‘Custer’ responds to Veterans Administration powwow controversy
By Stephanie Woodard
RW: I’ve thought long and hard. I’m sorry I had to learn about this in anger. Every year, before the re-enactment at Hardin, I stand before Dr. Joe Medicine Crow, a member of the Crow Nation, a historian and the grandson of one of the six Crow scouts who rode with Custer. He sings a song to me and to the figure that I represent. The words, translated from Crow, include, ‘I fought Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn. Look at me. Remember me always.’ It’s neither a positive nor a negative, but it is the greatest honor of my life. ‘Remember’ is the important word. It reminds me that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. People have to relax a little and embrace history, which we can’t change.
ICT: In the article on the Dayton powwow, Custer was described as a symbol of genocide. Is that something anyone can relax about?
RW: Custer was also a soldier, and he took orders. President Grant set Indian policy and was ultimately responsible.
ICT: Is that like Nazi concentration-camp guards saying, ‘I was just following orders?’
RW: You have to look at where Custer was in the ladder of command. He was a tool of Grant’s policy, though he did have sympathies for Indians and jeopardized his career by testifying in Washington that officials, including Grant’s brother, were implicated in defrauding Indians on reservations. My research says he’s not an Indian-hater.
ICT: Do his interactions with Native people support that notion?
RW: I’m the first to say Custer made several blunders. Attacking Black Kettle’s peaceful band on the Washita River was a god-awful fiasco, not a victory. Custer promoted his own good, whomever he was fighting. There was a great deal of callousness in his personality.
ICT: For some, Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn are ‘history’–long ago, far away and thrilling. The Big Horn Days Web site (custerslaststand.org) refers to ‘fabulous fun for the whole family.’ 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. After the Dayton powwow, I heard of this for the first time. I hope to meet them, and I hope the meeting ends with a handshake. I’m not indifferent to the sad history of the United States and the Indian nations.
ICT: Are you returning to the Dayton powwow next year?
RW: I’ve been invited, but I’m staying away from the Indian camp. It’s not worth the controversy. I did not intend nor did I anticipate [what happened] when I walked into that circle. I meant no disrespect to anyone.
Williams doesn't seem to understand the difference between a re-enactment and a powwow. One is about historical accuracy and the other is about respecting Indians. Getting approval for one doesn't give you approval for the other.
Williams is also downplaying Custer's crimes. I don't think Grant ordered him to kill the Indians at Washita and Little Bighorn. Custer carried out those acts on his own.
Bottom line is that Williams must be naive if he thought the Indians would welcome him to the powwow. He claims he knows history, but he doesn't seem to know it from the Native perspective. Maybe he needs to play an Indian role in one of his re-enactments.
At least he learned from the experience and won't make the same mistake twice. That's something to be grateful for.
For more on Custer, see Why No Wounded Knee Monument? and Custer Country in Montana.