Although I am well aware that history is written by the victors, I am appalled and horrified at the pervading, and often times flippant, racism I have come across in just a quick read through of CUSTER by Larry McMurtry. This large and lushly illustrated volume was on display at the Bloomsburg Public Library. It was set out, along with other books such as Sotomayor’s new memoir and Lisa Scotelinni’s latest book, that might interest readers.
Since I just came back from Pine Ridge reservation, and I have promised myself that I would find out the truth about westward expansion, I was naturally interested. The book, with its ample spacing between lines, relatively large text, and huge glossy pictures seemed like it would be an easy and enjoyable read. I didn’t expect to find a truly balanced or objective account, this is a narrative focusing on Custer, after all, but I can’t believe just how overwhelmingly insensitive and positively racist this volume is. I expected more from a writer who, as the cover proudly proclaims in bold letters, is a “pulitzer prize-winning author.” Sometimes, the author is so offhanded that it seems as he doesn’t even realize that he is being racist or insensitive. However, ignorance is not an acceptable excuse. These issues, and this history, is still very much alive today and these wounds are still very much not healed. When talking about our history we must make an effort to be as culturally sensitive and as respectful as possible.
Something that really bothers me about this book is that the racism and ethnocentricity just flows so freely and naturally throughout the pages. Remember, this is a book that was on prominent display at my town’s local library. Not to sound cliche, but what are we teaching our children? If I were a middle or high school student, and I went to the library to do a report about the history of the American west, I would be very likely to chose a book like this one. It’s large, easy to read, and is full of pictures. Furthermore, if I didn’t have someone in my life to help me to interpret what I was reading, I would assume that the white male lens through which this book was written was the definitve way in which to interpet the past.
In short, despite the author’s other accolades and achievements, the writing in this book is biased and racist (perhaps without meaning to be). Furthermore, the prose itself is simply disjointed and difficult to follow. There are a few interesting facts and anecdotes in this piece, but they are so deeply buried that they aren’t worth the effort of reading this entire volume in order to get to them.
Some quotes I found particularly troubling:
“He would have been killed by his own people had the soldier not gotten there first. The Indians were- and are- very jealous of their own. Success in the white world doesn’t carry well.” This quote bothered me the most of all, because it is a complete and utter white washing of history. I’m not sure what the author’s motivations might be, but I feel as if he might even be trying to erase some of our guilt for the murder of such a great leader. It is in reference to the assassination of Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back by an American soldier under a white flag of truce.
“After the victory at the Little Bighorn, the smart Indians all knew that they were playing an end-game.” This quote is just one illustration of what I mean when I saw that the racism in this book is flippant and offhanded. The author says “smart Indians” so casually, as if only a small, select group of people indigenous to this country are intelligent.
“What they wanted was to attack a wagon train and kill all the whites in it just as their fathers had done.” This disgusting quote concisely sums up what seems to be the author’s prevailing assumption throughout the entire text. Furthermore, the author simply seems to assume that the reader shares this abhorrent view as well.
“The young men of the plains tribes liked nothing better than to set fire to a wagon train or kill a few gold rushers.”
“The Peace Party itself was made up of a miscellaneous collection of do-gooders.” Why do the people who wanted to promote peace between Native Americans and European Americans warrant nothing more than gross generalization as a bunch of “do-gooders?”
“Where they quickly learned that if there is one thing that Indians particularly despise it is farming.” I’m not Native American, but I would venture to guess that if there is one thing they despise, it might be having their entire way of life destroyed and taken away from them, and then forced to try to farm on useless land while starving to death.
This is the fourth book that I’ve read for my 213 Books of 2013 Challenge. I have challenged myself to read, and blog about, 213 books this year. Follow me on twitter @SecuraOberonis and keep up with my progress here on Tumblr!