Five years ago when we officially removed the name of white colonial Indian massacre-er General William S. Harney from South Dakota’s highest peak and replaced it with the name of Lakota holy man and potential Catholic saint Nicholas Black Elk, some of my commenters suggested we should turn next to removing the name of an even worse white colonialist, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, from South Dakota places (the town, county, state park which Black Elk Peak over-looks; the national forest to the north).
Reporter Tom Lawrence is stirring that anti-Custer pot with his column in various papers and his online home base, the South Dakota Standard:
He was a killer, having led the 7th Calvary into a peaceful village along the Washita River in Oklahoma Territory on Nov. 27, 1868, slaughtering men, women and children who followed Southern Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. It is widely considered to be a massacre, not a battle.
At Washita River, Custer took women and children as prisoners and used them as human shields. This isn’t a modern interpretation of his strategy and tactics — he wrote about it himself in his 1874 book, “My Life on the Plains.”
“Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger … For this reason I decided to locate our camp as close as convenient to (the) village, knowing that the close proximity of their women and children, and their necessary exposure in case of conflict, would operate as a powerful argument in favor of peace, when the question of peace or war came to be discussed.”
He attempted that same technique at the Battle of Greasy Grass less than two years later. It didn’t work that time.
Custer spent precious little time in our state, and when he did he was breaking the law and hunting the people who called this land home. He was an Ohio native who attended school in Michigan and roamed the nation as a soldier.
Why should South Dakota honor him so? [Tom Lawrence, “It’s Past Time to Remove George Armstrong Custer’s Name from South Dakota’s Maps. Rename the City, County, and Park,” South Dakota Standard, 2021.03.16]
Lawrence doesn’t go full anti-colonialist; he names both Indian and white options to replace the vain and murderous Custer: Crazy Horse, Oscar Howe, Joe Foss, George McGovern, all people who spent more time on our turf shaping our history.
Of course, we should be careful about spurring name changes in the current political climate. Given our Republican leaders’ affinity for man-slaughtering lieutenant colonels, we might end up with imparkment instead of impeachment and get Ravnsborg State Park.