History of the World According to the Movies: Part 42 – The American West: Indian Wars

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Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances with Wolves is a film showing Native Americans in a more sympathetic light than in years previously as well as shows some of the landscapes of the Plains in breathtaking view. Still, let’s just say the Lakota speaking Sioux treat this as an unintentional comedy since Kevin Costner had no idea that there are separate male and female pronunciations and styles. Still, he probably would’ve done better if he hired a male and female Lakotah translator instead of just a female one. TTI states: “The overall effect for Lakotah-speaking audiences was a bunch of Klingon warriors talking like a ladies’ Saturday afternoon tea social.” Also, Plains Indian buffalo hunts go a lot differently than shown in the film and Pawnee should really sue for slander despite being the Sioux’s enemies.

The history of the American West has been one of the most filmed eras in American history. There have been countless films pertaining to the era of the untamed wilderness, savage Indian tribes, legendary outlaws, and all types of murder and mayhem starring the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The American frontier in the 19th century has been the inspiration of many legends and myths that have lasted into the ages. Westerns have shaped our imagination what this period was like which usually contains beautiful scenery of canyons, mountains, desert, and other national park sites as well as lots and lots of violence. In some ways, it serves as part travelogue and part gorefest if its directed by Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah. Still, sometimes you may have cowboys as the good guys fighting against the influences of business and banditry. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the good or the bad. Still, westerns have played a very influential role in American culture which we can all identify. However, westerns tend to show the mythological image of the American West than the reality.

Of course, the relations between the white settlers and the Native Americans wouldn’t be a happy one. From the 1840s on, settlers have packed up and moved out West whether it was to California, Oregon, Utah, Kansas, or New Mexico. However, one problem was that there were already people living on the frontier over generations. Actually they had been living there for thousands of years but the white people didn’t give a shit and just settled down before driving the Indians from their ancestral homes onto the reservation. Well, at least the US government did as well as committed a series of human rights abuses that most Americans would like to forget. Nevertheless, the Indian Wars would give us legends like George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise, Kit Carson, and Crazy Horse. In movies, Indians could be portrayed as the villains, victims, forces of nature, or others. The military could be seen as heroes or villains. Still, these movies do present their array of historical inaccuracies which I shall list accordingly.

Indians:

Indian attacks were a common site on wagon trains and stagecoaches. (Indians knew better than to attack stagecoaches and wagon trains. If they were present on wagon trains, their conduct was peaceful and they served as guides and traders. Attacking whites wasn’t good business.)

Indians surrounded covered wagons and rode around and around to allow the settlers to shoot them off their pretty dappled ponies. (This wouldn’t happen a lot because most Indians would never attack settlers on covered wagons. Nevertheless, Comanches were studied in European military schools because they were known to have the finest light cavalry in the world.)

Intermarrying was very frequent between Indians and white settlers but they strangely they simply didn’t seem to get along. (I’m just to alluding to the fact Native Americans in old western movies were played by white actors.)

All western Indians wear plains style costumes and love to don on the feather bonnet headdresses. (Actually, only high ranking Plains Indians wore the outfits.)

Whenever Indians weren’t attacking white settlers, they were either smoking a peace pipe or hunting buffalo. They may have also communicated using smoke signals and sign language yet always used a bow and arrow as weapons.

Indians usually scalped white settlers or tied them to a totem pole if captured. (Yes, Indians scalped people and we can’t dispute that. However, only the Pacific Northwest tribes had totem poles and they usually used them for very different purposes like clan identification and lineages, stories, or notable events. Sometimes they can be used as welcome signs, vessels to store remains of dead ancestors, or as a way to ridicule somebody. They were not used to tie prisoners.)

The Sioux referred to themselves as the Lakota. (No, they pretty much refer to themselves as the Sioux or Dakota, well sort of. Also, not all Sioux are Lakota.)

Plains:

Pawnee Indians would attack American settlements. (They were allies for the US government.)

In white man-Indian woman relationships, the Indian woman is usually an Indian princess who marries into the white man’s culture. (Not every Indian woman who married a white man was an Indian princess, which is a strictly European concept. Nor would most Indian princesses or other Indian women assimilate into the white man’s culture but in many cases the opposite would happen, especially in French Canada {Sacajawea’s marriage is a prime example of this}. Nor would marrying an Indian woman bring civilization to her people {though there were Indians who did convert to western ways like the Cherokee}. Rather it would end up leading to mass slaughter and destruction of a culture.)

The Cheyenne were an Indian tribe in the Rocky Mountains. (They were a Plains tribe.)

Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer met face to face. (They never met in person. Also, given Crazy Horse’s relative anonymity, it’s unlikely he would’ve been recognized had he been captured at Little Big Horn. Heck, this guy went to great lengths never to be photographed for God’s sake. Sitting Bull may have been more appropriate.)

Crazy Horse was willing to give all Indian lands to the whites except the Black Hills. (Crazy Horse would’ve made no such deal. Still, perhaps the least offensive thing about Crazy Horse’s character in They Died with Their Boots On is that he’s played by Anthony Quinn {a lot of Hispanics have indigenous ancestry and a lot of Native Americans are part white so his portrayal isn’t as offensive as it seems. I mean the guy’s Mexican and most likely had Native ancestry}.)

Sioux Indians could bring down a stampeding buffalo with single arrow shots. (Sorry, Kevin Costner, but bow hunting doesn’t work that way. In real life, the hunters would have to track the wounded animals, sometimes for miles, until they bled to death. This could take hours or days. Let’s just say that if Dances with Wolves depicted an actual Indian bison hunt, it would be pretty boring.)

Indians mostly used bows and arrows as a weapon of choice. (They used guns, too, and there 25 types of firearms found at Little Bighorn.)

The Sioux brought down stampeding buffalo with single arrow shots. (Sorry, Kevin Costner, but bow hunting doesn’t work this way. In reality, hunters would have to track the wounded animals, sometimes for miles, until they bled out.)

The Sioux weren’t familiar with the white man prior to the American Civil War. (Yes, they were. In fact, in 1862, the Dakota Sioux had fought whites in Western Minnesota with 800 whites dead and 38 Sioux hanged. Kicking Bird would’ve known about this.)

Indians would always constantly attack settlements as well as kidnap or kill white settlers. (Sometimes this would happen but not a whole lot. However, children who were kidnapped by Indians would usually be assimilated in the tribe within a year contrary to the Natalie Wood character in The Searchers {God, I hate that movie}. Perhaps that bastard John Wayne should’ve just left her with the Indians because she would’ve been able to shake off her Indian language and habits she had acquired over the last five years. Seriously, Natalie Wood probably wouldn’t have lived happily ever after.)

Indians terrorized whites for personal gratification and blood lust. (Usually it was more due to something like building a farm on their traditional hunting ground if it pertained to settlers in the case of Cynthia Ann Parker. Still, unlike Dances with Wolves, they wouldn’t usually adopt a white man into their tribe. Nevertheless, while Indians did raid settlements they were usually small farms where they didn’t stick around very long and Indian massacres on whites were the exception rather than the rule. Besides, Indians knew that raiding heavy populated areas was just asking for trouble.)

Indians were victims of ruthless whites. (Yes, this is true but to a point but they weren’t simply victims and were just as much authors of their own destiny who dealt in American expansion the way they thought would be best for their societies. According to History Banter: “After the Civil War, the United States actually adopted a peaceful policy in dealing with Plains Indians. There were only a 100 thousand or so of them remaining in 1865, little threat to a nation that had just fielded an army of over a million soldiers. So in an attempt to foster peace, the U.S. assigned Quakers to deal with Plains’ tribes…..Quaker agents went onto Indian lands where they tried to convince local Indians not to raid American settlements. At the same time, it was the Quakers responsibility to prevent whites from attacking Indians. Many Indians realized that the Quakers were effective in this latter duty, but were not so adept at preventing their raids on American settlements. So, the Indians raided and hid behind the Quakers’ authority when angry whites came for revenge. Eventually, cries from the frontier about the Quakers reached Washington and this peaceful system was thrown out the door in favor of a more aggressive means of dealing with Plains Indians.” Still, they didn’t really need Kevin Costner to help them.)

Soldiers:

The 7th Cavalry contained only American soldiers. (There were plenty of European immigrants in that regiment.)

The 7th Cavalry charged into Little Bighorn with their swords drawn. (They didn’t have their sabers with them.)

Black and white US Army soldiers fought side by side. (As long as the black soldiers were enlisted men and white soldiers were officers.)

The story of Fort Apache unfolded like the Battle of Little Bighorn transplanted in Arizona. (Not really. Also, the fort wasn’t named Fort Apache five years until after Chief Cochise’s death contrary to the John Ford movie. Until then it was named Camp Ord or Camp Apache. Still, John Ford, you could’ve had the resident Indian chief be Geronimo or Cochise’s son Naiche who not many people know about. Oh, and the military clash happened in 1881 and not the 1870s.)

George Armstrong Custer:

George Armstrong Custer was a flamboyant, arrogant, idiotic, and bigoted coward who got what he deserved at Little Bighorn. (Custer was flamboyant and probably wasn’t the best soldier or a hero at Little Bighorn but he definitely wasn’t a coward nor a bigot either {at least by 19th century standards}. He was a hero at Gettysburg for thwarting a Confederate cavalry attack from the rear led by J. E. B. Stuart which was key to Lee’s battle plan, led to Philip Sheridan giving him and his wife the Appomattox surrender table as a gift. Still he was a glory seeker willing to sacrifice his men for his own personal glory and was very cruel to them, which is why his men didn’t like him. His units suffered high casualty rates in the Civil War {his division had the highest number of casualties in the Union Army}, sometimes to horrendous levels and he was once suspended for a year for being AWOL, misappropriation of funds meant for provisions for reservation Indians, and during his Reconstruction duty in Texas nearly escaped being fragged by his own troops {the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry who had resented his attempts on discipline}. He also liked to promote his image, was very reckless in battle, and had greatly wished to regain his rank after having being general in the Civil War. Yet, he was a fearless and an aggressive soldier, wasn’t afraid of using unconventional means to accomplish his goals, a loving husband {though he wasn’t entirely faithful}, and he once refuse to massacre starving, exhausted, and defenseless soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia despite Sheridan ordering him to. He was probably more of an anti-hero than anything. Still, as an officer of the US Army killing Indians was part of his job more or less. The general historical consensus has him as a colorful and capable cavalry commander who just let his ego override his judgment in attacking a force that vastly outnumbered his.)

All of George Armstrong Custer’s men died at Little Bighorn. (His battalion consisting of C, E, F, I, L companies were wiped out. However, the remaining seven companies under the charge of his subordinates Major Reno and Captain Benteen were not. Thus, out of his 586 men only 262 were killed including himself while 55 were wounded. Still, the Battle of Little Bighorn lasted an hour and “the Last Stand” wasn’t a blaze of glory either. Nevertheless, splitting his force may not have been the best thing to do but it saved many of his men’s lives.)

George Armstrong Custer was a passionate defender for Indian rights. (He was just as much willing to kick the Indians off their land as any other white man. He had also staged a massacre of Cheyenne families at the Washita as well as been fighting Indians in Kansas and in the Yellowstone Valley. However, he didn’t believe Indian genocide was a viable solution. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the only one to wage war against the Indians or commit crimes against indigenous people, attack Indian villages, or chase military glory.)

George Armstrong Custer took a break from the army after the American Civil War until he was sent to Fort Abraham Lincoln. (He never left the army and had served in Texas, Kansas, and in the Yellowstone Valley.)

George Armstrong Custer was offered $10,000 to serve as president of a railroad company. (He was actually offered $10,000 in gold {as well as requested a leave of absence} to serve as an Adjutant General in Benito Juarez’s army in Mexico.)

George Armstrong Custer drank after the American Civil War. (He had been sober since his 1862 where he made a humiliating spectacle of himself.)

Custer’s promotion to general was an administration mistake. (It wasn’t and it was 3 days before Gettysburg in the command of volunteers.)

George Armstrong Custer entered West Point as a privileged rich boy. (He grew up in an ordinary working class household and was at West Point on scholarship. Contrary to They Died with Their Boots On, it was Custer’s socioeconomic background which was the main reason why Judge Bacon didn’t want Custer to marry his daughter, not because Custer insulted him in a bar.)

George Armstrong Custer promised he would defend the Black Hills for the Sioux. (He never made this promise and actually started a gold rush to the Black Hills.)

George Armstrong Custer was killed by arrows. (Sorry, but Custer didn’t go down like Boromir. He was actually killed by Indian gunfire. Not to mention, it’s said that the Indians may have had better repeating rifles than Custer’s men did. I know most depictions have Indians only using bows and arrows. But yes, Indians did have guns which they obtained through trade with white settlers. Also, he had cut his long flowing locks before he began his last campaign so him having long hair at Little Bighorn is pure Hollywood. Oh, and he was wearing buckskins at the battle like Errol Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On instead of a blue military uniform like Richard Mulligan in Little Big Man.)

George Armstrong Custer was sent back to Washington to a congressional hearing over one of his own infractions and had to persuade Ulysses S. Grant to send him back to the 7th Cavalry. (This never happened. However, Custer did go on a trip to Washington and did sit in a congressional hearing but it was over a kickback scandal involving US Secretary of War William Belknap, Grant’s brother Orville {one of the most embarrassing presidential siblings to date}, and traders at Army posts in Indian Country who were charging troops double on what they would’ve paid for the same goods in Bismarck. His testimony led to Belknap getting impeached, which caused a media sensation. Oh, and Custer and Grant didn’t get along since not only Custer testified against his own brother and War secretary over corruption charges, he also arrested his son Frederick for drunkenness earlier, and had written magazine articles criticizing his peace policy toward the Indians. Still, Grant wouldn’t order for Custer’s arrest or removal of command until Custer left Washington without his permission {though Grant had turned him down three times for a personal meeting, following Sherman’s advice}. Oh, and he didn’t get his command back until he, General Terry, and Philip Sheridan persuaded Grant to do so. Most of the intrigue is absent from They Died with Their Boots On, which is kind of a shame.)

George Armstrong Custer received a Civil War Campaign medal. (The first of these medals were issued in 1909. Custer died in 1876. Still, he probably should’ve had one though.)

George Armstrong Custer had dark hair and was clean shaven. (He had flowing light brown hair or perhaps blond as well as sported a mustache. Yet, in The Santa Fe Trail, he’s played by Ronald Reagan of all people. Say what you want about They Died with Their Boots On but at least Australian actor Errol Flynn made a fairly decent Custer in comparison. Also, he didn’t graduate at the same time as J. E. B. Stuart who was six years older than him.)

George Armstrong Custer met his wife while a student at West Point. (He met Libby the year after he graduated in 1862 and they married two years later.)

George Armstrong Custer was a general during the Battle of Little Big Horn. (He was a lieutenant colonel and was only a brevet general during the American Civil War, which disappeared when the war was over. Still, after the war he was demoted to captain but he did rise to lieutenant colonel by his own efforts.)

Libby Custer was General Philip Sheridan’s niece. (They weren’t even related to each other and there’s no evidence that she even knew the guy independently of her husband’s association with him. Still, unlike in the movie They Died with Their Boots On, George Armstrong Custer was actually one of Sheridan’s favorite officers though.)

Scouts:

Brit Johnson was a white scout. (He was black. Still, his story was the inspiration for The Searchers, in which his character was played by John Wayne. Also, unlike the John Wayne character, Johnson wasn’t a Civil War veteran, didn’t fight for the Confederacy, or ever held racist views. Not to mention, only one child from his family was killed in the Indian attack and never rekidnapped any hostage who the Indians had adopted and married off. He was a black slave for his journey started in 1864 and ended after the Civil War was over. Also, his relations with the Indians were peaceful and managed to get his family back and others through negotiations. Still, Johnson’s story doesn’t have a good end for even though he did return home and tried to set himself up as a freed man, he and his ex-slave business partners were killed by Indians and it’s impossible to say who.)

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