Still Standing

George Armstrong Custer in the 21st century.

In the book you delve into two competing interpretations of the Indian wars. Can you explain?
The one I talk about most is the idea that the Indian wars were a clash of cultures—this kind of inevitable violence that came out of two different ways of life. One way of life was agricultural and based on a fixed use of land, and the other was nomadic and based on a hunting economy. Those two ways of life necessarily clashed and produced violence across the American west.

There are a lot of advantages to that particular model. It allows historians to focus on the everyday experience of people rather than just leaders. It also allows them to draw distinctions between the ways in which different groups of people could experience the same event in a different way.

The problem with that interpretation is that it draws attention away from the kind of political decisions that both sides made: the U.S. government in terms of the way it conducted its treaty negotiations and the way in which it tried to assign Native Americans to particular parts of the land; and also political decisions that Native American leaders made in those same treaty negotiations and in their decisions to go to war.

The other part of the puzzle is the fact that American Indian groups were sometimes very split—even within the same tribe—in terms of how to respond to the pressures of settlement in the U.S. west. You might have had one group that was trying to get out of the way of the army and the settlers and another group that was actively trying to resist them.

That same sort of pressure still exists today.
Absolutely. American Indian communities in the west are under tremendous cultural pressure in terms of economies that draw people away from rural reservation communities and into cities. There is a lot of variation in terms of the economic health of American Indian reservation communities—depending on where they are located, what their history is and so forth.

One of the downsides of the casino boom is that it sometimes draws attention away from the fact that there are Indian communities that are among the poorest communities in the nation—including several of those who are the descendants of those who fought against Custer. Some of the Lakota Sioux reservation communities in South Dakota have incredibly high unemployment, suicide, and substance abuse rates.

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