Second Look Books: Killing Custer by James Welch with Paul Stekler (Alfred A. Knopf, $25)

James Welch is the author of two splendidly bleak novels of American Indian experience. “The Death of Jim Loney” and “Winter in the Blood” together constitute a considerably eloquent body of work directed at reservation life and acculturation. In addition, Welch has authored a modern novel of life away from the reservation titled “The Indian Lawyer,” as well as a book of poems

With “Killing Custer,” he now enters the non-fiction field with a work that is intended to describe the Battle of the Little Big Horn from the viewpoint of the tribes who fought there. In this effort, Welch displays a wealth of ambition and not a small amount of daring, but on the whole he fails to provide either focus or drama, and in the end, winds up frittering away what depth of feeling he might have attained from his own special status as a Blackfoot, born on the agency near Browning, Montana.

“Killing Custer” was initiated by a phone call made form documentary filmmaker Paul Stakler, who wished Welch to write a screen treatment for use in filming aspects of the Custer massacre. The general story is, by now, well known: In 1868 most of the Sioux Nation had been granted by treaty a huge reservation taking up what is now most of North and South Dakota, including the Black Hills, and granting the Nation the right to hunt and kill buffalo in the Powder River country, off reservation, in perpetuity. By 1875, George Custer had led an expedition into the Hills, ostensibly found gold, and advertently caused a rush which destroyed the Sioux hopes for peace and freedom

Thus it was in the summer of 1876 that thousands of Sioux and their Cheyenne allies found themselves off reservation, camped along the Little Big Horn in Montana, and considered “hostile” by the United States Army. Generals Crook and Terry, along with Colonels Gibbon and Custer (a brevet major general), marched from north, east and south, in an effort to pincer the Indians and force them back east, onto the reservation. No doubt about it, they were out to kill Indians, and were elated about the fact. When Custer arrived first at the Little Big Horn, he split his command, the Seventh Cavalry, and either charged, or was attached, by several thousand armed warriors. Custer, along with 216 of his troop, disappeared from existence.

Almost from the outset, “Killing Custer” goes slightly wrong. In the first chapter, Welch describes his contacts with Stekler and his feelings about the Little Big Horn, and then clumsily segues into a relatively inept investigation into an independent massacre which took place on the Marias River in northern Montana some six years prior to the battle on the Little Big Horn, and which involved the United States Army and the Blackfeet, not the Sioux. The connection between the events, and the massacre-of-the-Marias connection to the documentary film, are tenuous at best, mostly being emotional for the writer.  Thereafter, Welch seems to waver in his authorial purpose, describing alternately the making of the documentary film, its problems and preoccupations, in an almost leisurely and personal style, and various histories of the Sioux and Cheyenne participants, most culled form already available sources. Indeed, there are brilliant and sensitive pieces, particularly the descriptions of Crazy Horse, who almost certainly was involved in killing Seventh Cavalry soldiers, and of Sitting Bull, who perhaps was not. It is the “vision” of Crazy Horse that has always been most arresting—this slight warrior adorned with white daubs of paint representing hailstones, brilliant red bolt of lightning seared across his right cheek, and a pebble representing hail, tied by a leather thong behind one ear.

Welch dutifully follows the careers of both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to their logical conclusions in death at the hands of white men and their Indian policemen. Sprinkled throughout this narrative are the eyewitnesses’ or folk accounts offered b y Sioux and Cheyenne peoples like Wooden Leg and Kate Bighead, not to mention Rain in the Face, who claims to have killed Custer, but who almost certainly did not.  But “Killing Custer” is beset by numerous technical problems. The general historical account of the summer of 1876 and its lengthy aftermath have been told often, and told better, as by Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” or in the justly famous “The Long Death,” and painstakingly researched by historians like Robert Utley. At times, Welch offers up tidbits of commonsense philosophy that jar, to wit: “It seems that war has become a political game in this country. Presidents have wars—Reagan had Grenada and Panama, Bush had Desert Storm, and now Clinton has his Somalia.” Needless to say, Clinton inherited Somalia from his friend Bush, and it was not a war. A book that wavers from documentary film account, to folk history, to personal reflection, and back to historiography, requires a great measure of discipline and focus. “Killing Custer” does not have it.

It is a fact that the “viewpoint” of the Indians at Little Big Horn is well represented in the literature. Indeed, the past three decades have provided a virtual blizzard of new information and sources, in addition to those that were available in the years after the battle. Richard Hardorff in “Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight” and James Howard in “The Personal Narrative of Chief Joseph White Bull” are but two of many. A complete bibliography of Indian sources is available in Utley’s masterful biography of Sitting Bull titled “The Lance and the Shield.” “Black Elk Speaks,” published in the early 1930s, is a classic. The acknowledged masterpiece that probably will never be surpassed in beauty and completeness, is Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star.”

Having said all of this, “Killing Custer” is a worthwhile piece of work. The arrival of Anglo-Americans on the North American continent provoked a dark and bloody history of warfare that neither side quite understood. The Indian wars involved forces that could not be analyzed by the whites with their ethical equipment, wars in which the Indian had not the slightest chance. There was inevitability to this course that is reminiscent of high tragedy, and which shall remain part of the deepest ground of our American experience. “Killing Custer” is part of that experience, an experiment Welch conducted out of deep personal need. It can therefore be seen as part and parcel of the history of the Little Big Horn itself.

As Custer rode away at the head of his troops, General Gibbon called out to him, “Now Custer, don’t be greedy, but wait for us.” Custer waved and called back, “No, I will not.”  Some days later, under the blazing hot Montana sun of late June, Sitting Bull is said have called to his warriors. “Hanta-hey! It is a good day to die!” It was then that Custer’s ambiguous bravado and Sitting Bull’s spiritual pride met, never to be parted.