Monday, October 13, 2008

Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876. By Jerome A. Greene. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, May 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8061-3791-9, $34.95. 384 pages.
Review by Robert E. Meyer, DePaul University

In Stricken Field, author Jerome Greene faces the daunting task of producing an “administrative history” of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (as the dust jacket identifies this volume) that transcends the dull recounting of a bureaucracy implied by such a characterization. For the most part he succeeds, although not without considerable attention to the mundane. In Chapters 2 through 6, Greene dutifully chronicles developments in such matters as the electrical system, plumbing fixtures and dimensions of the caretaker’s quarters. These chapters tell the story of the battlefield from the first attempts to memorialize the site in the form of rough wooden markers where the bodies of the Seventh Cavalry troopers were found after their 1876 defeat, through the establishment of Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, under the control of the War Department until 1940, to the current administration of the site by the National Park Service.However, this workmanlike narrative is happily augmented by a wealth of fascinating tidbits, such as the fact that Gen. Philip Sheridan, who considered Custer his protégé, sent a detachment under his own brother, Lt. Col. Michael Sheridan, to the Little Bighorn in 1877 to remedy the scandalous condition of the graves dug immediately after the battle, which, due to the harsh Montana winter weather and the intervention of wild animals, no longer fully contained the corpses that had been committed to them. Also of interest are the references to participation of members of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow tribes at memorial observances, as in 1926 when former adversaries White Bull, a Lakota warrior, and General Edward S. Godfrey, one of Custer’s lieutenants in 1876, exchanged symbolic gifts, with White Bull receiving an American flag, and Godfrey coming away with “a prized wool blanket” (64). In this passage, Greene comments on the symbolism of the exchange, calling it a “none-too-subtle message . . . that the tribesmen, once demonstrably hostile to the government, were now acceptably subordinate to it” (64).Each of the last four chapters of the book contains its own separate chronology. Chapter 7, “National Park Service Interpretation” sets up the struggle to control the meaning of the memorial, with those favoring a celebration of American military exploits and sacrifice (and glorification of Custer) eventually giving way to a broader view. Chapter 8, “Research and Collections,” tells of how the collection of artifacts and documents at the Little Bighorn grew, while Chapter 9, “Support and Interest Groups,” deals primarily with the history of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association (CBHMA). Disputes between this group and the National Park Service reflect the conflicts associated with reassessment of the battle, as the CBHMA opposed the appointment first of Barbara Booher and then Gerard Baker, both Native Americans, to the position of superintendent, and objected to the sale of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (subtitled “An Indian History of the American West”) at the park’s bookstore.Throughout these sections, as in the book as a whole, Greene, a former Research Historian for the National Park Service, handles his material objectively and expertly. Extensive endnotes serve as evidence that Greene has studied not only the voluminous published literature, but has pored over letters, memos and other documents to piece together the fabric of his narrative. Occasionally, however, definitions of technical terms with which historians and archivists are no doubt familiar (e.g., “accession” and “interpretation”) are either delayed or completely omitted, leaving the uninitiated reader to grope for meaning.The emotional peak of this book—and it is a tribute to both to the material itself and to Greene’s treatment of it that such a phrase is appropriate—occurs in Chapter 10, “Indian Memorial,” with the account of the movement to have the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne dead honored at the Little Bighorn site, an effort which came to fruition with the dedication of a new memorial in 2003. Greene points out that, in 1925, a letter from Mrs. Thomas Beaverheart of the Northern Cheyenne requesting “that a marker be placed on the battlefield to indicate the spot where her father, Lame White Man, had fallen in battle” (170) received no response from the superintendent. Since this was during the period when the site was administered by the War Department, it is not surprising that attempts to honor those who defeated a regiment of the U.S. Army were unwelcome. Greene notes that, after the site came under the administration of the National Park Service, this “military perspective” (227) remained unchanged, at least to begin with, partly because the superintendent from 1941-1956, Edward S. Luce, was a former member of the Seventh Cavalry. Things changed gradually as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), most prominently Russell Means, prodded (sometimes harshly) the white establishment to a more inclusive vision. One important adjustment involved changing the name of the site from Custer Battlefield National Monument, a name that was offensive to those Native Americans who had pushed, in 1972, for a plaque honoring warriors who “opposed the hostile aggression of the United States government” (227), to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, its current name. As he does throughout this book, Greene explains the conflicting motivations of the interested parties in dispassionate terms. He departs from this measured approach only in the last paragraph of Chapter 10 when he offers the following opinion: “In the final analysis, the Indian Memorial is in the correct place at the correct time” (238).The Lakota and Cheyenne won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but lost the larger conflict of which it was a part. At the time, their victory was seen as an abomination, their defeat as the justified subjugation of a savage and anachronistic way of life. In the broadest sense, this volume serves as a reminder that it is necessary, though painful, to look at events of the past through a series of new lenses, and to recognize that the truths we embrace are sometimes honored at the expense of other, equally valuable truths.

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