Review The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: a lakota history by Joseph Marshall III, Penguin Books 2007, 245 pages
MOTIVATION for READING: Our book club selection for July! I’m sure I would not have read this if not for our club voting for it (I admit, I voted for it, too – it was the shortest!) but I did enjoy it.
WHAT’s it ABOUT: An historical account of the Battle at Little Bighorn, formerly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”, defending the actions and motivations of the victors (the Indians or Native Americans or the indigenous people – the author debates what ‘label’ to assign) as they were only fighting for their way of life.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, even in the interpretation of history, but there is also a duty to the whole truth of history.”
WHAT’s GOOD: I found the information fascinating and the author presenting the Lakota side of the story attempted a calm rational discussion of the Indian’s sad tale of being conquered by those Euro-Americans on their sweep west across their lands.
The book discusses that point in time as a pivot of his people’s history and explores not only the very first possible meeting of native people with Euro-Americans, but explores present day issues and how a culture attempts to continue to exist, and even hopes to survive.
WHAT’s NOT so GOOD: Well, it was a historical text, so some might consider it boring. I had hopes that it was a nonfiction narrative that read like a story, but alas, no. It seems to jump right into the scene, too, without much setup. (Like, um, what state are we in here? oh, it’s now Montana.) Each chapter was a different focus of the same single event and the cause and effect over centuries: impact to language, way of life, etc. I found some holes or ‘lacks’ – the text never once discussed the word ‘SOUIX’ and I had questions about who/what/why some were called Lakota, some Nakota, some Dakota, and then this word ‘Souix’ was never explained. Or I missed it? I was glad to see an extensive bibliography and index (except ‘Souix’ wasn’t there.)
THOUGHTS and then some… One reason we join bookclubs is to have the chance to read books we may never in a million years even know about, let alone read and enjoy. Perhaps my background of growing up in the Plains states of the ‘real’ Midwest (Ohio and Pennsylvania are not; I call anything east of the Mississippi River ‘EAST’) made me sympathetic to the discussion of these lands and the horrible devastation of the Buffalo. I’ve visited the Badlands and the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn. I was brought up to believe that Custer was an idiot. And it’s possible that ‘some’ in power at the time wanted him to confront the situation knowing that a win or loss in that particular situation would eventually be a win over time. A win of progress; it was inevitable?
“While the soldiers of the Seventh are heroes to mainstream Americans, they are remembered as despicable enemies to the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, a fact less often mentioned in the battle talks.”
I’ve already said that I was brought up to believe that Custer was foolish and stupid and amazingly dumb if he thought his 300 boys could conquer an enemy of over 1000, so I guess I can’t count myself as a ‘mainstream American’. I have to agree that the Indians had every right to protect and fight for what they believed in. It is so very sad that their way of life was eroded, encroached and stripped away from them. In this particular battle, the soldiers all died – the Indians ‘won’. But they sure did not win the war. History is full of stories of to-the-victors-go-the-spoils and in most cases, congratulations are never bestowed. War sucks. People die. Follow the money. If I was living in Massachusetts in 1876 and read the newspapers of the stories ‘out west’, I would probably have been horrified and sickened that ‘our boys’ were slaughtered. Of course, that assumes I was of Eur0pean descent,doesn’it it? Does it?
“People will continue to visit the site in the years and generations to come. Whether connected directly or not so directly to the event, most visitors will talk about the battle and all the various factors that are part of its story. And now and then, someone will say that the land itself is part of the story. It can be an emotional experience. Some will feel something emanate from the land itself.** Perhaps what we seem to sense is that no one knows the complete story of that long ago battle – except the land.”
Here’s the little ‘fun’ stuff of nonfiction where my review gets oddly personal:
1.) My great-grandfather was a missionary in Oklahoma Territory – I wish I knew more than that, and I’m not entirely sure I have that story correct! I think, they eventually settled in Indiana before my grandparents met and moved to a farm in Kansas. All that family history is sketchy, but I do have family members to consult if I want to know the truth.
2.) Once the Agency and/or Reservation systems were setup, the children of the Lakotas were stripped from their families and sent to The Carlisle Industrial School for Indians in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. How absolutely horrible! How very FAR AWAY!? They cut the kids hair and beat them if they spoke their native language in an attempt to make them ‘civilized’. Civilized behavior, my ass. Crap like this makes me ill. But, my point and why this is a ‘fun’ fact for me is I KNOW people in Carlisle PA and it’s always cool to come across something that I can identify with in some way. yippee.
3.) One of my very favorite things about reading this involves LANGUAGE and the very NEXT book I happened to read: Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel, page 26: “There is a word in the Dakota language, gender-specific and untranslatable, that expresses the specific loneliness of mothers whose children are absent.” SEE? a connection! a common unusual thread that links two totally unrelated books. cool, huh?!
Other interesting sites:
Official Website of Joseph C. Marshall III, National Park Service Archeology, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park, A Balanced Tour Experience? RoadsideAttraction discussion, the Official Montana Travel Site
I won’t be able to attend my book club discussion of this and I’m very bummed about that. I hope someone will agree to meet me for books&beer next week and tells me EVERYTHING that happens!!!