“Custer” responds to Veterans Administration powwow controversy

Published in Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Rick Williams generated controversy and anger when he appeared garbed as General George Armstrong Custer at a recent Veterans Administration powwow in Dayton, Ohio. Williams, center right in the photo shown here, spoke to Indian Country Today about his experience of the event.

Indian Country Today: When did you realize something was amiss?
Rick Williams: A week after the Dayton powwow, I heard people were angry, and I was floored. I’m a living historian and have represented Custer at the Dayton VA’s Patriot Freedom Festival for four or five years. I specialize in his less-well-known Civil War career, sometimes with full battle reenactments, such as those I’ve done for four years at Hardin, Montana’s Big Horn Days. At the VA event, we do living-history encampments and show visitors the equipment, weapons and so on. We did that on Saturday and on Sunday morning of the festival weekend. We also visited the VA hospital wards along with an Indian who was a former patient and rode our horses around. As usual, I was the butt of “arrow-shirt” jokes. On Sunday afternoon, someone — I’m not sure who — invited several of us reenactors to be in honor guard for the powwow, which was elsewhere on the grounds.

ICT: How have you processed the negative response?
RW: I’ve thought long and hard. I’m sorry I had to learn about this in anger. Every year, before the reenactment at Hardin, I stand before Dr. Joe Medicine Crow, a member of the Crow Nation, an historian and the grandson of one of the six Crow scouts who rode with Custer. He sings a song to me and to the figure that I represent. The words, translated from Crow, include, “I fought Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn. Look at me. Remember me always.” It’s neither a positive nor a negative, but it is the greatest honor of my life. “Remember” is the important word. It reminds me that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. People have to relax a little and embrace history, which we can’t change.

ICT: In the article on the Dayton powwow, Custer was described as a symbol of genocide. Is that something anyone can relax about?
RW: Custer was also a soldier, and he took orders. President Grant set Indian policy and was ultimately responsible.

ICT: Is that like Nazi concentration-camp guards saying, “I was just following orders”?
RW: You have to look at where Custer was in the ladder of command. He was a tool of Grant’s policy, though he did have sympathies for Indians and jeopardized his career by testifying in Washington that officials, including Grant’s brother, were implicated in defrauding Indians on reservations. My research says he’s not an Indian-hater.

ICT: Do his interactions with Native people support that notion?
RW: I’m the first to say Custer made several blunders. Attacking Black Kettle’s peaceful band on the Washita River was a god-awful fiasco, not a victory. Custer promoted his own good, whomever he was fighting. There was a great deal of callousness in his personality.

ICT: For some, Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn are “history” — long ago, far away and thrilling. The Big Horn Days website (custerslaststand.org) refers to “fabulous fun for the whole family.” Others recall family members, including women and children, who died there. Is there a terrible mismatch in these reenactments?
RW: I’ve met people who are comfortable with the past and those who are not. I’ve never met anyone who lost family at Little Big Horn. After the Dayton powwow, I heard of this for the first time. I hope to meet them, and I hope the meeting ends with a handshake. I’m not indifferent to the sad history of the United States and the Indian nations.

ICT: Are you returning to the Dayton powwow next year?
RW: I’ve been invited, but I’m staying away from the Indian camp. It’s not worth the controversy. I did not intend nor did I anticipate [what happened] when I walked into that circle. I meant no disrespect to anyone.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy Veterans Administration in Dayton.

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