Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conquest, constitution, liberation

The Custer Day Anniversary

We are coming up on Independence Day, on which we celebrate, with increasing detachment, the great epochal change in human affairs that made American democracy the worldwide measure of individual liberty. I wish that the day we celebrated was the U.S. Constitution's anniversary, because that document is so much more relevant to the concepts of personal freedom and of the allocation of governmental power. The great achievement of the Constitution was its recognition of the inherent untrustworthiness of the powerful, and its breakage of power's concentration. It's brilliant. It deserves a day, but what we have instead is a day in which to commemorate disobedience, fighting, parricide, and, incidentally, summertime. Independence Day is a whole lot easier than Constitution Day.

We just had Midsummer's Day, and soon we'll have Bastille Day, which in America are two holidays for sophisticates and aesthetes who like Europe. I have the good fortune to know some very nice, very accomplished people who throw extraordinary parties on those days. I hope they don't take offense at being characterized as sophisticates and aesthetes, but they are. Midsummer's Day is the Solstice, and it's the first day of summer, and it's a sudden reminder that from that day forward, the days will be shorter, even though we've just begun, in our northern place, to welcome such calm early dawns, such warm weather, such a flowering of the season, such delicious Western New York strawberries.

I want to help make of August 18th, or perhaps better, August 31st, a new holiday or anniversary -- Liberation Day, I think we should call it. It was on August 18, 1851, that the escaped slave Daniel Davis was bonked on the head and clapped in irons by a Kentucky slave-catcher as Davis was at his cook-stove aboard a lake-freighter docked at Buffalo's Commercial Slip. It was two weeks later, on August 31st, that Daniel Davis was liberated, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act that the Buffalo president, Millard Fillmore, had made law in his effort to keep the United States from going to war over slavery. We should have a Liberation Day holiday in Buffalo to commemorate the liberation of the slave Daniel (who immediately left for Canada, right across our harbor), and to remind everybody that Millard Fillmore was just a politician, and that he was wrong -- that you just can't split the difference, or compromise, or go halfsies, when it comes to human liberty. August 31st should become a big day for us.

But today is Custer Day, and that's a day that Americans have decided is worth noting. There aren't any celebrations I know of, other than the commemoration out at the Little Big Horn monument out in Crow country. It was on June 26th, 1876, in what is now southern Montana, that a weird narcissist wearing a senior U.S. officer's uniform sent himself, and the men for whom he was responsible, to death. He had his 200-odd men charge an encampment of a few thousand families pursuing their seasonal subsistence bison hunt. Among those families were a couple of thousand men-at-arms who responded to the attack by killing their attackers.

The 1776 declaration of Independence was followed by several years of war, colonists against crown. The 1876 Custer debacle was followed by 15 years more of what the US military had been doing in earnest since Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokees and the other Five Civilized Tribes out of the Southeast and into Indian Territory -- namely, the forced migration, disarming and concentration of American aboriginals into the containment areas we call reservations.

The events of 1876 happened in the middle of other processes, so it's rather strange to take it out of that context. The program of forced assimilation was well underway by 1876. Many a Sun Dance had been disrupted, many a Medicine Bundle had been confiscated by then. The Great Sioux Uprising that had resulted in dozens of hangings in Minnesota had taken place fifteen years before. A few skirmishes were to come -- the Modoc "war" and the pursuit of the Apache Geronimo, the forced-march of the Navajo, the Nez Perce flight. The retaliatory massacre of unarmed civilians at Wounded Knee would pretty much end the era of overt violence in 1890, when Custer's Seventh Cavalry gunned down the Ghost Dancers after Captain George Sword of the Indian Police completely lost his legitimacy and his ability to contain protests, and, in panic and rage, called in the regular Army. (Some day when I have time and patience, I will dust off my translation of Sword's self-serving autobiography, and tell his sorry story more fully.)

It was today in 1876, though, that Americans remind themselves to remember. The New York Times cites the day. The Writer's Almanac, which is Garrison Keillor's poetry-promoting website, refers to it.

Custer Day is one of those marbled observances: We mark the course of our flow as a nation by this day when the drama of the aboriginals' defeat included a day of victory. Our Fourth of July mentality -- rebellion, gunfire, righteousness -- gets a little boost when we think of the insanity of Custer's command -- illegitimate parental authority? kingly arrogance? -- getting its deadly comeuppance by the last of the men who rode to the hunt bareback on their ponies, who shot arrows in war, who painted their faces, who received their names in visions. We admit that the crazy sonofabitch Custer was ours, and owning up to him causes us to reflect on how we manage our terrible power. But on Custer Day, we hope that Tashunka Witko and Tatanka Iyotake are ours, too.

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