, a critically acclaimed Missoula author who will read from “Killing Custer” at Auntie’s Bookstore on Wednesday, is mostly a writer of fiction. From “Fools Crow” to “The Indian Lawyer,” Welch has used his creative powers to explore his own Indian ancestry.
Still, he was unprepared when documentary filmmaker Paul Stekler called him one day in 1990 and suggested that they collaborate on a movie that would tell the story of the Custer battle from the Indian point of view.
Nearly two years later, on Nov. 25, 1992, “Last Stand at Little Bighorn” was shown as part of Public Television’s “American Experience” program.
Then Welch’s job began in earnest. Shuffling through piles of documents, he began putting together what would eventually become “Killing Custer.”
Some of those documents were the standard source works, the hundreds of historical books, as-told-to accounts and biographies of the times. Others were the less-attended eye-witness stories of the Indians who took part in the attack.
As Welch points out, the Indian point of view has only recently been given any real credibility. Part of the reason for this delay, he says, was simple racism: Many Americans, especially the white Westerners of the late 19th century, didn’t want to listen to those whom they considered to be bloodthirsty savages.
Even among non-racists, though, there were reasons to question the Indians’ accounts, Welch says.
“One, I think the translators were very bad,” he says. “So what the Indians said got mistranslated and the historian or reporter or whoever then wrote it in a distorted way.”
For their part, the Indians themselves had a reason to fudge on the truth.
“Right after the battle, the Indian people were very nervous,” Welch says. “In fact, they were downright frightened about what was to become of them. And so, in essence, a lot of them told the white reporters and historians pretty much what they wanted to hear.”
And what they wanted to hear was that Custer and his men fought bravely, and that Yellow Hair “was the most heroic of them all.”
The indicators, buoyed by recent archaeological study, indicate otherwise. There is no doubt that acts of individual bravery occurred, but evidence exists to show that Custer’s tactics were ill-advised (if not idiotic), his refusal to believe his own Indian scouts bordered on the criminal and, in the face of an overwhelming Indian force, the final, short-lived battle was little more than a panicky attempt to flee from certain death.
Yet the press of the time published stories that were equal parts lies and wishful thinking.
“The press really reflected the mood of the country,” Welch says. “It was almost like they took their cues from what was going on in the country, and at that time it was the Exposition year in Philadelphia, the 100th anniversary of this country, and they had technological wonders there.”
Amid this sense of national pride, which contrasted the severe economic downturn, came word of this “stunning defeat of the most modern army in the world by a bunch of savages out on the plains. This stunned America, and they acted out in rage.”
Welch, being an Indian himself, could be accused of pushing his own agenda and thereby coloring history with his own interpretation. But a reading of his past works, in which Indians are treated as human beings with a full menu of virtues and faults, contradicts this contention.
“That’s really the most important thing in anything that I’ve written about Indian people,” Welch says. “You slight them if you portray only one side of them, as bloodthirsty savages or as noble people who lived in harmony with nature and each other and so on. Really, some people were good and some people were bad and most people fell somewhere in between. And it’s this point that I’m trying to get across.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: James Welch will read from his book on Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at Auntie’s.