Saturday, April 28, 2007

The ultimate fly on Washington's tent flap, or Custer's, or on the Oval Office wall

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, north american history, historical narrative

In the early 1980s, while living in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, I heard a very entertaining lecture about the events leading to Custer's "last stand". The lecture had been arranged during the Yellow Thunder Camp occupation of part of the Black Hills by followers of Russell Means. It may have meen Means who called the Black Hills the "Sioux Vatican."

In brief, about the time white settlers began to arrive in western South Dakota in large numbers (1850s), the Lakota Sioux had been there less than a century after spreading west out of Minnesota. They first crossed the Missouri and discovered the Black Hills about 1776, calling it Paha Sapa, driving out other tribes that had suffered recent decimation by a smallpox epidemic (The Sioux were on the rebound after their own epidemics in the 1600s and early 1700s). They quickly made Paha Sapa the center of their cultural universe. By 1875, nearly the centennial of their first occupation of the area, they found themselves in a battle for survival against the white military led by Custer. Led by favorite son Sitting Bull, they eliminated Custer's small army in 1876.

The trouble is, they'd unknowningly kicked a giant, and larger, more persistent (and better led) armies followed. One might think the historian's viewpoint might be too Anglo-centric, but checking the facts of the story with friends in the Sioux and Crow tribes, I found they shared the same perspective. Comparing Paha Sapa to the Vatican is actually a better analogy than one might imagine. Vatican City was created in 1929, a remnant of the thousand-year-old Papal States territory. The location is recent, but the tradition is ancient.

The historian brought the events of the mid-to-late 1800s to life. I think this a critical function of historians. If a people who cannot recall their history are condemned to repeat it, then we need history to become a living force for us, and the onus for that is upon out historians. It is a pity so few of them are good writers or speakers.

Byron Hollinshead has gathered twenty essays from twenty historians who really know how to write. The twenty essays, ranging from analytical to speculative in tone, make up I Wish I'd Been There:Twenty Historians bring to life dramatic events that Changed America. Each historian was given the assignment to portray or explain a favorite historical puzzle. It is so incredibly refreshing to read history written by people who love their work!

This historical feast begins in Cahokia (a pre-columbian metropolis, when millions of people lived in the plains, and smallpox had yet to arrive on the continent) by Biloine W. Young, includes peeks into the life of Merriwether Lewis by Carolyn Gilman, and Jenny Lind by Philip B. Kunhards III, and concludes with Lyndon Johnson's bushwhacking of George Wallace to permit the Selma march to proceed. "The Corrupt Bargain" by Robert V. Remini portrays the congressional dickering that cost Andrew Jackson the White House in 1824—and shows that our more recent crop of scoundrels has nothing on their forebears! Have you seen Inherit the Wind? Don't think it is anywhere close to reality. The "epic battle" between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan resembled a snowball fight, and the greatest speech was not by one of those old scrappers by by Dudley Malone (who?) can look it up, and Jonathan Rabb lays it out for us.

A book like this makes history worth reading, and historians worth supporting.

No comments: