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The patriots who killed Custer

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-elliott25-2008jun25,0, 3134423.story The patriots who killed Custer Indians fought against the U.S., but
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 26, 2008
      http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-elliott25-2008jun25,0,
      3134423.story

      The patriots who killed Custer
      Indians fought against the U.S., but they also show great loyalty to the
      nation.

      By Michael A. Elliott
      June 25, 2008

      Today marks the anniversary of an iconic moment of American history:
      Custer's Last Stand, the culmination of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's
      disastrous attack on a coalition of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho
      Indians camped on the Little Bighorn River. Nearly every American knows the
      image: On a dusty, bloody hill, Custer and the final survivors of his
      battalion fight to the last against merciless hordes of Indians who press
      closer at every moment.

      What few Americans know is that the command of about 600 men Custer led
      into battle in 1876 included about 35 American Indians, mostly Arikaras but
      also six Crow and a few Santee Sioux. Some of the Indian scouts would die
      alongside the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. Others would ride away as the
      fighting began and spend the rest of their lives recounting what little
      they saw of the battle. What almost no one knows is that men from the same
      tribes that fought against Custer would, one year later, be riding
      alongside the U.S. Army as scouts in the campaign against the Nez Perce --
      or that the Indian scouts who served the Army in the 19th century became
      one of the precursors to the Army Special Forces, also known as Green
      Berets.

      This history means that patriotism is rarely simple in the Indian country
      of the American Plains. American Indian communities have some of the
      highest rates of enlistment in the U.S. military, yet their leaders also
      defend the principle of tribal sovereignty -- which holds that the tribes
      should enjoy political and economic autonomy. So at the same time that they
      are sending men and women to fight on behalf of the United States, many
      American Indian communities continue to claim their independence from it.

      At the site of the Little Bighorn battle in Montana, this contradiction
      becomes manifest on the anniversary of the battle. Indians from across the
      northern Plains come to celebrate the history of resistance to the United
      States, but they include color guards of Native American veterans, often in
      their service uniforms, carrying American flags.

      In this, America's season of intense patriotic display, those of us who are
      not Indians may be able to learn a few things about patriotism from the
      Little Bighorn celebration. The first is that American patriotism is not
      something that you simply have or do not. What that flag means to you will
      depend heavily on how you regard the history behind it.

      Consider this: The Lakota Sioux offered some of the most fierce resistance
      to the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, but in the decades that
      followed, Lakota artists regularly incorporated the design of the U.S. flag
      into their beadwork, painting and weaving. What those stars and stripes
      meant to the Lakota artists could vary widely: In their hands, the U.S.
      flag could be a gesture of their new allegiance, a plea for justice from
      the U.S., a symbol of the nation for which their young men were now
      fighting or simply a decorative motif they knew to be popular with
      collectors. It might have been all of these things at the same time.

      The other insight is that genuine patriotism can still take place amid
      divided loyalties. Americans are capable of more nuanced thinking about
      what it means to be an American than we usually give ourselves credit for.
      Non-Indians who attend celebrations like the Little Bighorn anniversary are
      often surprised by the exhibitions of U.S. patriotism. But for more than a
      century, American Indians on the Plains have understood that their love of
      country can contain both their struggles to achieve tribal autonomy and
      their deeply felt attachments to the United States.

      That is the kind of patriotism that was born at the Little Bighorn
      battlefield, and the kind that American Indian soldiers now take with them
      to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the kind of patriotism that is too big to
      fit on a lapel pin.

      Michael A. Elliott is the author of "Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of
      the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer."
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