It’s a two day drive to go from Arkansas to Flagstaff, AZ, along the big empty of Interstate 40 through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, but having endured long vacation drives as a child through the wonder of reading and landscape gazing and daydreaming, and having matured into adulthood on road trips with music and frequent stops for anything that might prove interesting, I was game, and so I led my family west before daylight and watched the day build into 100 plus degree weather and clear cloudless skies.
In western Oklahoma we turned off the interstate to visit the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site near Cheyenne. This is the site of George Armstrong Custer’s first significant battle against the nomadic American Indians, a pre-dawn attack on Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful winter camp in an area where he had promised his people would be safe. It was November of 1868 on the tail of a bitter cold blizzard. General Sheridan and the U.S. army planned the campaign in the winter because the Cheyenne were so difficult to locate and pin down in the summers. The purpose of the attack was to drive the Cheyenne onto their reservations through force, and by intentionally shooting the horse herd that the Indians depended upon to follow the buffalo (bison).
Black Kettle had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in Eastern Colorado in 1864, another winter attack on an unsuspecting camp where 675 militamen massacred and mutilated the bodies of mostly women and children. Estimates vary widely, but the number of Indians killed range from 100 – 200.
I had visited the site many years ago, on a 1987 drive from Mississippi to Arizona, where I camped out along the way and looked for historical markers on my Rand-McNally road atlas to break up the trip. Back then, the site was pretty much a mark on the map, difficult to find, and really only one of thse metal historical markers beside the highway. Now, the National Park Service (America’s “Best Idea,” in my opinion) has created a very nice visitor center and provides historical interpretaion to over 10,000 visitors a year on not only the “battle” but early settler life and the effects of the Dust Bowl.
According to the NPS website, “Black Kettle’s village had a population of 250 to 300 people. Lt. Col. Custer commanded 689 soldiers during the fight along the Washita. Custer claimed to have killed 103 and later 140, but according to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Nation, only 60 people were killed. Fifty-three women and children were captured by Custer and sent to Fort Hayes, Kansas. It is estimated somewhere between 192 to 262 people survived the fight.” This did not include Black Kettle or his wife. The Cheyenne who survived were able to escape down the river, where they fled toward a much larger village of Cheyenne. The web site adds that “875 horses were captured, and of those, 650 were killed. The soldiers, scouts, and women captives put to use 225 horses for their journey back to Camp Supply. As for why they were killed; it was part of the total war policy. Killing the ponies kept the warriors from raiding into Kansas, it also kept them from hunting buffalo. The death of these horses forced many Cheyenne onto the reservation.”
Among the casualties for the army was Major Joel Elliott and 20 of his men, who chased after fleeing Cheyenne–apparently without Custer’s permission–and were then cut off and killed by warriors from the larger camp downstream.
For a fictional treatment of the battle, I recommend the novel Little Big Man, a 1960s postmodern tale narrated by Jack Crabb, a character adopted by the Cheyenne as a boy and who spends his adult life jumping back and forth between living with the Indians and whites, never fitting into either camp. He happens to be with the Cheyenne at the battle of the Washita, and on the early morning following the birth of his son, finds himself belonging, if only for a moment. Jack Crabb’s character tells us:
“There could be no doubt that I had once and for all turned 100 percent Cheyenne insofar as that was possible by the actions of the body. I might have planted a new human being or two by that night’s work, [he had slept with his wife and several of her sisters, whose men had been killed by whites] and I never thougth about how they would be little breeds, growing up into a world fast turning uncongenial even to the fullbloods. No, all seemed right to me at that moment. It was one of the few times I felt: this is the way things are and should be. I had medicine then, that’s the only word for it. I knew where the center of the world was. A remarkable feeling, in which time turns in a circle, and he who stands at the core has power over everything that takes the form of line and angle and square.”
Of course, the point of the novel is that it is extremely difficult for people to accept other people who are vastly different from them. It seemed surreal then, to me, as we left the battle field and angled back to the interstate over two lane west Oklahoma highway, that we were listening to the memorial service for five Dallas police officers murdered by a black man while they were helping to provide a peaceful setting for a rally protesting the recent deaths of several black men at the hands of police officers, in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. President Obama outlined the problem this way. He said:
Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs can ever understand each other’s experience.
He went on to hit at the difficulty of the problem: “We ask police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves,” and “We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”
As I drove toward the promise of a peaceful river experience, where I wouldn’t have access to the outside world or be able to hear about terrorist attacks in France or genocide in Syria or racial discord in the United States, I thought about the profound paradox of my morning and afternoon, a near 150 year old battlefield and a fresh raw wound that suggests little has really changed in the intervening years, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deep sadness and hopelessness, as well as the knowlege that that isn’t enough.