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Native American History Month: The Washita Massacre

640px-Seventh_Cavalry_Charging_Black_Kettle_s_Village_1868.jpg

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry Charging into Black Kettle's Village at Daylight, November 27, 1868, from Harper's Weekly

Today marks an interesting historical anniversary given the closeness of the Thanksgiving holiday and the end of Native American Heritage month. 145 years ago, General Custer (yes, that General Custer) led an attack on a Cheyenne camp, now known as the Battle of the Washita or the Washita Massacre. In August of that year, some Native war parties, originally formed to battle the rival Pawnee, had instead attacked white settlements in Kansas, Colorado, and Texas. Some of the members of this war party, when it disbanded, joined up with the Cheyenne camp led by Chief Black Kettle.

General Custer himself had just been reinstated from a suspension (having been convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers) by Philip Sheridan, so that Custer could lead a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. Custer's blundering as a commander proves truly tragic in this case, as when he finds Black Kettle's encampment (mostly made up of peaceful Cheyenne, including many women and children), he does not attempt to identify them in any way. The land upon which the village rested was actually reservation soil, where the Native peoples were promised peaceful living by the commander of Fort Cobb.

Ignorant of this, Custer planned a daybreak assault, charging in with little to no reconnaissance done. His main strategy was to capture women and children hostages to force the warriors to surrender, which worked but not without Custer and his men killing many women and children in the assault as well. His troops took some fifty women and children hostage, and those Cheyenne warriors who did not escape were all killed. Even chief Black Kettle himself, attempting to flee across the river, was fatally shot in the back. A chief now praised as a peacemaker between the US government and Native tribes, killed by Custer's men in the most dishonorable way.

While the number of the dead are now in dispute (in part because Custer deliberately lied in official reports to make the battle sound like a valiant victory), the evidence all point to this moment as a tragic massacre of innocent Native Americans by an incompetent soldier sent on a mission born out of a desire for vengeance. Just one of many terrible tragedies visited upon the Native American peoples by the US government. Today, the site of the battlefield is a National Historic Site, where you can learn more about the battle and the people who lived there.

Here in Milwaukee, you can check out books on Black Kettle, General Custer, or even the Cheyenne for more information and learning, and perhaps gaining a bit of understanding as well.

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