02 September 2008

indian country

A teepee, near Custer, South Dakota / Mile 3,539 – In trying to reconcile my American pride with the darker chapters of our history, nothing presents quite as big a challenge for me as the shameful treatment of Native Americans. Perhaps slavery is a bigger source of cognitive dissonance for many Americans, but the lasting effects of slavery are at least still part of our national discussion, and it still feels possible to heal those lingering wounds through social and cultural change. On the other hand, there would appear to be nothing that we can do now to erase the stain of centuries of large-scale killing and dispossession of the Native peoples. Indeed, America as we know it would not even exist without it—and I don’t know if I could un-wish it without running into some kind of logical contradiction.

Those kinds of thoughts were bubbling through my mind as we visited the memorial to the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s last stand. The battlefield is located among the starkly beautiful, rolling brown grasslands of southwestern Montana. Given the cognitive dissonance mentioned above, I was curious as to how the battle would be presented to visitors. For the most part, I found the displays to be evenhanded, in a bad way. The battle was some kind of “clash of cultures” rather than a tragic event where lots of men on both sides died because of greed married to the apparatus of the state. I was encouraged, though, to learn that Congress and the first President Bush had the park renamed in the early 1990s. (Prior to that, the name had memorialized Custer). More than a century after the fact, a monument was erected to the Natives killed in battle, and red headstones were added to the places where they died just as white headstones mark where Custer and his men died. A typical headstone reads something like this: “Closed Hand, a Cheyenne warrior, fell here while defending the Cheyenne way of life.” It’s sad that this kind of recognition took so long to happen, but it provides a much more true, more useful, and ultimately more interesting story.

South of Little Bighorn, I-90 leaves Montana and lops off the northeastern corner of Wyoming. We weren’t going to spend a night in the Cowboy State, nor did we have any particular stops planned there, which gave rise to a discussion of under what conditions one could say one had “been to” a particular state. None of us had been to Wyoming before, and we all wanted to add it to our tallies with a clear conscience. Clearly airport layovers don’t count, and we all agreed that a drive-through alone is not sufficient. Beyond that, our criteria differed. Elise had the most permissive rules, to the effect that merely peeing in a state qualified one as a visitor. Mine are a bit more stringent; if a night was not to be spent in the state, then a visit to some site of historic, ecological, or cultural significance would most likely be required. The town of Sheridan looked promising, but our turn off the highway yielded nothing more than a drive through a very empty downtown (it was after 5 p.m. on Labor Day) and a stop at Starbuck’s, where we all became official Wyoming visitors by Elise’s rules. As we continued down the highway, I read aloud Lonely Planet’s segment on Wyoming history, and we listened to Wyoming public radio. (Fun fact: Wyoming gave women the vote and the right to run for office a half-century before women’s suffrage became part of our Constitution. Wyoming’s motivations were not entirely magnanimous—the all-male legislature was hoping the gesture would help reduce a 6-to-1 gender imbalance—but it was a progressive move nonetheless.)

By that point I was beginning to feel like I had officially been to Wyoming, but we made one final stop at a dive bar in Gillette for dinner and, I hoped, a local brew. Unfortunately, the bartender informed us, Wyoming does not produce any beer; “Wyoming is not that cool,” she said. This bar had a feature I had never seen before: a blackboard in the men’s room, which at that time attested to a certain gentleman’s eagerness to perform unspeakable acts and listed said gentleman’s phone number. Perhaps the blackboard is an effort to reduce graffiti by providing a different, um, creative outlet? At any rate, after witnessing that and having a bizarre encounter with a drunken local, I decided I would officially claim to have visited the great state of Wyoming.

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