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A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West

James Donovan
Published by Back Bay Books in 2009

Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer

Michael A. Elliott
Published by University of Chicago Press in 2008

Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876

Jerome A. Greene
Published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2008

The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History

Joseph M. Marshall III
Published by Penguin Books in 2008

I. Introduction

Although mountains reaching over 13,000 feet beckon in the distance, little to nothing is immediately present that can halt the advance of a wind that punishes all who dare to cross this isolated though immortalized swath of land. An occasional scrub tree is all that stands in defiance of this wind that serves as an unwitting accomplice to winter temperatures that can reach well below zero. Summer provides little reprieve as often temperatures reach above one hundred degrees. The wind continues to make its presence known, harmonizing this time with a heat capable of driving one to his or her knees. While the prairie bespeaks its own beauty, such beauty comes via an acute awareness of the awesome starkness of this corner of southeastern Montana and thus the immense fragility of the one who dares to traverse it.

At this place, a place now known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876 was a day accompanied by unseasonably warm and arid conditions. On the banks of the Little Bighorn River these inhospitable conditions fostered by nature were matched on that day by the inhospitable conditions fostered by human inhabitants. Some say what occurred at this place on that day was a pronounced, yet fleeting, resistance to the genocidal spirit of colonialism. Others say that what occurred on that day was a massacre. Over 130 years of retrospective thought has done little to alleviate this tension. Like waves crashing upon an exposed shoreline, new books continue to appear, each one pledging to unravel the significance of this battle. Advances in forensics and historiography are employed to justify such efforts. Perhaps a more basic question eludes our efforts to remember. Instead of focusing simply on how we remember, perhaps we need to return also to the question of why we remember. Modernity offers the comfortable possibility of divorcing motive from method. However, for the Christian scholar, an approach to Indian studies must posit first a sufficient answer to both of these questions.

In this review essay, we will consider the relatively disparate nature of four recent attempts to remember the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This review will lead us then to argue that a sufficient ecclesiology is a necessary component of a Christian answer to the question of why we remember. The hope of the cross beckons to us to cast lines of sight in all directions—one forward in time, one across our presentage, and then one back in time. The Church is always looking forward to the second coming of Christ. At the same time, the Church is keenly aware of the inextricable nature of its identity. This identity is defined by members of its body who exist presently both far and wide as well as in the recess of its past. As a result, when we remember rightly, the Church then can live and look forward rightly.

II. Manifest Destiny—Why Secular History is Preferable?

Risking oversimplification, histories of the Little Bighorn tend to fall into two groups. In the first group we find histories concerning the significance of what occurred. Often the product of oral traditions, one may call these works macro-histories of the Little Bighorn. Two powerful works that come to mind are James Welch’s Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians1 and Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.2 Welch, a Blackfeet, and Deloria, a Hunkpapa Lakota, each wrestle with the lasting significance of such a victory for tribal peoples. In the second group, we tend to find histories concerning what occurred. Often the products of empirically verifiable facts, one may call these works micro-histories of the Little Bighorn. Two significant works which come to mind are Edgar J. Stewart’s Custer’s Luck3 and Robert M. Utley’s Custer and the Great Controversy: The Origin and Development of a Legend.4 These works prove to be excellent resources for individuals seeking to understand details ranging from military strategy to military politics.

Straddling these groups, we find Norman Maclean’s unfinished work concerning the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Maclean labored in relation to this effort for almost four years, 1959-1963. In his preface to this work, O. Alan Weltzien argues that “Maclean saw Little Bighorn as one litmus test of our changing attitudes about the American West, particularly the frontier military campaigns that almost wiped out many tribes of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.”5 In the figure of George Armstrong Custer, Maclean saw a quality reminiscent of the characters of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. In order to transport his audience to that lonesome and windswept battlefield, Maclean compares the fate of Custer with the fate of General Douglas MacArthur. Custer had found fame and glory via his efforts in the Civil War. MacArthur had found fame and glory via his efforts in World War II. For both, the efforts of their subsequent campaigns were hindered by forces in Washington, DC. Then Maclean contends that “the Battle on the Little Bighorn almost immediately extended its lines across the country and was on its way to being one of the longest battles ever fought.”6

Lurking behind the rationale for why the United States Government and thus the United States Army’s 7th Cavalry found itself in this lonely expanse of southeastern Montana on June 25, 1876, is a harsh reality for the Church as the rightful steward of the Biblical narrative. The politics of the day may have played a role in Custer ’s particular situation. Regardless, the boundary of what became the United States was a seemingly ever-expansive one. If the search for religious liberty (in the case of Massachusetts) and financial profit (in the case of Virginia) brought the British to what became the United States of America in the first place, the spirit of manifest destiny led their descendants westward. In Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire, Thomas R. Hietala argues that “racial, economic, social,and political factors coalesced to make territorial and commercial expansion enticing to American leaders.”7 Although he acknowledges that “expansionists assumed that the hand of God guided the nation’s destiny,” the bulk of his argument resides with the reality that the leaders of the day “sought cheap security and domestic harmony through territorial and commercial growth.”8

Hietala’s relatively secular history of the spirit of manifest destiny lets the Church, as the steward of the Biblical narrative, off easy. In contrast, Anders Stephanson sees the Church’s stewardship of the Biblical narrative playing a much more central role. In Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right, Stephanson offers that this phrase “became a catchword for the idea of a providentially or historically sanctioned right to continental expansionism.”9 Its origins areas old as God’s call to Abram but it gets “recharged through the Reformation, of the predestined, redemptive role of God’s chosen people in the Promised Land: providential destiny revealed.”10 In summary, Stephanson offers that a genealogy of the phrase “manifest destiny” “must begin with the religious sources.”11 The underlying issue is that any meaningful distinction between the Church and the state had ceased to exist.

Although Stephanson’s explanation of manifest destiny brings the Church into direct conflict with the role it played as the steward of the Biblical narrative, it also provides for a more reasonable understanding of the events which took place on June 25, 1876, on what is now referred to as the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Before moving into position, the younger officers paused to sing the Doxology.12 Within hours, many of them lay dead. However, victory on that day would prove short lived. The ways of life that brought the Oglala Lakota, the Hunkpapa Lakota, andthe Northern Cheyenne to the Little Bighorn would be vanquished soon by a host of forces they could resist no longer.13 Maclean offers that “this moment was indeed their sunset. They were illuminated with glory, but their power was soon to become a shadow and then to disappear.”14

III. Conflicting Views

Although explanations of the events which commenced on the banks of the Little Bighorn are numerous to say the least, we restrict our comments to four recent works, all of which were published in 2007 and 2008. The narratives ebb and flow as each work produces overlapping content. However, each author creates and continually expands conflicting views of the same events. Consequently this tapestry of knowledge is identified by stories of non-agreement, with each work remaining as distinct from another as its title. Our overview of these works is broken into three sections: the first section examines two works that are “histories;” the second section analyzes two works that are about “places;” and the third section contrasts and comments on all four works.

To begin, James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West is a thoroughly researched retelling of Custer’s Last Stand. Not only does Donovan introduce us to another captivating work on Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but he intends for it to be the most accurate to date. Donovan beautifully narrates which events were the “most likely to have occurred,” basing his interpretation upon the “stories of those eyewitnesses, checked against each other and against the known positions of the troopers’ bodies and the extensive archaeological and forensic work completed over the last quarter century.”15 Donovan sifts through everything from transcripts to letters, from unpublished accounts to newspaper interviews. He assembles a chorus of mostly primary accounts from which to draw as he enables the reader to become familiar with the lead actors and significant events surrounding and leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn.

This history is narrated mostly from the perspective of the United States and the 7th Calvary, both through whom Donovan is able to introduce relevant events and characters leading up to the battle in 1876. Donovan’s storytelling starts in the fall of 1875, with the exasperated Philip Henry Sheridan, whose frustration is prompted by the Plains Indians refusal to bow to manifest destiny.16 Sheridan’s ongoing influence in American policies leads eventually to a significant shift in the political posture of President Grant’s Peace Policy with tribal peoples. This change in U.S. policy results in the justification of a winter campaign and seizure of the Lakota’s Black Hills. Ultimately this campaign is postponed due to widespread fraud in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Custer, who was known for condemning such fraud, was called to testify before a House Committee. Thus, the winter campaign was lost due to Custer’s absence from command for seven weeks.

We witness George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary riding to their defeat at the banks of the Little Bighorn in front of a backdrop painted by Donovan with the following primary colors: a scandalous Grant Administration; a deferred military campaign; and a post-battle military cover-up. Donovan then incorporates Philip Henry Sheridan as a historical bookend. This time, however, the date is February 1878, and we witness Sheridan forwarding the total cost of the Sioux War to Washington.17

While Donovan’s history unfolds primarily from the perspective of the United States and the 7th Cavalry, Joseph M. Marshall’s The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History is narrated from an entirely different perspective. This work is a Lakota history—a history about the individuals who refused to bow to manifest destiny. Marshall’s history is rooted in a firm understanding that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was not an isolated event, but rather “the end of the road, the consequence of events, attitudes, emotions, and misunderstandings over the course of several generations.”18 Thus he begins to tell that history by posing an initial question: “Why did our history, especially in the past two hundred years, happen the way it did?”19 The answers to that question, Marshall suggests, “lie in the past and in the people who were part of it and know of it.”20

From this point forward, Marshall becomes a storyteller of past things. Accents occur throughout the book as Marshall draws our attention to various ironies, but he does not succumb to superficial and satirical quips. In contrast, Marshall’s overall tone is upbeat as he shares “oral stories and information from Lakota people” with his readers.21 In doing so, he argues convincingly that there is another side to the story—a Lakota story, a Lakota history. As Marshall goes back and forth between past and present, he stops in order to examine the lives of his ancestors who lived prior to the victory that led ultimately to the destruction of their way of life. As he explores the past, he commends Lakota norms, values, and sensibilities, and critiques the former Euro-American consensus that “uncivilized savages” stood “in the path of Christian progress,”23

The primary aim of his book is to recount a Lakota history, and he accomplishes that by telling us about a variety of things Lakota, such as Grandmother Earth, lodge poles and tipis, and the positive impact the introduction of the horse had on Lakota life. However, he does not forget to mention circumstances and events that had a negative impact on Lakota life. He mentions broken treaties, the erosion of traditional tribal governments, and educational programs (such as the boarding school movement) leveraged specifically as means by which to eliminate underpinnings of tribal life. With irony he notes that in the past, education was used to destroy Lakota culture, but today it is the “primary tool in the effort to maintain it.”24 Then Marshall closes his history with a charge to draw strength through remembering one’s roots. As a Lakota, Marshall understands more than some scholars that cultural changes occur and that we do not remain the same forever. As a result, we must acknowledge the strengths resident in our ancestors and ourselves if we are to preserve ourselves and the viable culture of which we are a part.

Donovan’s and Marshall’s works are characterized by significant differences, namely, historical assessments, interpretative perspectives, and storytelling viewpoints. Still, the starkest points of contrast between A Terrible Glory and The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn are twofold—the identity of the authors and the identity of the authors as embodied in the titles of their respective works. As an author, Marshall’s investment is overwhelmingly personal and emotional. He was raised on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and has written several books with topics covering Lakota life, Crazy Horse, and the Little Bighorn. These details contrast sharply with the details presented by Donovan, who does not reveal (at least overtly) the emotive force behind why he writes about Custer and the Little Bighorn. As a result, Donovan’s manuscript feels painstakingly objective.

As authors, Marshall is to Donovan as personal is to professional. As a result, their respective titles alone diagram the dichotomy that exists between their two works. The historical vocabulary is deeply revealing and does not require much commentary. For Marshall, the Lakota and the Little Bighorn equal The Day the World Ended. For Donovan, Custer and the Little Bighorn equal a Terrible Glory. The interpretation, titles, and authors are mutually exclusive, and yet each work communicates a common concern for the historical significance of the battle, an elevated respect for the individuals involved, and the honest acknowledgement of the ensuing controversy surrounding the contemporary interpretation and presentation of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, particularly its significance upon our personal and cultural history.

While the objectives of these two histories allowed Marshall and Donovan to focus on the past, the characters, and the decision-making processes that shaped the sequence of events surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Jerome A. Greene’s Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876, begins with a unique trajectory. Greene’s book attempts to answer the question, “Where lies the balance of visitation, interpretation, and development of this historic site [the Little Bighorn Battlefield] when weighed against its preservation for future generations?”25 This question harbors an important concern, especially since, as Greene notes, “the Battle of the Little Bighorn has contributed significantly to the nation’s cultural history.”26

The need to confront and identify this balance has arisen due to the initial decision of military personnel to bury Custer’s dead on the battlefield. These individual graves scattered across the battlefield have, in some respects, become a type of iconography associated with the American West. Over the past 132 years, thousands upon thousands of devotees have traveled to view these primary symbols of that epic event. Greene’s Stricken Field provides an abundant recounting of the initial development and maintenance of the battlefield, its eventual exodus from the War Department and incorporation into the National Park Service, and the gradual yet robust development of interpretation. The Battlefield has evolved from a “memorial shrine” of the 7th Cavalry to an “inclusive historic site.”27 This shift is embodied by the construction in 2003 of the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The physical place and its interpretation, therefore, have “reflected the evolving maturity of a nation of disparate values uniting for broader meaning and harmony of spirit.”28 In an effort to describe this work we suggest that one think of it as an image or verbalized map which simultaneously transcends and accounts for more than a century of events.

While Greene focuses solely on the battlefield proper, Michael A. Elliott’s Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer presents a plethora of Custer locations. Starting at Crow Agency, Montana, Elliott allows the reader to travel with him as he visits Custer’s hometown of Monroe, Michigan, and the Black Hills of Rapid City, South Dakota. In addition to visiting a handful of other locations where “Custer continues to be taken quite seriously,”29 Elliott admits unashamedly that for him what is most engaging about history is how prior events are experienced by the present age. This confession casts light on his focus, “the continuing production of knowledge of Custer and the nineteenth-century Indian Wars in which he fought.”30 The term Elliott coined to name this phenomenon is Custerology.

The peculiar detail that Elliott is an English professor reinforces one of the arguments of the work “that the story of Custer and the Little Bighorn has afforded non-Indians, particularly whites, a way of continuing to think about the place of Indians in the United States.”31 Custer and the Little Bighorn are mediums for understanding the identity of the United States, the identity of tribal peoples, and the relations shared by the two. Elliott highlights these differences as we meet the people who participate in the Little Bighorn reenactments, the Custer lookalikes, and the members of various Little Bighorn societies and clubs.

Greene and Elliott come together to create an interesting collage. Greene retired from the National Park Service as a Research Historian. His book is the most exhaustive and detailed of these four books. Elliott, although an English professor, is essentially a curious cultural participant/bystander. He is serious about all things Custer. Though both authors embrace different methodologies, both share a common interest in the significance of physical space(s). Greene believes the actual battlefield is a gateway to knowledge, much like a religious icon. His book suggests we preserve this image as an object through which future generations can direct their senses. Elliott’s use of a physical place is distinct in that it functions somewhat liturgically through providing a form and order by which to traverse Custerology. This progression hops from place to place, cumulatively providing meaningful participation in Custerology or the ongoing effort to produce ideas about the General. Even a superficial reading of Elliott’s Custerology is an act that incorporates the reader into this phenomenon. Elliott’s book is captivating, and perhaps this participatory aspect is why this work is so readily accessible and enjoyable for nearly any member of his audience. In this collage they create, Greene is as meticulous as Elliott is eclectically vibrant.

In essence, Greene and Elliott are both different types of Custerphiles. Both march to a tune distinct from the mainstream in Custer/Little Bighorn circles. Their combined efforts heighten our awareness, respect, and consideration of physical places and their function, and role. Thus we learn to hope for the preservation of these sites and for the continual production of knowledge and the interpretation of Custer and the Little Bighorn.

On one level, the authors of all four of these books embody the disparate qualities of a professional author, a loyal tribesman, a retired historian, and a curious pilgrim. On another level, each one of them affirms the nature of studies pertaining to Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn—one that is laden intrinsically with controversy and disagreement. The magnitude of disagreement surrounding the Little Bighorn, and its identification as both a historical and contemporary cultural event, which is significant in the ethos of recent American thought, has remained so not in spite of its contradictory nature, but because of it.

With this in mind, we believe Donovan has offered a fascinating read yet a read harboring a skewed perspective. One cannot disregard that this book possesses a moving quality akin to a Hollywood script. The engaging style of Donovan’s work is equaled by the honesty and emotion of Marshall’s The Day the World Ended. Only those with ears to hear will hear Marshall’s “other side” to the story. Hence, his book feels very human, for this work is more about stories and people than a battle and the most likely sequence of events. With Greene’s clear-cut instructions for how to preserve and care for the Little Bighorn, we can readily foster appreciation for his work and proclamation. After all, we only have to think of the remnant known as the Alamo, or lack thereof, in San Antonio, Texas, to heed his call. However, we would be amiss if we failed to offer hyperbolic praise for Elliott’s Custerology. This book breaks new ground and, in many ways, provides a breath of fresh air. One will find all that is in the three other books in Elliot’s, because Custerology reaches to those outside and inside of the boundaries created by oversimplification and the ongoing differences which result in competing forms of interpretation.The Custerphiles Elliott met, bluntly stated, take this stuff seriously. Elliott, in return, takes them seriously. As a result, Elliott brings us closest to making sense ofthe conflicting views seen from the banks of the Little Bighorn.

IV. A Modest Proposal

Before the Christian scholar can move forward and insert his or her own views into a debate such as the one still raging over the significance of an event such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, perhaps we need to take a cue from Elliott. In our own way, we need to return to the question of why we remember and then move forward to how we remember. We believe, then, that the answers to these two questions provide a modest proposal for a Christian understanding of Indian Studies. By its very nature, Indian Studies is an interdisciplinary enterprise.32 While we have focused so far on its historical dimensions, it also draws insights from anthropology, political science, and sociology to name a few. Our argument is that the Christian scholar must begin by thinking deeply about his or her own theological convictions as formed by the Church’s worship practices. Such views form the basis of why and how the Christian scholar seeks to understand and appreciate tribal peoples.

As we alluded to earlier, the subjugation of native peoples in the United States came about as a result of the spirit of manifest destiny. Although a secular understanding of manifest destiny is sentimentally preferable, such an understandingonly obfuscates the role the Church played. An inadequate ecclesiology led theChurch to be a subordinated partner in the Westward expansion of the United States. In contrast, Augustine called the Church to foster and maintain an identity that was separate and distinct from the identity of what was then referred to as the empire and what we might now refer to as the nation-state. In the City of God, Augustine offers that he is writing about “the origin, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities.”33 Augustine refers to one of these cities as the City of God. He refers to the other city as the city of this world. After establishing this distinction, Augustine goes on to argue that “God’s City lives in this world’s city, as far as its human element is concerned; but it lives there as an alien sojourner.”34 In almost clichéd terms, the Church is called to live in this world but not to be of this world. Via practices such as baptism, Eucharist, and the reading of the Scriptures, the chief end of people called Christian is first, to love God, and then second,to love one’s neighbor.

By virtue of its purpose and thus its identity, Augustine calls upon the Church to serve as the steward of these practices. In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible fromCaptivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas argues that “the Scriptures are maintained by the Church as having particular prominence because Christians have learned that the Scriptures exist to further the practices of witness and conversion.”35 When the Church loses site of its purpose and thus its identity, it forsakes the role God’s people are called to fulfill in relation to the Scriptures. The Bible is the Church’s book, given to God’s people as a gift of revelation. The Scriptures may possess political ends but only in the sense that the Church is called to advance a politics uniquely its own—to love God and thus to love one’s neighbor. To allow such a message to be confused or subjugated to the message of the nation-state, in this particular case, the message of manifest destiny, is a failure of memory. Hauerwas contends that “the Church must continue to return to the Scriptures because they are so interesting, given the Church’s task to live as a people of memory in a world without memory.”36 In order to do so, members of the body of Christ must come to terms with why we remember in order to understand how we remember.

One of the boldest explanations of why and how members of the body of Christ should remember is Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.37 Told through the framework of experiences he faced as a conscripted soldier in the Yugoslavian Civil War, Volf seeks to answer the question:“ ‘How does the one who loves the wrongdoer remember the wrongdoing?’”38 The answers Volf provides to this question offer a challenging understanding of how a member of the body of Christ is to love God and love his or her neighbor. While such answers provide a foundation for a modest proposal for Indian studies, two distinct differences exist between the context of Volf’s work and our own.39 First, Volf focuses on the context of individual relations—in particular, how a singular person who was wronged is called to live with a singular wrongdoer. Second, Volf focuses on the person who was wronged. In contrast, our modest proposal seeks to understand how a body (in this case, the Church) remembers its wrongdoing and thus learns to love those it wronged. Volf’s work may differ from our own at these two points. However, his treatment of the Scriptures, particularly how we are to remember the Exodus and Passion narratives, provides a foundation for either form of understanding. Putting the memory of these two narratives squarely in the center of our efforts affords us with a foundation for why and how we are to remember.

According to Volf’s reading of the Exodus narrative, two related lessons emerge. First, God acts on behalf of an oppressed and thus weakened people. In relation to this point, Volf writes that the Israelites are reminded to “act in favor of the weak and oppressed just as God acted in your favor when you were weak and oppressed.”40 God not only acts in favor of a particular people but a particular people enduring specific circumstances. Turning to the book of Exodus 2:24-25, we are confronted with the reality that “God heard their [the Israelites] groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”41 Hearing their cries and remembering his covenant, God’s favor is renewed on behalf of an oppressed people. To remember this portion of the Exodus narrative is to grant favor to people in comparable circumstances if for no other reason than God does and thus expects the same of his people.

Second, God not only acts on behalf of the oppressed but also acts on behalf of the oppressed over and against the will of their oppressors. Volf argues that this second lesson is one “of unbending retributive justice: Oppose oppressors and punish them just as God opposed and punished those who have oppressed you.”42 Inspiration for such a view is found later in the Exodus narrative. Moses, having failed to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites from his rule, pleads his case with God. In Exodus 5:23 Moses even goes so far as to argue, “‘since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’”43 At the opening of Exodus 6, God then replies to Moses: “‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’”44 To remember this portion of the Exodus narrative is to commit to an understanding of God as one who demands justice on behalf of the oppressed and thus weakened people.

Whether one agrees with Volf’s theological assumptions, three related lessons emerge from Volf’s reading of the Passion narrative. First, to remember the Passion is to remember that the grace of God is now offered to every human being. On one level, God’s grace is now extended to the Gentiles. However, God’s grace is also extended to the oppressor as well as to the oppressed. God’s favor may rest still with the oppressed. However, now God’s grace via the sacrifice of Christ is offered to all individuals regardless of their worthiness. Volf offers, “since perpetrators are part of the ‘all’ for whom Christ died, they also obtain emancipation –divine emancipation that frees them from the guilt of their evil deeds and the power of their evil desires.”45 The Passion narrative as recorded in the Book of Luke introduces us to two criminals hanging on crosses on either side of Christ. The first criminal derides Christ for his inability to save himself and the two of them. Then the second criminal rebukes the first criminal and asks Christ to remember him when Christ entered his kingdom. Christ replies to the second criminal: “‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”46 Now the divine inheritance of grace is extended to the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

Christ’s words to the thief who asks Christ to remember him echo in the second and third lessons Volf draws from the Passion narrative. The second lesson Volf identifies is that “in the memory of the Passion we honor victims even while extending grace to perpetrators. In shouldering the wrong doing done to sufferers, God identifies it truthfully and condemns it justly.”47 In relation to the oppressor,Christ’s sacrifice removes the guilt while not distorting or disregarding the sin. In relation to the oppressed, “the memory of the Passion is a memory of returning the wronged to themselves as cherished children of God empowered to emulate Godin their own, human way.”48

Finally, Volf contends that the memory of the Passion narrative helps both the oppressor and the oppressed find reconciliation. The Passion narrative reminds us that Christ identifies with the wronged while taking on the burden of sin amassed by the wrongdoer simultaneously. In essence, the memory of the Passion narrative anticipates “the formation of a reconciled community even out of deadly enemies.”49 This community is exactly what Christians seek to establish and extend when new members are baptized and the Eucharist is practiced. The very nature of the Church, its ecclesiology, is built upon the reality made possible by the crucifixion. Thus, the mission of the Church, Christ’s body, is to embody this spirit of reconciliation. The Church is not called to collapse the memory of the Exodus narrative into the memory of the Passion narrative, nor is it called to collapse the memory of the Passion narrative into the memory of the Exodus narrative. In contrast, the Church is called to stand in the midst of the tension created by these narratives and seek to embody them in a broken world.

As a result, a modest proposal for a Christian approach to Indian studies is one that lives amidst this tension. It refuses to allow the memory of the Exodus narrative to be collapsed into the memory of the Passion narrative. Likewise, it refuses to allow the memory of the Passion narrative to be collapsed into the Exodus narrative. The Church embodies these narratives and is able to offer and exemplify meaningful participation in a broken world. Through unity in Christ, the Church provides genuine fellowship to both the oppressed and the oppressor. It understands that God favors the oppressed while understanding also that God extends grace to the oppressors. Because of this commitment to fellowship, the Church seeks to appreciate the varied identities of tribal peoples knowing that these forms of identity are important dimensions in the diversity of God’s creation. As a result, such an approach does not shy away from the fact that the Church played a role in the oppression of tribal peoples while knowing also that God’s grace is woven into the very identity of the Church. For some mysterious reason, Christ drew the sinful together and called their collective presence his body. An earnest desire to appreciate the varied identities of tribal peoples emerges when the Christian scholar places himself or herself at the center of the narrative tension established by the memory of the Exodus narrative and the memory of the Passion narrative. This desire leads the scholar to visit sites where tribal peoples live and once lived in an effort to remember what has happened, and with hope born from the spirit of reconciliation, ask what can happen in the future.

V. Conclusion

Such an understanding of Indian studies may not bring an end to the debates surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Likely, disparate forms of analysis will persist. Books representing these views, and perhaps even more, will continue to emerge. Regardless, Christian scholars should not shy away from the awesome starkness of this corner of southeastern Montana and the great debates that encircle with even greater force than the ever-present wind. Because our baptism and the practice of taking Eucharist situates us between the memory of the Exodus narrative and the memory of the Passion narrative, we should find ourselves drawn to this swath of land. However difficult, reconciliation is what emerges when the memory of neither narrative is collapsed into the other. A modest proposal for Indian studies begins with such an understanding of what it means to remember. Only then can the unique qualities of peoples who suffered (and in many cases continue to suffer) so much be truly appreciated. Only then can the Church fulfill its calling to be Christ’s body, a body defined by the reconciliatory spirit of the crucified Christ.50

Cite this article
Todd C. Ream and Christopher C. Schrock, “Conflicting Views from the Banks of the Little Bighorn: A Modest Proposal for a Christian Approach to Indian Studies”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:3 , 375-388


  1. James Welch with Paul Stekler, Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of thePlains Indians (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).
  2. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman, OK: University ofOklahoma Press, 1988).
  3. Edgar I. Stewart, Custer’s Luck (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).
  4. Robert M. Utley, Custer and the Great Controversy: The Origin and Development of a Legend(Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 1998).
  5. O. Alan Weltzien, “Preface to the Unfinished Custer Manuscript,” The Norman Maclean Reader(Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 9.
  6. The Norman Maclean Reader, 16.
  7. 7Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire (Ithaca, NY: CornellUniversity Press, 2003), x..
  8. Ibid., xii-xiii
  9. Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York,NY: Hill and Wang, 1995), xii.
  10. Ibid., 5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of theAmerican West (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 203.
  13. Although biblical narratives were allowed to contribute to an understanding of ManifestDestiny, such a contribution would contribute to the emergence of the boarding school move-ment. A number of Christian traditions took federal funds for boarding schools that housedIndian children. Children, often seized from their parents and forbidden from speaking theirnative languages, were forced to participate in educational processes designed to civilizeand Christianize them. For more details see David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction:American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence, KS: University Pressof Kansas, 1997); Brenda J. Child, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940(Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); Jon Allan Reyhner and Jeanne M. OyawinEder, American Indian Education: A History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006);and Clifford E. Trafzer and Jean A. Keller, eds., Boarding School Blues: Revisiting AmericanIndian Educational Experiences (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 2006).
  14. The Norman Maclean Reader, 26.
  15. Donovan, A Terrible Glory, xii.
  16. [Sheridan] commanded the Division of Missouri, by far the largest and most problematicmilitary region in the country. It comprised the Great Plains and more—indeed, almost halfthe nation’s territory, from the Canadian border to the tip of Texas, from Chicago to theRockies. That expanse included most of the western states, five territories, a growing num-ber of whites, and approximately 175,000 Indians of many different tribes.” Ibid., 9.
  17. “[The] total cost of the Sioux War in the Department of Dakota. . . . was $992,807.78.” Ibid.,383.
  18. 8Joseph M. Marshall III, The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History (NewYork, NY: Viking, 2007), 18..
  19. Ibid., xv
  20. Ibid., xvi.
  21. bid., 247.
  22. Ibid., 18.[/efn_nnote] not to mention the parallel notion that “natives were an inferior people.”22Ibid., 17.
  23. Ibid., 239.
  24. Jerome A. Greene, Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876 (Norman, OK: University ofOklahoma Press, 2008), 3.
  25. Ibid., 18.
  26. Ibid., 3.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Michael A. Elliott, Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George ArmstrongCuster (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1.
  29. Ibid., 2.
  30. Ibid., 271.
  31. For an excellent discussion of the nature of Indian studies, see Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s NewIndians, Old Wars (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
  32. Saint Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York, NY: Penguin, 1984), 761.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nash-ville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 36.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids,MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).
  37. Ibid., 103.
  38. We are thankful to a lunchtime conversation with Miroslav Volf on October 24, 2008, forclarification and a deeper understanding of these differences.
  39. Volf, The End of Memory, 107.
  40. The Bible: New Revised Standard Version (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  41. Volf, The End of Memory, 107-8.
  42. The Bible: New Revised Standard Version
  43. Ibid.
  44. Volf, The End of Memory, 118.
  45. The Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
  46. Volf, The End of Memory, 118.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid., 119.
  49. A special thanks to individuals who read drafts of this review essay—Karl Gauby, Sara C.Ream, and Norman G. Wilson. Their insights helped strengthen our efforts. Any flaws thatremain are clearly our own.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

Christopher C. Schrock

Indiana Wesleyan University
Christopher C. Schrock, Information Technology, Indiana Wesleyan University