“Bloodshed at Little Bighorn”
The Johns Hopkins University Press
On a warm spring morning in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago to celebrate the remarkable technological and social successes triggered by Columbus to mark the 400th anniversary of his New World landing. Among the stirringly exotic and imaginative attractions presented was the immensely popular Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which managed to pull a formidable crowd despite a location just off the fairgrounds. This was due in no small part to Cody’s climactic re-creation of the Little Bighorn Massacre and Custer’s Last Stand. Playing on his mystique as last pioneer in the tradition of Columbus and authentic high plains scout, Cody presented a luridly entertaining festival that influenced both popular and academic understandings of the battle’s events and meaning for generations, an interpretation that still exercises a profound pull on imaginations today.
Rocky Mountain College history professor Tim Lehman’s High Plains Book Award finalist in the nonfiction category, “Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Destinies of Nations,” provides a detailed look at the battle that made legends of both Custer and Sitting Bull, while also maintaining a broader focus on the confrontations between distinct cultures that took place in the region over many decades. Lehman sifts through extensive scholarship to develop an interpretive lens that places the battle in its context of American neglect of diplomatic duties, aggression and, often, genocidal atrocities. More important, however, it is an attempt to understand the famous battle’s meaning through time and in the current context of an American consciousness still grappling with issues raised, as Lehman source Robert Kaplan provocatively suggested, in “a world in which mass infantry invasions are becoming politically and diplomatically prohibitive.” This has led, since Vietnam and in particular in the 10 years since 9/11, to skirmishes bringing us “back to the days of fighting Indians.”
Though the book’s summary of the battle itself is relatively short (less than 20 pages) and without a staggering degree of details into the abounding controversies surrounding Custer’s tactical mismanagement (which can be found in many other books), the key strength in Lehman’s brisk synopsis of the battle is his focus beyond Custer’s obvious personal shortcomings to highlight features of the battle that put it in a broader, more inclusive framework. Lehman carefully weaves together a large number of quotations and evidence from both sides of the fray and avoids sacrificing real psychological complexity for an easy understanding of individuals in the battle and through the turbulent years that followed. Sitting Bull’s transition from resistant chief to participant in Buffalo Bill Cody’s sensationalizing spectacle and creative brand of mythmaking is one example of how easy understandings can be resisted by facts.
“Bloodshed at Little Bighorn” is an engaging survey of the troubled relations between the American government (an influence primarily exercised through military confrontation) and plains tribes in the mid- to late 19th century and the significant failures by the American government to allow for multiculturalism on the frontier. The Battle of the Little Bighorn has become an important symbol, the understanding of which gauges our ability to bridge the gap that has existed between white American culture and the cultures of plains tribes, a gap that, while narrowing considerably in recent decades, continues to affect our region’s politics, social structures and sense of self.
Zach Duval is a 2010 graduate in history and English from Montana State University Billings, where he currently teaches composition.