First, I have to say that I have a bias — a bias against propagandist films and television shows that aim to make unequivocal heroes of men. As a child, I couldn’t understand what my father and grandfather saw in TV shows like “Combat” and “Wild Wild West” (local channels kept re-running the bloody shows). As an adult, I could not comprehend my father-in-law’s adulation of John Wayne and his films.
So I wasn’t too excited when someone — was it Alex or Speedy? — suggested that we try one episode of “The American West”. Who wants an updated version of “Wild Wild West” anyway? But we did try it anyway, and we got hooked. At last, an unbiased look at that period of American history when the white man committed genocide against the Native Americans.
“The American West” begins at the end of the Civil War. Former Confederate soldiers Jesse James and his brother, Frank, had just embark on a new career as robbers.
By the second episode, Ulysses Grant had succeeded Andrew Johnson as president. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began. In his second term as president, the Long Depression set in after the Panic of 1873 and many of the railroad companies went bankrupt. Then, gold was discovered in Black Hills.
To Grant, the Black Hills gold was the solution to the economic depression. There was only one problem. Just a few years earlier, in an effort to co-exist peacefully with the Native Americans, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. Under its terms, the Lakota people was guaranteed ownership of Black Hills which became off limits to white men. When gold prospectors started encroaching on Lakota territory, the natives assaulted them.
The government claimed that the natives violated the terms of the treaty. Of course, it was just a thinly-veiled attempt to legally renege on the government’s obligations under the Treaty of Fort Laramie considering that it was the white men (gold prospectors and lumbermen) who violated the treaty first. The government gave Black Hills to the the Native Americans when the territory looked like any other tract of land in the wilderness. But, once gold was discovered, it wanted Black Hills back. The Native Indians were given a deadline to cede the land to the U.S. government or be considered “hostile”.
Not many history books or essays tell the story like that. And that’s what makes “The American West” so interesting. It is not an assertion of the superiority of the white man. In fact, in many ways, it is an admission of wrongdoing and guilt. It is also brave storytelling when it comes to dispelling the hero status of men like General George Armstrong Custer.
General George Armstrong Custer was a hero of the Civil War. He was known for his flamboyant appearance and a penchant for inviting the press to witness and document the battles he fought. When the war ended, he entertained thoughts about becoming a congressman or an officer (a mercenary, really) in the army of Mexican President Benito Juárez who was still at war with the French. Despite his personal differences with President Grant, Custer managed to inveigle himself and was given command of the 7th Cavalry to invade Native American territory. In the Battle of Little Bighorn (famously known as “Custer’s Last Stand”), Custer’s forces suffered humiliating defeat. Custer was killed.
Until the 20th century, Custer was treated in history with reverence. He was considered a hero despite pronouncements of President Grant in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn that Custer brought death upon himself and his sacrifice of his troops was unnecessary. Custer’s heroic status was not surprising considering how historians and the press at the time led the public to believe that the Native Americans were the enemy that needed to be annihilated in order for peace to prosper. And Custer’s careful crafting of his public persona which his wife continued after his death helped elevate his name among the roster of American heroes.
“The American West” and its not-so-flattering view of Custer as a vain social climber who dreamed of becoming president comes after a long line of historians have dissected that part of American history, and decided that Custer was not the hero he had been made out to be.