June 25, 1876, is the day George Armstrong Custer entered history, first as a secular martyr; and then, over the succeeding decades, in degrees of infamy congruent with perceptions of him as a bumbler; and then as the tip of a despotic policy aimed at genocide. Today, there is practically no one left who will proclaim Custer’s heroism. Instead, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where he lost his life that day while commanding the U.S. 7th Cavalry, is widely understood to be the result of hubris – and a resounding victory for the Lakota, the Northern Cheyenne and the Arapaho.
Yet there is still a Custer County in Montana, named for Custer in 1877; in Idaho, named for him in 1881; in Nebraska, in 1877; in South Dakota, in 1877; in Oklahoma, in 1896; and in Colorado, north of Great Sand Dunes and west of Pueblo, created in 1877. In 1896, the Anheuser-Busch brewing company produced an advertising engraving of “Custer’s Last Fight.” More than a million copies were eventually distributed, many displayed in frames in barrooms, helping for a generation to make Little Bighorn the iconic episode of the ill-starred Indian Wars.
No one has come for the county names yet as far as we know. In 1991, Congress, bowing to reality, changed the name of the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield monument, after a bill introduced by Colorado Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only Native American in Congress at the time (there are now four, in the House).
But the protests that have swept the country in recent weeks, first under the Black Lives Matter rubric, branched out as Indigenous people and their allies in Texas and New Mexico focused their ire on Juan de Oñate, the conquistador, who was something like the Spanish Custer.
In 1598, Oñate attacked Acoma villagers, massacring 800 men, women and children. Survivors were enslaved. Adult men had a foot amputated by Oñate’s orders. Despite that and the indisputable record, Oñate was woven into the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico as a savior. Last week, an equestrian statue of him at the El Paso (Texas) International Airport was vandalized and is in limbo (it was Oñate who named the area “El Paso del Rio Del Norte”). A mounted Oñate in a group of figures in Albuquerque was also vandalized and there was a dispute there resulting in one man who apparently was defending the statue shooting another who was protesting it. That statue has been removed.
Further north, outside Española, a town with a large Hispanic majority where Oñate has been celebrated for generations, a mounted statue of the conquistador that had been attacked before – someone cunningly cut off its foot in 1997 – and relocated north of town, was the scene of renewed protests. Now it, too, has been removed from view.
Just what happened on the Little Bighorn battlefield 144 years ago has long been debated. In the 1920s, two aged Cheyenne women spoke with oral historians. They saw Custer’s body freshly fallen, they said, and kept a Sioux warrior from desecrating it. Then, they said, they shoved sewing awls in Custer’s ears so in the afterlife he would better be able to hear and act accordingly.
Custer the hero became distasteful, a process that took an unconscionably long time because the people who named counties and put up statues did not listen to a people who were thought to be history’s losers. But they are still here. And we can hear them now.