Still fighting that old losing battle

December 7, 2007

On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 United States Seventh Cavalry troopers met their deaths at the hands of a combined force of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians near the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana. Since then, the "boy general", as he was dubbed during his glory days in America's Civil War, has been celebrated as a hero of Manifest Destiny or excoriated as an agent of genocide in numerous books, pageants, plays, films and television programmes.

Adding to the huge array of what Michael Elliott dubs "Custerology" requires the strong justification of a new perspective. Elliott seems to have one, writing a book that "tries to make sense of the locations in contemporary life in the US where Custer continues to be taken quite seriously". This sense-making involves a tour of the key sites of Custer/Native American commemoration: the Little Bighorn and Washita battlefields and environs; Custer's Michigan hometown; the Black Hills of Dakota sacred to the Lakota people. Elliott visits monuments and museums, talks to Custer fans and Native Americans and attends not one but two re- enactments of the fatal battle. There's much to commend here, particularly Elliott's arguments for reconfiguring our understanding of the Indian Wars from an inevitable "clash of cultures" to a political conflict between nations (the various Indian tribes on the one hand and the US on the other) fighting over land rights.

But Elliott's sins of commission and omission detract from the book's stated central purpose of delineating the meanings of Custer. Elliott asserts that he doesn't want to rehash the vast Custer literature, but great chunks of his book consist of potted histories and potted biographies. These historical accounts might have been justified had Elliott drawn a consistent line through the intervening decades between the historical events and now, accounting for the gradual changes in perspective as he went. Instead, he frequently jumps from past to present as if the connections do not need to be carefully drawn.

More serious are the sins of omission. While referring frequently to Custer films such as They Died with Their Boots on and Little Big Man , Elliott downplays the moving image's importance in shaping perceptions of Custer and of Native Americans. Hundreds of thousands of visitors may have trekked across the battlefields and through the museums, but millions of viewers have watched the myriad big and small-screen representations of Custer and his battle. Fiction, too, gets short shrift.

Elliott's inconsistent mode of address also causes problems, as his tone veers between academic monograph and New Yorker essay. He is unwilling to leave academia completely behind him and ritually invokes the literature on public memory and public commemoration. Much of the subsequent evidence, however, is journalistic - anecdotes resulting from hanging out with Custer re-enactors and chatting with tourists after the battle re- enactments.

There are several potentially good books in Custerology , but none of them has managed to emerge. The version that has may be of interest to Custer-philes; others should look elsewhere for an introduction to the subject.

Roberta Pearson is professor of film and television studies and director of the Institute of Film and Television Studies, Nottingham University. She has written several essays about the representation of Custer in film and television.

Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer

Author - Michael A. Elliott
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 352
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 9780226201467

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