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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Interview - Mark van de Logt

Webmaster's Note: Historian Mark van de Logt shares more insights about the Arikara Scouts that served with George Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Mark also analyzes the myth of Custer's ambitions for President of the United States.

Bob Reece: How did you become interested in history and especially teaching?

Mark van de Logt: It’s a long story. As a little kid in the Netherlands I hated school. I was interested only in sports and games. The only subject that could hold my attention in the classroom was history. But I had no ambition to become a history teacher. In fact, after elementary school I attended a technical and vocational school to become a carpenter, plumber, or welder. Sadly, I was not a very skilled student in any of those fields. Then, for some reason, my mother one day bought me a book by paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey and this sparked my interest in human history. Right then I decided to leave the vo-tech school and go to a regular high school. The school system in the Netherlands is very different from the United States. In the Netherlands, students are separated according to ability at age twelve, which is why I was sent first to the vo-tech school. Still, it was possible for a student to move from one type of school to the next.

It took me a little longer than many other kids, but I gradually worked my way up and in 1989 entered Utrecht University for a Master’s degree in history. I specialized in American Studies because the United States was (and continues to be) such a powerful force in the world. In my final year at Utrecht, I decided to go to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to learn more about American Indian history for my thesis on the American Indian Movement. It was a wonderful experience. I met many great people there. After my return from Oklahoma, it was hard to find a job as a history teacher in the Netherlands. For three years I did temp work in factories, until I had saved enough to go back to school and pursue a PhD in American history. I was accepted at Oklahoma State University and one summer was hired by a Pawnee foundation to do research on the Pawnee scouts. After I spent the summer collecting data on the scouts, the Pawnee folks who had hired me generously allowed me to use the information to write my dissertation on the scouts. This eventually became the basis for my book War Party in Blue: Pawnee Scouts in the U.S. Army, which was published two years ago by the University of Oklahoma Press. By the time the book came out I was teaching at Benedictine College, a small liberal arts school in Atchison, Kansas.

B.R. Where do you currently teach?

M.v.d.L. I spent the last four years at Benedictine College, but I just accepted a position at Texas A & M University at their branch campus in Doha, Qatar, in the Middle East. I will start teaching there in August 2012. I accepted the position at TAMUQ because it allows me to see and experience another part of the world and work with students from all over the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. TAMUQ also offers generous research grants and opportunities and I am looking forward to getting back to my research.

B.R.  How do you find the young adults in your class interest in history?

M.v.d.L. Student interest varies. I’ve learned that a lot depends on the enthusiasm of the teacher and, perhaps even more important, whether he genuinely cares for his students. That said, lots of college students take history courses as a requirement and they simply want to get out as quickly and with the highest grade they can get at the least amount of effort. Furthermore, American students have had U.S. history all of their lives so it is not easy to motivate them. But my interpretation, not being American, often surprised them. It frustrated some of them, too. To challenge my students, I eventually adopted two different textbooks, one by liberal historian Howard Zinn, and one by conservative historian Larry Schweikart, which presented students with two radically different interpretations of American history. At first this confused the students, but eventually they caught on and began to interpret history for themselves.

Of course, wars and conflicts always draw the attention of the students. Last year I had the opportunity to teach the senior seminar for our majors. For the main topic I chose the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The students loved it. A few students even wrote great papers on the topic.

At TAMUQ, the students are engineering students who have to take U.S. history courses as a general education requirement. But they’ve never taken a U.S. history class before, so it will be all new material to them. It will be a challenge, but one that I am looking forward to.

B.R.  In your superb book about the Pawnee scouts in the U.S. Army, you cover in great detail the lives and times of these Indians and their involvement in the Indian Wars. What made you transcend from the Pawnee to the Arikara scouts?

M.v.d.L. I began researching the Arikara scouts while working as a post-doc at the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University. I was asked to write lesson materials for Arikara school children at the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota and the Arikara scouts are an important part of their history. Among the things I collected were the pension records of the scouts, parts of which are now published on your website. As part of my work, I wrote several manuscripts on Arikara history, one of which I hope to publish soon.

B.R.  Do you believe the story of the Arikara scouts in the Sioux/Cheyenne War of 1876 has been thoroughly told or is there more to be found?

M.v.d.L. Only the story of their service in the 1876 campaign has been told. The most important source remains, of course, The Arikara Narrative of the Campaign Against the Hostile Dakotas, June, 1876, first published in 1920. Perhaps a new critical edition, supplemented with notes and additional material (such as the pension records and official correspondence) might complete the story.

Sadly, the story of Arikara service before and after the 1876 campaign has not received the attention it deserves. Although I’ve done a lot of work on this already, there’s still more that needs to be done.

B.R.  On page 9 of your excellent article, there is noted an Arikara song that reads, “Now I’m lonesome, I’m lonesome, I’m lonesome, Custer, he’s the cause of my being lonely.” You explain that the song is the story of the Arikara grieving for the loss of their fellow scouts and Custer. My question, could it be possible that the Arikara are not missing Custer but instead blame him for the loss of their friends and family instead?

M.v.d.L. There is no doubt that the Arikara scouts respected and perhaps even loved Custer. The friendship between Custer and Bloody Knife is well-known. Many of your readers will also be familiar with Red Star’s comment that “Custer had a heart like an Indian,” because he would point out to them if they ever left out something in their ceremonies. During peace talks between the Arikaras and a Hunkpapas group in 1874, Custer threatened to punish the Hunkpapas if they broke the treaty and went to war with the Arikaras. During the Little Bighorn campaign, the scouts usually camped near Custer’s headquarters. Custer often visited the scouts during supper. According to the scouts, Custer also told them that this would be his last campaign and that he needed only one more battlefield victory to be elected President of the United States. He promised the scouts that, once he was President, he would look after them and their families.

It is possible that Custer was simply a good diplomat who tried to secure the support of his scouts. While many believe that Custer was ambitious and somewhat manipulative, I’m not so sure that he was posturing here. In any event, the Arikaras respected him very much. The “Custer Song” was composed in the mid-1910s and was part of a series of songs commemorating the scouts who had fallen in the battle at the Little Bighorn: Bobtail Bull, Bloody Knife, and Little Brave (a.k.a. Bear’s Trail).

There is even more compelling evidence. In 1917, Melvin Gilmore, then curator of the State Historical Society of North Dakota at Bismarck, wrote a letter to Libbie Custer describing a visit of one of the old scouts to the museum. Here’s part of that letter:

Some months ago two of these old men and their wives were in the museum. I called the attention of one of them to the portrait of Gen. Custer hanging on the wall. The other man was in another part of the museum at the time. The first one called him and told him in the Arikara language what I had shown him. The second man came over to see, and as soon as he looked on the portrait of his old commander he took off his hat and stood and looked at the portrait a long time respectfully and told the other people in the Arikara language some of his recollections of the general.

Why did the scouts like Custer? In their minds he was a brave man, who also respected their tribal cultural traditions, had confidence in their abilities as soldiers, and he kept them on the Army’s payrolls. But perhaps there is another reason. It is important to remember that Custer’s presence kept the Sioux on the defensive. While campaigning with Custer, the Arikaras helped to keep their own people safe and take the war to the enemy.

Many Arikaras today still respect Custer, despite all the negative press that the man has received in the last decades. The Custer Song, for example, is still part of the repertoire of Arikara singers and drum groups today.

B.R.  Fellow Arikara Peter Beauchamp was retained by Libby to interpret for the Arikara interviews. In Libby’s book, “The Arikara Narrative”, it is noted that Beauchamp enlisted at Fort Lincoln. Do you know his involvement, if any, in the Sioux/Cheyenne War?

M.v.d.L. Arikara scout Peter Beauchamp was the son of Pierre Beauchamp, a legendary French Canadian trader who by the 1840s permanently resided with the Arikaras. Peter spoke English fluently because he had attended a boarding school where he had also learned to read and write. Peter was one of the first Arikaras to join the U.S. army as a scout. He was still very young, possibly sixteen or seventeen, and inexperienced in warfare when he enlisted at Fort Stevenson, Dakota Territory, in 1868. One of his first fights was with Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas who ambushed a number of scouts near Fort Stevenson later that year. Peter distinguished himself in that fight, charging the Sioux even though he had lost his bow.

As far as I know and based on what I found in the army’s muster rolls, Peter enlisted on May 1, 1868 and was discharged on April 30, 1869. Although I’ve not found any evidence of this, it is possible that Peter re-enlisted under another name later, because the Arikaras, like the Pawnees, had the habit of changing their names, especially after a noticeable deed. Still, I’m fairly certain that he was not a scout in the 1876-77 campaigns.

After the Indian wars, Peter joined the Indian police force and rose to the rank of Captain. He died around 1895 and has a monument in the Scout Cemetery near the town of White Shield on the Fort Berthold reservation. It was his son, whose name was also Peter, who in 1912 acted as interpreter for Orin Libby during the interviews with the surviving scouts of the Custer battle.

B.R.  I’m very interested in a question that is asked of the Arikara more than once during the interviews. They’re apparently asked if Custer died in battle or during a war council. On page 25 of your paper during the deposition of Little Sioux on page 25 we find, “Custer fell in that battle, not in a war council. (The witness laughed heartily at the question of a council. None of these scouts will tell any other story than that Custer was killed in battle.)” The same question comes up again on page 51 during the deposition of Red Star. “Custer was not killed while holding a council. He was killed in battle, and I heard constant firing from where I was.” I’m perplexed as to what the question of a council is about. Why ask the question that Custer was killed in battle, not a war council?

M.v.d.L. I have no idea where this question came from. I’ve never heard of a story that Custer was killed during negotiations. Perhaps the examiner confused Custer with General Edward Canby who was killed during negotiations with a Modoc Indian faction in 1874.

It seems to me that the special examiner sent by the Pension Office had no clue about what had happened at the Little Bighorn. These Special Examiners were bureaucrats, not historians. Sometimes they were simply individuals hired by the Pension Office temporarily to conduct these interviews. Even though they had to verify the correct identity of the people they investigated, they were probably not familiar with the different campaigns that these Indians had served in.

I suppose that it is also possible that this examiner tried to “test” these veterans with these questions. But I doubt that. I believe that it was ignorance rather than some investigative tactic.

I like to imagine the look of amusement on the scouts’ faces when they were asked this foolish question.

B.R.  You've already touched on this subject, but I'd like to continue with it. An interesting experience that the Arikara share in the “Arikara Narratives” is in regards to their statements that Custer told them if he won this last great battle, he would become President of the United States. In the narratives book, Red Star (pg 58) states that Custer said, “He said no matter how small a victory he could win…it would make him President, Great Father…” on page 82, Red Star also quotes Custer, “…if we are successful, when we return, my brother, Bloody Knife, and I will represent you at Washington and perhaps we will take you in person to Washington.” What is your opinion after studying the Arikara interviews in regards to the question of Custer having such ambitions? Could the Arikara have misunderstood Custer’s statements? Could Custer have been promising that he would be an advocate for the Arikara instead?

M.v.d.L. The thing that often surprises me about Indian oral tradition, certainly at that time, is that it was quite accurate. Remember, these guys did not really have a written language, so the spoken word was extremely important to them. We tend to write things down for later use (and in the process forget about the information), but these folks stored it in their memory. So I am inclined to take Red Star seriously when he said that Custer wanted to get into high office and look after them once he got there.

Mind you, I said "high office," because there's always the possibility that it was mis-translated or that Red Star did not entirely understand the meaning of "President." The word for "president" (atipAt) is very similar to that of "Father" or "Grandfather." At the same time, Libby and the Arikara translators did a very thorough job and I'm sure they would have checked for the correct translation. Perhaps Custer meant some other high office. Bob Utley believes that Custer wanted to have a general's star. Perhaps he wanted Phil Sheridan's job, which would have enabled him to look after the Arikaras better, for example by providing them with more military protection. That Custer was a good friend of the Arikaras is beyond doubt, as I mentioned earlier.

There's no doubt in my mind that Custer was ambitious, but I do not think he was thinking of the Presidency (yet). That was still too far off for a Democrat... although Tilden got close later that year. If Tilden had won the election and Custer had won the battle, I think Custer might have been promoted. But none of that happened. Still, I agree with many scholars who believe that Custer's ambition and his impatience to redeem himself after his arrest earlier in '76 probably affected his actions at the Little Bighorn.

Here’s another interesting note. Although I never made an exact count of the number of Civil War generals or officers who ran for the Presidency, there were quite a few, and from that point-of-view Red Star's claim may not have been that far-fetched. Look at Custer's credentials: West Point graduate (admittedly last in his class), boy-general in the Civil War, hero of Gettysburg, brave cavalryman (the most "romantic" of army branches), victor at the Washita (except for the embarrassing episode with Major Elliott), published author, who went after Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse with great determination. If he had defeated the Sioux and Cheyennes that day, who knows what this would have done for his career.

B.R. Are you working on any projects now or in the future that you’d like to share with us?

M.v.d.L. Later this year, I hope to finish a book of sources on the Pawnee scouts, and I intend to put the finishing touches on a history of the Arikara Indians as well.

As for future projects I am toying with a number of ideas. Through my study of Native American religions, I have become interested in the way many tribes see a relationship between warfare and creation. I also would like to study Pawnee and Arikara symbolism by studying cultural artifacts, and perhaps some day I will finish a history of the Arikara Scouts.

B.R. Thanks so much for sharing fascinating insights in history and the Little Bighorn Battle with us today.

M.v.d.L. You're very welcome.

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