Monday, 25 June 2012

An Unlikely Birthday Guest and Remembering the Anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass

Today marks the 126th anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Once regarded as a supreme national tragedy by the white “settler” society in the United States, it is an event that has slid off the radar for that same society. If remembered at all, it is through the lens of old Western movies that trumpet about the glories of “Custer’s Last Stand.” Yet there is another group that commemorates this day and have not forgotten—the indigenous peoples whose ancestors fought in that battle and struggled to survive in its aftermath.

Last night, there was a very insightful and informative interview on this anniversary on Kansas City Public Radio, KKFI, with guests Chase Iron Eyes who founded the website and Marei Spaola commenting on the meaning of the battle—both in the historic past and its reverberations and meanings into the present day. This battle—The Battle of the Greasy Grass, Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn—occurred at a time that the United States government was trying to control the Black Hills of South Dakota, which only a few short years ago it had agreed was to be the land of the Great Sioux Nation” through the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. There was a concerted effort by the US government to force indigenous groups onto reservations, in a deliberate breach of this treaty. ( In 1980, after protracted litigation, the United States Supreme Court ruled the US government owed monetary damages to the Sioux Nation for breaching this treaty and taking the land in the case United States v Sioux Nation of Indians). As the speakers during the interview pointed out, the battle is not only about the events of that day, but of the breach of the treaty, stolen land and efforts to force assimilation of indigenous peoples—effects which continue in the present-day.

I have debated myself in my own thoughts about how and whether to blog on this day about the anniversary of this battle. Do I even have anything meaningful to contribute to what has already been masterfully said about this anniversary and its place in the collective memory of some and not in others? In the end, I have decided to give my own personal reflection on the anniversary.

I grew up sandwiched between two forts—Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. Both featured in the “Indian Wars” of the expansion of the United States. Fort Riley for a time was the home of the Seventh Cavalry, the unit that Custer headed in the Battle of the Greasy Grass. But those forts left little impression on me growing up—what did catch my attention was the horse that I often had as a “guest” at my birthday party.

As a child (and as an adult!) I was completely mad about horses. Anything at all to do with horses fascinated me, held my attention. Even if it was an old barn where horses had once been—that was hallowed ground. It did not matter so much if the horse was not living and breathing—certainly live ones were the best, but there was a particular horse that did not live and breathe that was the birthday party “guest.” This was the preserved remains of the horse, Comanche.

Comanche was on display at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History. Comanche had been the horse of Captain Myles Keogh, who was part of Custer’s regiment and was killed during the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Comanche was found, wounded, on the battlefield by the US Army a few days after the battle. He was billed as the “sole survivor” of “Custer’s Last Stand” and retired to Fort Riley as an iconic symbol of the “Indian Wars”. After his death, his remains were mounted and displayed at the University of Kansas. After a time, the exhibit around him grew to include the story of the indigenous peoples who were part of the battle, and Comanche was no longer billed as the sole survivor—because that of course, as romantic and tragic as it sounded, was incorrect. (This website indicates that the display has now been changed to remove that information, which is very disappointing indeed, but perhaps reflective of the airbrushing of the battle from white America’s collective memory)

Of course, when I first set eyes on the preserved Comanche, I had no idea of this history. All I saw before me was a horse. That captured my attention, and with frequent trips to the museum ( this was a treasured, favourite Sunday afternoon family outing) I learned about the battle, and the struggle for survival that surrounded it. I went home and voraciously read about that and more in Dee Brown’s book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

Because of the display and its information, which included a recounting of events from an indigenous view point, Comanche opened up a window to the past and to the present. As a child, I knew that the anniversary of the battle was June 25, because that day fell near my own birthday, and I always wanted to hold my birthday celebration at the museum, with Comanche as a “guest.” On that day, I would approach the glass case more reverently than usual, holding my breath and willing my child’s imagination to go back over time to that day, trying to imagine what the horse had seen and heard, the silent witness. I tried to imagine what it had been like on that day—and the days after, when Crazy Horse was murdered, and Sitting Bull fled to Canada.

It is hard now from the vantage point of adult hood to describe what those moments meant or how they burned themselves into my consciousness. Comanche for me was not a symbol of tragedy or triumph—he was a horse. But he was a gateway into an understanding of an event, of a time, of lots of time and events, that as interviewee Chase Iron Eyes said in the radio interview, also contribue to the shaping of the present day. Perhaps some of this is expressed in the famous William Faulker quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Comanche was a gateway into understanding the stolen land I stood upon, of the treaties broken and promises broken and lives shattered as the US trumpeted its Manifest Destiny. He was a gateway into learning about those events from the indigenous perspective as well as that of white America. And he stood for something else to me, somehow, this silent witness to the past and of the present— to me reflecting somehow the survival and resurgence of the indigenous peoples in the face of those events that were meant to annihilate and assimilate them.

It has been quite awhile since I have gone to see Comanche for my birthday. But I will have a chance again, when I will be home again in only a few more short days. And one of the things that I will do is step up to the glass case that surrounds him, close my eyes, and remember.

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