On this day in 1876 was the Battle of the Greasy Grass, or as the losers call it, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or sometimes just Custer’s Last Stand. It was part of the Great Sioux War of 1876. And what was that? Well, it was the usual: previous treaties between the United States and the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne had designated boundaries of their territory. But gold was found and so the Americans came to take over the land because, well, they wanted it and the tribespeople didn’t matter.
Even though they won that battle, they lost the war. There was never any question of that. It would be as if Rhode Island went to war with the rest of the United States. Similarly, when the Confederacy went to war with the United States, it was doomed from the start. In fact, it is something of a miracle that the Civil War lasted as long as it did. As Rhett Butler said in Gone With the Wind, “There’s not a cannon factory in the whole south… I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen… I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we; they’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines, and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” Just as the south had no chance, the native tribes had no chance, other than that the Americans would treat them civilly — so it was a lost cause.
The end result of the war was the annexation of the Sioux land and the shipping off of the natives to concentration camps — popularly known as “Indian reservations.” People talk about slavery being America’s original sin, but I would contest that. From the first meetings of Europeans with native Americans, we’ve seen that superior firepower and resources do not imply superior behavior or civilization. But I’m not evolved enough not to take a certain amount of pleasure in George Armstrong Custer getting himself killed. Although he took a lot of people with him. And in the end, I don’t mean to blame him for a centuries long campaign against indigenous people — a campaign that continues to this day.
We mark this day 139 years ago when Custer blew it, as part of an evil war, as part of a longstanding American policy based upon racism and hubris.