By Richard West Sellars
One of the Service’s primary westward expansion parks, Fort Laramie dates from the 1830s and 1840s, when many promoted America’s conquest of the West as the nation’s “Manifest Destiny,” ordained by Providence. The fort is located along the Laramie River, near where it joins a much larger river, the North Platte—waters that flow through parts of a vast area known as the Northern Plains: high, open grasslands stretching from about northeastern Colorado and northwestern Kansas all the way into Canada.
And here I was, just out of graduate school, intent on a quiet scholarly career—when suddenly I found myself out on the Northern Plains, threatened by an Indian attack. It seemed strange that a high-profile, activist organization like AIM had targeted this isolated historic military post. I spent the day with distracted park staff, taking a close look at the fort’s historic buildings, parade ground and other features, while warily surveying the surrounding area, where serious trouble could suddenly appear.
Provoked by the long history of federal policies destructive of Indian rights, AIM had made its threat by phone the night before. The park’s defensive response was not without justification, as AIM had recently participated in the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. In the late summer of 1972, it had joined a coalition of Indian groups in an auto-caravan along The Trail of Broken Treaties, from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. There, only two months before threatening Fort Laramie, AIM led the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.
Earlier, it had confronted the National Park Service itself, demonstrating at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where it viewed the memorial’s fame gigantic, sculpted presidential heads as symbols of pernicious government policies, past and present. The government’s violation of agreements made at Fort Laramie in the late 1860s constituted a primary motive behind AIM’s protests.
But to me, these domestic spaces draw attention away from the military’s purpose in maintaining a base of operations near the Laramie and North Platte rivers, how it went about achieving that purpose, and the resulting impacts on Indian life and culture. Instead, they focus the visitors’ attention on the soldiers, their families, and domestic comforts at Fort Laramie. A little nostalgia may be all right, but it should not be the main course. But with restorations such as Old Bedlam and the captain’s and lieutenant colonel’s quarters, the National Park Service has transformed this once-abandoned fort into a showcase of domestic life at a Northern Plains military post.
Surely, though, beyond Park Service interpretation, it was the very existence of Fort Laramie that provoked AIM’s anger: the old fort, preserved and proudly displayed by yet another arm of the United States government—a reminder of broken treaties and the Indians’ disastrous loss of their traditional life-ways, tied closely to seasonal movement of the buffalo. But had AIM leaders actually shown up and bothered to take the ranger-led tour of the fort, they would have been even more irritated. As just one example, visitors who take the current tour that winds through the buildings, along the parade ground and past various interpretive signs will encounter comments about the army’s installation of birdbaths and indoor plumbing in the 1880s, but no mention is made of the army’s impact on Indian life-ways, on their tribal culture and independence. At the very least, AIM’s threats signaled that not every American was pleased with Fort Laramie. But was the National Park Service paying attention?
Apparently not. In 1987, roughly 14 years after AIM’s initial threat, the park completed its last, and one of its most ambitious, restoration and refurnishing efforts, affecting about half of the two-story, 273-foot-long enlisted men’s cavalry barracks. It is this structure that most symbolizes the military’s final, determined drive to subdue the Indians—in current lingo, its “shock and awe” against Northern Plains tribes. The army built the barracks in 1873-1874 to accommodate a hundred or more additional cavalrymen, thereby strengthening its mounted forces to strike the enemy: those Indians who refused to accept confinement on their reservation or abandonment of traditional hunting areas.
But what one sees today in the barracks, refurnished to its 1876 appearance, is mainly where the soldiers ate and slept. The south half of the barracks building is restored downstairs as a mess hall, kitchen, and related rooms—and upstairs as sleeping quarters (long dormitory bays) with about 50 reproduction nineteenth-century iron army bunks in precisely aligned rows that can be viewed through a clear Plexiglas barrier. At the foot of the bunks are wooden military footlockers, with overcoats and horse tack hanging on walls nearby, and rifles in “arms racks” close at hand. Except for historic army heating stoves, probably once used at the fort, all furnishings are modern reproductions. (The north half of the barracks building, where more cavalry troops were quartered, accommodates the park’s library, museum collections, and other functions.)
The ultimate purpose of the 1870s cavalry barracks—to house reinforcements for the final suppression of Northern Plains Indians to make way for white occupation—is only implied. Instead, the interpretation features the furnishings, in addition to commentary (and even a song) about unappetizing meals fed to the soldiers. Overall, the messages conveyed by Fort Laramie’s restored buildings, and most notably at the cavalry barracks, fall into the category of "American Innocence," in that they reveal no substantive connection with consequences of the army’s military actions on the plains. National innocence is a conceit with which AIM and most other Indians likely have never agreed.
You can almost feel the attempt to whitewash our collective responsibility. "Look at the noble Indian!" the stereotypical images seem to be saying. "Think how mighty and brave he was, not how we cheated and robbed him. Remember the good times and forget the bad. Otherwise we might have to do something about the problems we created, and we can't have that."
Of course, you should never threaten to burn down historic buildings. At least for philosophical reasons. AIM should've tried a long-term publicity campaign rather than a one-time threat. The threat apparently didn't change anything; it was so ineffectual that no one even remembers it.
For more on Indians and national parks, see Tribal Perspectives in Glacier Exhibit, Before There Were Parks, and Democracy in Burns's National Parks.
Below: "'Old Bedlam,' the officers quarters at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, has been beautifully restored, but how well does it interpret history?" (Kurt Repanshek)