Opinion: Custer is a long-lasting symbol of racism in the West

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell, 1903. Image from Library of Congress

Writer Todd Wilkinson wonders whether the racially-motivated atrocities of George Armstrong Custer will be treated differently than the legacy of the Confederate flag:
Should Custer be celebrated as a hero of conquest or recast as the bigoted, egotistical, narcissistic villain he apparently was? Does he deserve to have his name attached to towns, counties, a state park and a national forest, or should his name, like the Confederate flag, be removed?

Travel anywhere in Western Indian Country, as I have done on assignment for a quarter-century, and you will find few names deemed more offensive to Native people.

We forget it wasn’t all that long ago that the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was called the Custer Battlefield by the National Park Service, which manages it.

Never mind that it represented one of the few times in human history when a battlefield got named after a military strategist who committed a catastrophic blunder. Only in the wake of many decades of simmering protest was the name changed and a monument built on the site to recognize the warriors who repelled attackers who were hell-bent on their slaughter.

Custer graduated last in his class of 34 cadets at West Point and, according to historians, racked up one of the worst records of personal conduct ever accumulated at the military academy. Vainglorious, prone to insubordination, insecure and craving attention, Custer got on the wrong side of President Ulysses Grant.

Before he fled West, hoping to pad his résumé with a few bloody triumphs over Indians, Custer had pursued a book deal in New York and contemplated seeking high elected office. Once in the West, he drifted from his post and finally went AWOL. He violated treaties forged in sacred trust between the U.S. government and indigenous tribes, and he led a ruthless attack on a Cheyenne village, killing several women and children.

Get the Story:
Todd Wilkinson: The West, like Dixie, has its own icons of racism (The Albuquerque Journal 7/17)

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