Beyond Red and White


In my column this week, I argue that we get closer to truth, empathy and unity by making popular history more complicated - by telling everyone's stories. Let me elaborate.

The Indian Memorial was designed to express "Peace Through Unity," which is a historical reference to the fact that not all tribes fought on the same side (two tribes, the Crow (Apsalooke) and the Arikara, provided about 50 scouts to Custer's 7th Cavalry) and an aspiration.

A memorial a couple of miles down the road (shown above) illustrates why. The Mystic Warrior statue is in the center of a park on the Crow reservation honoring all Apsaalooke veterans. A plaque explains that the statue commemorates a battle in 1860 or 1861 - 15 years before Custer's battle - in which the Crows, outnumbered 10-t0-one, defeated an invasion by an alliance of Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos intent on taking away what had long been Crow territory. That's the main reason Chief Plenty Coups, leader of the Crow, agreed to treaties with the white man. The chief had also had visions telling him white men would eventually rule his tribe's vast homeland.

Some of those feelings have persisted. Native American protests against the treatment of Indians in the Little Bighorn narrative were led by Sioux activists. Some Crow members have complained that some of the red marble markers describe fallen warriors as having "died defending his homeland and the Sioux way of life." This wasn't their homeland, say the Crow, this was our homeland the Sioux were invading.

Thus the "Peace Through Unity" aspiration. Conflicts between indigenous North American tribes goes back millennia. Tribal alliances to either oppose or support European factions started as soon as the white men hit the shores. White leaders have always tried to divide Native tribes; Native leaders have always tried to unite them - some leaders, at least.

American history isn't all black and white. Or all red and white. Or, for that matter, all red and blue. The shades of nuance are easy to see if you look in the right places.