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An Indian View

February 2024
1min read

Killing Custer

by James Welch with Paul Stekler, W. W. Norton, 320 pages .

The novelist James Welch was born on the Blackfeet Reservation in eastern Montana and grew up hearing stories about how his great-grandmother had survived the U.S. Cavalry’s massacre of 173 Blackfeet, mostly women and children, on January 23, 1870. Welch approached this book and the documentary screenplay that inspired it by asking himself why the fabled slaughter of George Armstrong Custer and his troops six years later was so much better known than that one. Did Custer’s end require so many retellings? Perhaps not, but the story of the victors who defeated him needed one.

Killing Custer attempts to give the winners’ side of the famous 1876 battle. The book breaks little original ground but is nevertheless a fresh and highly readable account of the victory. He alternates between Indian accounts (“It was just like hunting buffalo,” one warrior recalled) and tales of his own researches for the film he helped make. At least half a dozen warriors later claimed to have killed Custer, and the fact that he was left unscalped is sometimes cited as proof of the Indians’ grudging respect for him; Welch says it’s unlikely he was recognized, and his close-cropped, prematurely bald scalp wasn’t worth taking. Welch describes a personal moment of connection with what happened at the Little Bighorn: “At night you are alone with your imagination. Especially if the moon has lit up the battlefield for you. … You can see down the hill where hundreds of Indians were crawling on their bellies, on hands and knees, darting from yucca plant to yucca plant, all the time advancing. You can see the waves of horsemen charging … the soldiers in a blind, terrified panic.” One way or another James Welch has found his way back into the battle’s heart.

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