Friday, June 12, 2009

Western Dispatches: The Lone Survivor of Little Bighorn

BROOKLYN, New York -- This week I will be bringing you a few observations and highlights from my recent road trip from Boulder to Brooklyn, one I will be repeating in reverse in just a few weeks time. The trip included my first visit to South Dakota; I was expecting a slightly less populated Kansas - some spectacular views of the prairies, but worth getting across as quickly as possible - but I was in fact mesmerized, and I wish I could have spent more time there.

While driving past lonely exit 191, right smack in the middle of the state, I stopped in at "1880 Town," an Old West attraction that looked too campy to pass up. The place is actually a collection of historic buildings taken from towns around the state and plunked down alongside the highway. Like many roadside museums, this one is filled with a somewhat random collection of artifacts, from signed pictures of Red Sox great Bobby Doerr (who, as far as I can tell, has no connection to South Dakota) to props from the movie "Dances With Wolves."

One of the most interesting exhibits was the above photograph of a horse accompanied by this letter:
Headquarters, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory
April 10, 1878

General Orders No. 7

I. The horse known as "Comanche", being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn, June 23, 1876, his kind treatment and comfort should be a matter of special pride and solicitude on the part of every member of the Seventh Cavalry to the end that his life be prolonged to the utmost limit. Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers; of the hopeless conflict, and of the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.

II. The commanding officer of Company "I" will see that a special and comfortable stall is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatever, under any circumstances nor will he be put to any kind of work.

III. Hereafter upon all occasions of mounted regimental formation "Comanche" saddled, bridled, draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company "I", will be paraded with the regiment.

By command of Colonel Sturgis,
(Signed) E.A. Garlington
In reality, probably more like 100 American horses survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the US Army heaped all of this praise on Comanche. He became a symbol of the battle, and the Army's resolve to fight the Indians to the last. The horse became so famous that he was even "interviewed" at Fort Abraham Lincoln by papers from across the country. For more on Comanche, go here for an article by Deanne Stillman, published in New West magazine.

When Comanche died in 1890, he became the first horse buried with full military honors - the only other horse so honored was Black Jack, who's only accomplishment was acting as the riderless horse at more than 1,000 military funerals. That hardly compares with being wounded in several battles and surviving seven bullets at the Little Bighorn. But Comanche was not laid to rest when he died; his remains were sent to the University of Kansas, where he was stuffed and put on display in the Natural History Museum, where he remains today.

Alongside Comanche's portrait were also those of the last surviving fighters from the battle (pictured below), who gathered in South Dakota in 1948 to commemorate the still-unfinished monument to Crazy Horse. These eight men have no monuments to their victory; one of the few Indian triumphs of the Indian Wars is instead remembered as a national tragedy. Had the outcome of the battle been the opposite, and the Sioux were slaughtered to the last man, this would likely be the marker left behind for these men.

On the western edge of the state, standing beneath the colossal outline of Crazy Horse's torso and horse, where 18 million tons of rock have been blasted from the Black Hills, and no less than 60 more years of blasting and carving remain to be done, I could not help but feel melancholy about the whole undertaking. Not just because the project seems Sisyphean, but because the monument to the Indians appears to be aping the nearby monument to the colonial occupiers. True, the Crazy Horse monument dwarfs Mt. Rushmore, but it will always appear as a copy, an effort to beat the white man at his own game, and a similar desecration of the sacred Black Hills. Of course, I am not an Indian, so I cannot say what is desecration and what is commemoration, but I could not feel comfortable about either place. If a reporter were to interview him today, I wonder what Comanche would have to say about all of this.

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