Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Custer, Stone Forehead, and the Peace Pipe Ashes

"The only good Indian is a dead Indian,"  -General Philip Henry Sheridan

"The army is the Indian's best friend."  -George Armstrong Custer

Invariably, someone will pose the question to you:  Would you rather be loved or feared?  Lives are led depending upon this response.  Yet if the question were:  Would you rather be remembered or forgotten?  The legacy of a life's focus shifts.  We live in a celebrity culture and 'Any publicity is good publicity,' but what if we are only remembered for our misdeeds, blunders, and cruelty?  Now we are in the heart of history, for this is the story of the American West.
(U.S. Cavalry Uniforms, Little Big Horn Museum)

History is karmic justice for George Armstrong Custer.  He is center stage, his name in lights. Not many Americans can claim an entire shelf in the library devoted to their combined heroic martyrdom and epic tactical foolishness.  Born in 1839 and raised in Michigan and Ohio, Custer graduated from West Point in 1857, last of his class, but rose in prominence and reputation during the Civil War as a highly effective cavalry commander due to his instinctual ability to send soldiers into imminent peril and death.  He was at both Bull Run and Appomattox and after the war, he gained legendary status as an Indian fighter as leader of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.
(Indian Traditional Clothes, Little Big Horn Museum)

The Indian Wars were brutal:  

1838:  Trail of Tears:  Mass removal of Cherokees marching westward to new lands in present-day Oklahoma.

1864:  Sand Creek Massacre:  Colonel John Chivington slaughters over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho (mostly women and children) in the Colorado Territory.

1865:  Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors raid and burn the town of Julesburg, Colorado in retaliation for Sand Creek.

Into this madness rides George Armstrong Custer.
(Indian War Bonnet, Little Big Horn Museum)

One of the most famous Custer stories is that of Stone Forehead and the Peace Pipe Ashes.  On November 27, 1867, Custer led the 7th on a surprise dawn attack against Chief Black Kettle and the Cheyenne in what later would be called the Battle of Washita River, reportedly killing 103 warriors, women, and children, and shooting 875 Indian ponies.  Later, marching into the decimated Indian camp, Custer dictated terms of surrender with surviving Chief Stone Forehead.
(At the Little Big Horn museum... Rebekah tries on some cavalry gear.)

As the story goes, Stone Forehead put ink to paper, signing the treaty and offering the peace pipe to Custer saying that if Yellow Hair should ever break this promise of peace, he would turn to dust.  Custer refused the pipe, so Stone Forehead dumped the ashes onto Custer's boots in a symbolic gesture lost on the ambitious soldier.  Eight years later, according to Native American lore, as Custer's body lay riddled with arrow piercings and bullet holes in the bloody grass of Little Big Horn, the Indian women who survived Sand Creek and Washita, and remembered Stone Forehead's warning, sewed awl into each of Custer's ears, saying they hoped he would be a better listener in the afterlife.  

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