Tony Platt

1 CUSTERS LAST STAND

Remembering to Forget

One day in 2017, a woman taking a yoga class at a senior center in Oakland noticed a large painting on the wall that depicted “Custer’s Last Stand.” She found it offensive and racist, and fired off emails to city officials asking for it to be removed.

In response to this complaint, Jennifer King, director of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, convened a public forum on 17 January 2018 to discuss the issue. A panel, of which I was a member, presented a variety of viewpoints. Ms. King saw Custer getting his comeuppance, and Toby McLeod of Sacred Land Film Project thought the artist had demonstrated some sympathy to the Native point of view. Roberto Bedoya, Oakland’s manager of Cultural Affairs, noted that local government has a commitment to make sure that public buildings represent the city’s cultural diversity and legacy of struggles for social justice. Tony Gonzales from the American Indian Movement and Corrina Gould (Chochenyo Ohlone) made the case that the painting glorifies Custer and should be removed, a position with which most people in the audience concurred.

I argued that people who work at and use the Senior Center should determine what to do about the painting, but the information I presented made clear that I personally would not want to look up from a downward-facing dog to see a glorified image of Custer standing on higher ground in a dazzling light beneath the U.S. flag, his receding hair miraculously luxuriant.

There has been much debate in recent years about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy in the South, with the legacies of slaveholders whose fortunes launched Ivy League universities in the East, and with the statues of great men who did great harm. Efforts are also under way to do something about the gender imbalance in the sparse public representation of women. Of some 5,200 statues in the United States depicting historical figures, fewer than 400 are women. Only five public statues in New York honor women.[1]

There is no need to travel very far to engage these issues. We have plenty of cultural skeletons in our own backyard, as California’s official narratives typically represent the state as superior to the South with its history of slavery, conveniently sanitizing the state’s own blood-drenched origins in conquest and war. Academic historians have documented in relentless and scrupulous detail that what was done to Native peoples in California constitute genocide. Yet the guardians of our public history prefer upbeat stories that emphasize a narrative of progress and civilization.[2] How else to explain the glaring absence of memorials, plaques, ceremonies, rituals, days of mourning, elementary and high school textbooks, and sites of memory to remind us how the past bleeds into the present?

Unlike universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Georgetown that are trying to come to terms with the paradox of enlightened knowledge coexisting with the trade in enslaved Africans, the University of California has not yet examined its own complicity in institutionalized racism, such as how Berkeley’s Anthropology department rose to international prominence by promoting the enthusiastic grab of thousands of Native graves in order to accumulate artifacts and human remains for display and science.[3]

The Custer painting is one of several current controversies about historical amnesia taking place in California. In San Francisco, organizations led by Native American groups lobbied the Arts and Historical Preservation Commissions to remove a section of the “Early Days” memorial in Civic Center that depicts a vaquero and missionary standing over an almost naked Indian, presumably offering to uplift him into a civilization that almost liquidated his people.

For years, activists at Stanford have been urging the university to erase the name of Father Junipero Serra from buildings, given his role as a key architect of a Mission system that laid the foundations of California’s genocide. Down south at Long Beach State University, the descendants of the Tongva people who lived here from time immemorial are deeply offended by the campus’ mythic statue of Prospector Pete, a celebration of manly conquest.[4]

Up the coast in the town of Arcata, activists petitioned the city council to remove a statue of President McKinley from the public square, and a marker outside the historic Jacoby building constructed in 1857. They object to McKinley as a civic icon, given his racial politics and war against the Philippines that marked the rise of American imperialism.

A similar monument to Admiral Dewey in San Francisco’s Union Square glorifies war and expansionism in a city with a reputation for antiwar activism.

The Jacoby plaque in Arcata commemorated a building that “served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles,” a refuge for Gold Rush settlers and speculators. This seemingly neutral statement makes a mockery of genocide by turning victims into perpetrators. It perpetuates the fable that the good citizens of the region did not participate in, support, or fund military campaigns that reduced once thriving tribal communities to one thirtieth of their population by the end of the nineteenth century; or that well into the twentieth century they had nothing to do with the commerce in Native women, children, artifacts, and human bones that played a significant role in the economic development of northwest California.

In Berkeley, a campaign is under way to change the name of a building in which the law school is housed. In May 2017, Charles Reichmann, a university lecturer, published an opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle that exposed John Henry Boalt, after whom Boalt Hall is named, as a “virulently racist” proponent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, who was “instrumental in catalyzing California opinion in support of this law.”[5] Berkeley’s new law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, appointed a committee to explore how the name might be changed, and how to juggle the competing demands of Chinese-American law students, academics from China, anti-racism activists, conservative alumni who identify themselves as “Boalties,” and university lawyers worried about the fine print of a bequest.

What these examples have in common, aside from a shared racial narrative about civilization and savagery, is that many memorials were created around the same time: “Custer’s Last Stand” was painted in 1883, “Early Days” erected in 1894, the Dewey monument in 1903, the McKinley statue in 1906, and Boalt Hall named in 1911. There are exceptions to this timeline: Long Beach State branded Prospector Pete in 1949, and the Arcata plaque was installed in 1963, testimony to the staying power of imagery that was popularized in nineteenth century tropes about hardy settlers and “Indian troubles.”

The destruction of Native communities was well known and publicized in the second half of the nineteenth century. Reformers spoke out against the “sin” of the “brutal treatment of the California tribes,” and lamented the uncivilized behavior of the civilizers. “Never before in history,” wrote a popular journalist in the early 1870s, “has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness, or appalled into utter and whispering silence forever and forever.”[6] But by the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The production of the state’s revisionist history was a popular enterprise, incorporated into grandly produced “theatres of memory,” such as world fairs and local spectacles, into travel books, memoirs, adventure stories, textbooks, and magazines that exported the California Story around the country, long before Hollywood entered the picture.[7]

The creation of a public narrative of the past both excused and legitimated racist images of Native peoples, making it easier for future generations to sleep untroubled and evade a reckoning with the region’s “Early Days.” The logic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific racism was central to framing the attempted extermination of hundreds of thousands of people as a natural rather than social history, and as a process of inevitable erosion and decline rather than the result of human intervention and aggression.

By the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The California Story imagined Native peoples as a “disappearing race,” predestined to extinction as a result of their own biological inferiority, the survivors characterized as child-like and in need of the firm hand of civilizing institutions, such as the vaquero and priest in the San Francisco tableau. Literary images of California Indians generally emphasized the passivity of victims, thus implying complicity in their own demise (reminiscent of 1950s depictions of Jews as sheep being too easily led to their slaughter during the Holocaust), despite a long history of resistance, from guerilla warfare during the Gold Rush, to young men and women in boarding schools plotting revolts, to political organizing against the looting of graves.

The effectiveness of this remaking of history meant that by the 1930s a popular book could relegate the ruin of California’s Native peoples to a footnote. As late as 1984, an elementary school text transformed the bloody horrors of the 1850s into a mild case of culture conflict: “The people who came to look for gold and to settle in California did not understand the Indians. They made fun of the way the Indians dressed and acted.”[8]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.


Civilization and Barbarism

“Custer’s Last Stand” was a national story that resonated in California as both a vindication of expansionism and a warning against the dangers of barbarism. The painting that hangs in Oakland’s senior center evokes a battle scene in 1876 in which General George Armstrong Custer died along with some 263 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, Montana. You might reasonably think that the term “Last Stand” refers to the resistance of Plains Indians to the U.S. Army’s onslaught before, as Philip Deloria observes: “a mechanized, train-riding, machine-gunning military rapidly subdued native people, forcing them to reservations.”[9]

Perversely, the “Last Stand” refers to Custer’s role in his final battle. Custer was a military man all his short life (1839-1876). He graduated from West Point and fought in the Civil War. After that war was over, he fought Indians. He died at war. Given how well his name is known (though inevitably paired with “Last Stand”), you might also think that he was an unblemished military leader who had a bit of bad luck at Little Big Horn, or that he was a warrior of extraordinary courage—the last one standing in the battle. Historical evidence suggests neither is true.

Today, Custer’s reputation is mixed, with one military historian characterizing him as a “gallant idiot.” In the 1860s, in large part due to his knack for self-promotion through published articles and a book (My Life on the Plains), and for attracting a favorable press, the youngest divisional commander in the Cavalry Corps became known as “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.” As historian Richard Slotkin observes, Custer “took direct charge of the making of his own public persona.”[10]

After the Civil War, Custer’s career was up and down.

In 1867, during the Kansas-Colorado campaign, he ordered deserters shot without trial and left his post without permission, for which he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the military without pay. In 1868 he returned from exile to defeat the Southern Cheyenne at the Washita, and was rumored to have encouraged his soldiers to rape women captives.[11]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.

If, as the Sioux chief Sitting Bull put it, “the love of possessions is a disease among them,” Custer was somebody who enthusiastically spread the virus. In violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, signed by the Sioux and U.S. government, Custer led an expedition looking for gold into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874. He regarded Indians as a once “noble race” who had degenerated and were doomed to extinction: “The Indian cannot be himself and be civilized: he fades away and dies.”[12]

In 1876, as a sort of poetic justice, Custer blundered into the largest gathering of Plains Indians fighters ever assembled in central Montana. With the story of the “Last Stand,” he became the celebrity in death that he never fully achieved while he was alive.[13]

We know from military and Native histories that the term is not an accurate description of what took place at Little Big Horn. The battle was chaotic and overwhelming, with Custer and his men swept away quickly in a rout. The actual fighting took about “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat a meal,” according to one account. There was no heroic Last Stand at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, the much less romantic name that Native fighters used. Like war in general, it was nasty and brutal, with the defeated fleeing in panic. According to an oral history with Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne fighter, the battle “looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.” A day or so later, Custer and his men were found strewn about in the stifling heat, naked and torn apart, their bodies covered in flies and swollen with gas.[14]

So how did a leader associated with one of the nation’s worst military defeats become a national hero? According to Slotkin, the celebration of the United States centennial in Philadelphia on 4 July 1876, nine days after the battle of Little Big Horn, provided an opportunity to remake Custer’s humiliating death into a “redemptive sacrifice” on behalf of the nation’s quest to “bring light, law, liberty, Christianity, and commerce to the savage places of the earth.” The myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” became a cultural icon, popularized in the media as a stand-in for the need to overcome anxieties about rebellions from below, whether Indian tribes fighting back, or a labor movement demanding workers’ rights, or a capitalist civilization threatened by barbarian immigrants.[15]

Some credit for the popularity of the Custer myth can also be given to his wife’s relentless publicity campaign that persisted for fifty-seven years after his death, similar to the role played by Beatrice Patton who appointed herself the guardian of the official memory of another self-promoting general, George Patton, after his death at the end of World War II.[16] Until 1991, when Native activists forced Congress to make changes, the National Park Service glorified a fictional Custer by turning the Custer Battlefield National Monument into a shrine that elevated him above the tribes that defeated him.[17]

Custer, 1876

Custer, 1876

The making of the myth of the Last Stand was, like the making of the California Story, a massive literary and artistic production. In “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” written a couple of weeks after the general’s death, Walt Whitman represented him as a Christ-like figure who gave his life in the “fatal environment” of the “Indian ambuscade,” and left an example of “fighting to the last in sternest heroism,” at his “most glorious in defeat.”[18]

It is this image of Custer in the mold of Daniel Boone that stars in the painting in Oakland. The building in which it hangs was constructed in 1927 for the Veterans’ Administration, and the painting was donated in the 1930s as a gift in honor of veterans of the Spanish-American War. For years the city has owned the Veterans’ Memorial Building that is now primarily used as a center for seniors, though four veterans’ organizations still retain a small presence.[19]

The painting is dated 1883 and signed “A.D. Cooper.” Astley David Middleton Cooper was born in St. Louis in 1856 and came of age during the Civil War. He moved to the Bay Area in 1870 when the military phase of the genocide against California tribes was taking place, where he made a living as an artist churning out as many as one thousand paintings until his death in 1924. He specialized in romantic images of an imagined Native past, as well as cheesy nudes. His “Last Stand” was part of a booming cottage industry that made the myth seem like real history to millions of people and helped to frame the West as the land of last stands. Even as killing expeditions, enslavement of women, cultural annihilation, and looting of thousands of graves took place around him in California, he chose to conjure up exotic, faraway savages as subjects for his paintings.

San Jose likes to claim Cooper as one of their preeminent celebrities and “a legendary local figure,” but in reality he was, according to art historian Annie Ronan, a relatively minor figure in American art. Today, in comparison with peers such as Frederic Remington and C.R. Russell, Cooper’s work has little commercial value.[20]

Cooper was also a flimflam artist and, like Custer, embellished his public reputation. He said that at the age of twelve he had learned his trade in Paris, “where he studied under the best masters,” that he had taken medical courses in anatomy, that he had lived with the Lakota, that he traveled with Custer, and so on. [21] In fact, there is no evidence for any of these claims or that he had any direct experiences living or working with Native peoples.

Moreover, the painting of “Custer’s Last Stand” has little resemblance to the real Custer, and there is a good possibility that Cooper was not even its artist. Custer liked to model his appearance—buckskins included—on William Cody. Popularly known as Buffalo Bill, Cody was a former military scout who made his name in Wild West performances. After Custer’s death, Cody returned the compliment and performed as a Custer lookalike.[22] The Custer in “Custer’s Last Stand” looks less like the real Custer, with his thinning and graying hair, and more like Buffalo Bill performing “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.”

Cooper usually signed his work as “A.D.M. Cooper.” He also encouraged his apprentices to copy his paintings and sign his name. Given that “Custer’s Last Stand” is signed “A.D. Cooper” and, according to Ronan, is “more cartoonish and compositionally different” than Cooper’s other pieces, the work that hangs in the Oakland senior center is likely a copy, and should be more accurately titled, Buffalo Bill Performing Custer’s Last Stand, attributed to A.D.M. Cooper.[23]


To Be Determined

The celebration of efforts to pacify and assimilate Native tribes—as evoked in the art of “Custer’s Last Stand” and the memorial to “Early Days”—set a standard for other chapters in the California Story’s racial narrative: making an advocate of the ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants into a founding father of a law school; and honoring the men who subjugated the Philippines with statues in city centers. As Carey McWilliams observed, to understand “race attitudes” in the United States, “one must begin at the beginning,” starting with racism against Native peoples as the “point of departure.”[24]

Recent campaigns to remove or replace images, memorials, and statues that glorify conquest or erase struggles for social justice have had mixed results. Arcata’s city council quickly moved to remove the plaque that identified a building as a refuge from “Indian troubles.” Its effort to take down the McKinley statue from the town’s plaza, however, met national opposition and a vigorous local campaign to preserve the landmark. A ballot initiative in November may decide this issue, but the town’s deep political divide will endure. Meanwhile, Admiral Dewey still towers over San Francisco’s Union Square.[25]

Despite legal efforts by a group opposed to “destroying a part of history,” as dawn broke on 14 September, city workers hauled away the 2,000-pound “Early Days” statue from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Ohlone tribal leaders witnessed this victory. Similarly, Stanford University will soon expunge Junipero Serra’s name from its buildings, and Prospector Pete will no longer “strike the gold of education” at Long Beach State University.[26]

At Berkeley, a committee appointed by the dean of the law school called for dishonoring the nineteenth century lawyer who once made the case that “the Chinaman… excites in us, or at least in most of us, an unconquerable repulsion.” If the committee’s recommendations prevail, the law school building will no longer be named Boalt Hall, after a man whose “principal public legacy is one of racism and bigotry.”[27]

These struggles over history and memory are not easily resolved. The Boalt committee at Berkeley, a university known globally as a bastion of liberal thought and activism, surveyed some 2,000 members of the “law school community” about how the law school building should be named. As many as one-third of respondents wanted no change in the status quo, while another eleven percent argued that the Boalt name should remain in honor of John Boalt’s wife who made the bequest after her husband’s death. Less than fifty percent of respondents agreed with the committee’s findings. Some eighteen months after Charles Reichmann published his essay exposing John Boalt’s unvarnished racism, we have not yet reached the more difficult second stage of the struggle: How and what to rename the building?

Meanwhile, as of October 2018, Custer still makes his Last Stand in Oakland’s senior center.

I welcome the current debates about how we name the places in which we live, work, and go to school, a process that until now has never been subject to democratic governance. It takes concerted and sometimes lengthy efforts to remove symbols of racism and superiority from public squares and buildings. Still ahead is the more difficult and messy challenge of how to publicly do justice to the tragic past, represent today’s profound inequalities and injustices, and recognize the social movements and activists who have tried and continue to try to make the United States, in the words of Langston Hughes, into “the land that has never been yet.” These challenges remain to be determined, as we must too.

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Notes

[1] Maya Salam, “America’s Public-Statue Gender Gap,” The New York Times, international edition, 15 August 2018.

[2] Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[3] “Princeton History Project: History and Slavery,” https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-slavery-holding-the-center; “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” http://www.yaleslavery.org/YSA.pdf; “Georgetown University: Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation,” http://slavery.georgetown.edu/; Tony Platt, Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2011).

[4] Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Serra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Tony Platt, “Sainthood and Serra: It’s An Insult to Native Americans,” Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2015; Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue Is Set to Be Removed,” The New York Times, 4 October 2018.

[5] Charles Reichmann, “The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 2017.

[6] Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985), 70; Stephen Powers, Tribes of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 404.

[7] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).

[8] A.A. Gray, History of California From 1542 (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1934), 338; Durlynn C. Anema et al., California Yesterday and Today (Morristown, New Jersey: Silver Burdett, 1984), 167.

[9] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), 104.

[10] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 7, 385, 409.

[11] Ibid., 402-403.

[12] George Armstrong Custer, “The Red Man” (1858), cited in Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 410.

[13] Deloria, Playing Indian, 104.

[14] Peter Nabokov, ed., Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-2000 (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 110; Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 431.

[15] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 8, 531; William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1991), 297.

[16] Tony Platt, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 140-141.

[17] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 172; Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

[18] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 10-11.

[19] Personal communication from Jennifer King, Director, Downtown Oakland Senior Center.

[20] Gary Singh, “San Jose’s Most Notorious Painter Exhibits at Cantor Arts Center,” Metro News, 12 August 2015. Evaluation of Cooper’s artistic merit relies on interviews with art historian Annie Ronan, Earlham College, and Emily Godby, “Trilby Goes Naked and Native on the Midway,” in The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Wendy Jean Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 161-194.

[21] “Trilby’s Artist,” Omaha Daily Bee (16 September 1898).

[22] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 408.

[23] Personal communication with Annie Ronan.

[24] Carey McWilliams, Brothers Under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1944), 50, 67.

[25] Kimberly Wear, “McKinley Statue Debate Making the Media Rounds,” North Coast Journal (3 April 2018) Thaddeus Greenson, “Arcata Council Sends McKinley Initiative to Voters,” North Coast Journal (2 July 2018).

[26] Dominic Fracassa, “Disputed Statue Taken Down Before Sunrise,” San Francisco Chronicle (15 September 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Sierra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue is Set to be Removed.”

[27] Charles Cannon et al., “Report of the Committee on the Use of the Boalt Name,” U.C. Berkeley Law (25 June 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Cal Law School Reconsiders Boalt Name,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 2008.

 

Tony Platt is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and the author of twelve books, including Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019). Thanks to Kathryn Heard for research assistance; to anonymous reviewer and Cecilia O’Leary for critical feedback, and to Sara Wadford for permission to use her image “To Be Determined,” Photo illustration by ABA Journal/Shutterstock.

Copyright: © 2018 Tony Platt. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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