Tuesday, 14 July 2015

last stand, last straw

Although no excuse for unconscionably cruel and dishonest behaviour, a constellation of events coalesced in a prefigured, post-Civil War United States of America which saw the undoing of the aboriginal population in its near destruction with the years of Reconstruction. Of course, the introduction of Old World diseases and the conquest of land and treasure had been continuing a pace for centuries already but the disruption of factional fighting, subsequent redundancy of soldiers and redefined economies encouraged growth and expansion. Starting from the eastern seaboard, American Indians were being displaced farther and farther westward, with American territorial gains from the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War. With a sight towards realising Manifest Destiny and control from sea to shining sea, suddenly those plains and prairies where the natives were exiled to were starting to look not so far beneath them.  Moreover many tribal leaders—as they had done during the Revolutionary War with Britain, had also chosen to back the wrong side in the Civil War, supporting the Confederacy not for ideological reasons or that they seemed necessarily more palatable, it was just that the Union had treated them so badly and trounced on all former promises.

This retroactive treason did not earn them much sympathy in the eyes of white America. The Industrial Revolution, with America pulling ahead of Europe for the first time with the production of steel, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad also hastened settlement and re-settlement. Confined to ever-shrinking reservations, the Native Americans’ nomadic way of life, especially for the plains Indians and recent transplants who must have gone through their own trauma and shock in a strange environment, following the herds and rhythms of seasons was under threat. Said railroad cut across the remaining open spaces and brought ranchers who further delineated their parcels. As if it was not enough that these cultures clashed, with the ideal life of a settler becoming a farmer or cattleman tethered to one spot and homestead, the passengers riding the trains crossing Indian lands were encouraged to slaughter buffalo (bison)—not after they got to their destination or like being reminded to please have their pets spayed or neutered—but actively and from the window of the rail-car, mowing down as many of the beasts as possible as an act of aggression against the way of life of the Indians and to clear the area for ranch land. Though perhaps understandable, stories of savages attacking settlements and convoys were probably greatly exaggerated, but expansion and removal needed justification and all those Civil War veterans needed something to occupy themselves. Regiments took to protecting the settlers from potential raiding parties and to policing the reserves, in some cases establishing permanent forts and barracks located right on the reservation, as was the case in Little Big Horn. And surprise—there was gold in them there hills (the Black Hills being sacred to the Lakota peoples), according to one prospecting expedition escorted under the guard of the army—though that cache was greatly over-estimated as well. When the chiefs failed to avail their tribes to move along of their own accord, the Bureau of Indian Affairs handed the whole matter over to the army to dispatch with these malingers. In no sense was this pitch-battle in 1876 a last stand for Bvt. Major General George Armstrong Custer, but the Dakota, Cheyenne and the Sioux and compatriots fighting for their existence. Although this defeat of the US army has formerly been a co-opted as a rallying-cry, like “Remember the Alamo” (a battle sparked over the right to of white Texians to keep slaves), the victory, routing an entire advancing column, of the Native Americans was a pyrrhic one and just fuelled more resentment and fear in the public eye. In the immediate aftermath, a larger scale war ensued, making promises even more fragile and inspired America to later (with the death of Custer’s widow) hewn four colossal presidential busts in one of those hallowed hills—called the Six Grandfathers in their language—to promote tourism in the region.