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VALLEY WEEKEND

Symposium Will Take a Closer Look at Custer

Autry event will bring together authorities with disparate views on the Civil War general with the tarnished image.

August 08, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Armstrong Custer may have been the most famous loser in American history.

A shameless self-promoter, he was a genuine Civil War hero renowned long before he and some 200 of his men died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn 120 years ago.

Saturday the Autry Museum of Western Heritage will hold an ambitious symposium on Custer, the man and the myth, called "Inventing Custer."

Among the high-profile participants will be Michael Blake, author of "Dances With Wolves" and a soon-to-be-released novel about Custer, "Marching to Valhalla," and Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Water Sioux and the author of the 1969 bestseller "Custer Died for Your Sins."

Historian Paul Andrew Hutton, whose expertise includes Custer's treatment in the movies, and historian Shirley Leckie, an expert on how Custer's widow, Libbie, made him into a legend, also will appear, as will half a dozen other authorities on Custer and the Sioux and other Native Americans who won the day. But Blake and Deloria alone should be worth the price of admission, if only because they have such different views of the man his Native American foes called Yellow Hair and Son of the Morning Star.

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At present, Blake is scripting a Custer epic to star Brad Pitt. Conventional wisdom is that the protagonist of that movie is bound to be more hero than villain, more like Errol Flynn's charismatic Custer than the bumbling madman played by Richard Mulligan in "Little Big Man."

Blake says he did not set out to rehabilitate the tarnished contemporary image of Custer in his novel, which Random House will publish in October.

"My whole intention in doing 'Marching to Valhalla' was to give Custer a voice," Blake says. "It's not an apology. My hope was to humanize him."

Whatever else Custer was, he was very, very human. He seems to have been madly in love with his wife, although who knows if Libbie carefully choreographed that impression, as she did so much else in her role as maniacal keeper of the Custer flame. (There's a wonderfully goofy love note Custer wrote to Libbie in the Autry's current Custer exhibit that suggests he loved her enough to be decidedly silly with her.) But that didn't keep his contemporaries from spreading rumors that both Custer and his brother had slept with the same Cheyenne woman, the daughter of a chief slain at Custer's infamous raid on a Cheyenne village on the Washita River.

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Blake's book is written in the first person, in Custer's voice, as if the general, an inveterate scribbler, were keeping a casual journal in the months before he met his fate on the Little Big Horn. In Blake's version, Custer was attracted to the beautiful young woman, did spend a night with her, but ultimately feels decidedly guilty about it.

"I don't agree with Vine Deloria that he was the Eichmann of the Plains," says Blake. In Blake's view, Custer won his place in history by his valor at Gettysburg and in other Civil War battles. "He achieved some enormous successes at an incredibly young age. He did things beyond signing a $100-million contract to play basketball."

In Blake's analysis, Custer's Civil War exploits helped make him the 19th century equivalent of a pop star and all but guaranteed that he would fall from grace, in the view of a public that hates failure and envies success. "America loves to build people up and then cut them down," Blake says.

Pitt read "Marching to Valhalla" in manuscript and told Blake of his enthusiasm for the project. As to the casting of Pitt, Blake says "he's right there in the ballpark." But Pitt isn't the perfect choice, in the writer's view. "I think the person who was born to play Custer is Kevin Costner, but he's a bit old for the part now," Blake says. "Kevin has a certain zest for life that Custer had. Kevin has a certain ruthlessness in battle that Custer had, and I think Kevin has a sense of honor that Custer had, too."

As to Custer's behavior at the Washita battle, or massacre, there's no doubt he led the attack on Chief Black Kettle's village one freezing night in 1868, killing over 100 Cheyenne, most of them women, children and old people. But, Blake says, Custer himself "never butchered any women and children that I know of." Blake points out that, despite the contemporary policy of total war against the Indians of the Plains, Custer took 53 women and children captive after that bloody fight.

When Vine Deloria Jr. is asked if he does indeed think Custer was the Eichmann of the Plains, he pauses not a nanosecond. "No question about it," he says. Throughout the Indian Wars, the writer and Native American activist points out, virtually everything the military did violated one or another of the treaties between the tribes and the federal government. "The soldiers were not defending civilization," he says. "They were crushing another society."

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