The PBS series American Experience presented the 2nd installment in its “Wild West Month” with a profile of George Armstrong Custer on January 17th. This viewer, while familiar with the general historical narrative of Custer, was left with a deeper impression of the man following the PBS episode Custer’s Last Stand. That post-film impression is of an individual, that while brave and charismatic as a leader, was a self-absorbed careerist in serving the policy of US expansionism into the West.

The documentary framed Custer as a risk-taker throughout his life – this approach would serve him (and the Union forces) well at the important 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War as Custer led decisive cavalry charges. Yet one got the sense that Custer literally did not know what to do with himself when he was not involved in armed conflict – resistance by the Plains tribes to American expansion would give him a new arena for action in the late 1860s.

Though the episode states that Custer prided himself on his knowledge of Plains rituals and lifestyle, any recognition of Indigenous culture became subordinate to his role in the westward expanding Euro-American society. In 1868 Custer led his 7th Cavalry in attacking the Cheyenne along the Washita River (Oklahoma) as part of a wider US campaign.  That Cheyenne camp was primarily composed of women, children and the elderly.

Custer used the opportunity of an 1874 survey expedition into the Black Hills (South Dakota) to continue to build his name. Despite the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie – a treaty that legally recognized the Black Hills as Sioux territory in perpetuity – the US government sanctioned Custer’s foray into an area deemed sacred by the Sioux. Custer used the venture to publicize himself through the Eastern reporters that travelled with the party.  The discovery of gold during that 1874 trip would trigger a gold rush and an outright breaking of treaty by American miners and settlers.

By 1876, the US government was allowing Euro-American miners to enter the Sioux land of the Black Hills. In order to take further control of the Black Hills and end any Indigenous resistance to that effort, Custer was commissioned to push the remaining Plains groups from unceded traditional territory and onto reservations. Those Lakota and Arapaho groups that resisted acquiescing to the imposed US jurisdiction were deemed “hostile”. Within those operations, Custer’s force would encounter a massive gathering of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples under the guidance of the Lakota spiritual leader Sitting Bull and meet his demise at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (a river in present-day Montana) on June 25, 1876.

Custer’s wife, Libbie, would lead the process to mythologize her dead husband and make him a martyr for the process of US expansion into the Plains region.

The episode concluded with the reflection that Custer is now a myth that is reinterpreted with each generation. Thus, within Western film portrayals, he has symbolized a range of ideas. Errol Flynn’s Custer in They Died with Their Boots On (1941) represented  bravery in the World War Two era as the US  prepared to fight dictatorships in Europe. Custer then became a symbol of US imperialism in Little Big Man (1970) as Americans fought in Vietnam. For this viewer, however, a remaining important idea is that despite the incursions of Custer and the creation of Euro-American settlements in the territory of the Black Hills, as per the binding Treaty of Laramie, that region both legally and traditionally remains Sioux land.

Here is a “Behind-the-Scenes” clip from the Custer episode:

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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