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Compromise Is True 'Last Stand'

History: Indians have won again at Little Bighorn; California mission celebrators, take note.

September 07, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Amid all the painful military defeats in U.S. history, what is it about Custer's Last Stand that keeps it so controversial? A recent news report on the latest fight at Little Bighorn National Monument brought back memories of a similar dispute I reported on there nine years ago.

I started out on that humid June day in 1988 as just another tourist in Montana. Ever the history buff, I stopped in the valley of the Little Bighorn River at what was then called Custer Battlefield, to visit the site where Col. George Custer and 225 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry fought to the last man against 2,400 warriors under the leadership of the Oglala Sioux chief, Crazy Horse.

The silent isolation of the grassy ridges and hollows that make up the 750-acre battlefield is impressive. Maybe it was also the oppressive heat or the knowledge that Custer's defeat took place on a similar June day, but no other U.S. battlefield I've visited, from Concord Bridge to Pearl Harbor, seemed as profound.

But I was jolted out of my musings when I got to Last Stand Hill, where the remains of Custer and his men were found after the battle. The site is marked by a 12-foot granite obelisk bearing the names of 220 soldiers buried there. The day I visited, the site also was marked by a steel plaque, crudely anchored in cement, dedicated to "Indian patriots who fought . . . to save our women and children from mass murder." I noticed from the date on the plaque, June 25, 1988, that it was only two days old.

My curiosity stirred, I sought out the park superintendent, who explained that the plaque had been hurriedly installed by American Indian Movement activists the previous weekend, after the annual Indian peace ceremony that marks the anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn. A friendly, low-key fellow, he said that park rangers had chosen not to interfere in order to avoid violence. But he had told his superiors in Washington about the plaque, urging them to hasten plans (which had been delayed several years) to erect an appropriate monument to the Indians who had been in the battle.

After visiting a nearby Crow reservation to interview tribal elders and Indian activists who had taken part in the AIM protest, I filed a news story about the plaque with The Times' national desk.

I wasn't surprised that the story caused a stir. Readers who wrote to me were about evenly divided between those who sympathized with the Indians and those who objected to the desecration of a battlefield where American soldiers died.

The AIM plaque was removed within weeks. But within a couple of years, Congress had approved a bill to change the monument's name and begin the formal process of creating an Indian memorial. Which is where last week's report in the New York Times comes in.

It seems that a design for an Indian memorial has been approved, but is now under attack by critics who fear that it will detract from the granite monument that honors Custer's men. Visitors will walk into a low earthen mound where they will see, through one opening, bronze sculptures of Indians on horseback. Through another, they will see the obelisk that marks the mass grave of the U.S. cavalrymen.

Some critics say they are less troubled by the new memorial than by a modern-day attitude that has gone too far over to the Indian side, diminishing (even demonizing) Custer and the men who fought at his side.

That is certainly a change in perspective we Californians can relate to. Even as we celebrate this year's bicentennial of three of this state's 21 Spanish missions, we are having our own somewhat quieter debate over how to honor the founders, especially Junipero Serra.

Father Serra has been nominated for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, but some of his critics dismiss him as little more than Custer with a cross.

I'm historian enough to realize that such controversies can never be fully resolved until a lot of time has passed. Until then, it is best to be honest about the many valid viewpoints on any historic event or personality.

The finest example of this balanced, even conciliatory, view of history is a modest memorial plaque in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City. There, the ultramodern complex of the Mexican Foreign Ministry abuts a church built in the Spanish colonial era on top of the ruins of the Aztec temple that had been razed, as was the Spanish practice, to make way for the church.

The plaque states that the fall of Tlatelolco, the Aztec capital, to Hernan Cortes in 1521 "was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo people who are the Mexico of today."

Recent events in Chiapas are evidence that Mexico still has problems to resolve with its own indigenous peoples. But that doesn't detract from the elegant and candid simplicity of that plaque.

Now that the long-delayed Indian monument at Little Bighorn is finally going to be built, it might be helpful to include similarly honest words of reconciliation in its final design.

And we Californians might ponder doing the same in whatever future commemorations we have of Father Serra. For better or worse, he was--like Custer, Crazy Horse and many another controversial figure--an influence in the evolution of our modern nation.

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