George Armstrong Custer in the 21st century.
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Virtually every American knows that George Custer died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After all, Custer’s Last Stand is one of the most storied defeats in military history. But for a devoted band of Custer enthusiasts, George Custer lives on. Each June countless “Custerphiles” descend on the high plains of southern Montana to celebrate the anniversary of the battle, with conferences, debates, and of course, re-enactments on the agenda.
In “Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer” (Univ. of Chicago Press), Michael A. Elliott, professor of English at Emory University, explores the thriving subculture surrounding Custer, and examines why he remains such a compelling figure more than 130 years after his death. Failure spoke with Elliott about “Custerology” and his unique approach to an otherwise well-worn subject.
What separates “Custerology” from all the other books that have been written about Custer?
There are two differences. One is that I’m more interested in the way that Custer and the Indian wars figure in our contemporary moment. “Custerology” is not an account of the past. It’s an account of how the past is experienced today.
The other difference—and this has to do with the moment in which we live—is I take into account contemporary Native American claims to political autonomy and independence. There is now a consensus among Americans that Native American tribes should have a degree of political autonomy and independence. That wasn’t really true until, say, the early 1970s. So there’s been a huge sea change in the way we regard the political status of Native Americans. I think that’s meant something for the way this history gets treated.