February 08, 2008

Curtis and Custer the coward?

I recently rewatched Little Bighorn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer's Last Stand, a two-hour documentary on the History Channel. I was struck by the connection between Custer, Curtis, and Roosevelt, three important figures in turn-of-the-19th-century Indian history.

Custer’s fieldWhen photographer Edward S. Curtis visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1907, three of the Crow Indians who served as scouts for Colonel Custer accompanied him (above). In all, six Crow scouts had guided the Seventh Cavalry to the Little Bighorn River. Two of them, White Swan and Half Yellow Face, went into battle with Major Marcus A. Reno when he crossed the river and attacked the Indian village on the western side. The other four were with Custer’s battalion until shortly before he engaged the Sioux and Cheyenne on the eastern side. One of them, Curley, became well known after the battle. Word spread that he was the only survivor of Custer’s ill-fated command, a claim he never actually made, and he was photographed and interviewed repeatedly. Curley’s fellow Custer scouts—White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin—received scant attention until Curtis invited them to show him around the field and tell him about the battle.

The three scouts’ narrative differed sharply from the accepted story, most markedly in their assertion that Custer had paused for 45 minutes on a high point on the bluffs, where he watched Reno’s defeat and declined to go to the major’s aid. Troubled by this account, Curtis consulted with President Theodore Roosevelt, who advised him not to print it. Curtis agreed and published instead a vague description of the fight, a confusingly marked map, and a few photographs, attracting little attention.
Custer’s Crow ScoutsThe Scouts told Curtis that it looked to them like Reno needed help and quickly. At this point Reno was doing o.k. He was holding his own and taking few casualties. It will be remembered that after Reno’s scout is killed by a shot to the head that splattered brain matter all over Reno’s face Reno sounds a disorganized and hasty retreat that costs him many men. To the Scout’s thinking Custer should ride down there immediately and support Reno. “White Man Runs Him” became agitated and went up to Custer and told him that this is what Custer should do. “White Man Runs Him” relayed the exchange between him and Custer this way:

[White Man Runs Him] “I said, ‘Why don’t you cross the river and fight too?’ I scolded him. Custer replied ‘It is early yet and plenty of time. Let them fight. Our turn will come.’”
Comment:  Interesting that Curtis tried to report the true story of Little Bighorn. That makes up for any flaws in his photos.

Why exactly did Roosevelt turn him down? According to the documentary, he didn't want to sully the memory of the "legitimate heroes of American history." In other words, he didn't want to harm his imperialist philosophy of white supremacy and manifest destiny.

Note:  Some people say the scouts misremembered the events 26 years after the fact. That it couldn't have happened the way they said. I don't know enough about Little Bighorn to verify this.

1 comment:

Doug Higgins SR. said...

As I remember reading Custer wanted Reno to attack and engage the Indians so what if he did observe the Reno fight it was what he had ordered and I hardly believe an Indian scout scolded Custer and was still allowed to remain with the 7th but even if it were true no big deal Custer wanted the diversion to cover his rear action. Reno just did a lousy job on his attack and hasty retreat that cost the lives of many of his men