Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as underwhelmed by a book as I was by Custerology. Most disappointing was Michael A. Elliott’s willingness to paint all Indians as progressives, and to wax eloquent over their ability to balance their national Indian identity with their American patriotism. Traditional Indians, who have far less of an interest in Americanism of any sort, are left almost entirely unrepresented, and, when traditional beliefs are touched on at all, it is only within the space of a few paragraphs. Elliott seems guilty of exactly what the vast majority of white writers about Indian Country have been guilty of for centuries: reading Indians to represent his own worldview. Custer represented the Cheyenne as a light cavalry for the obvious reasons – that was his world; Elliott represents the Crow as the junior faculty of an English department preoccupied with notions of fluid identity for reasons no less obvious.
Which is too bad. Because Elliott does much right. He keeps the reader’s nose in the very real land struggles and treaty rights of the descendants of those who fought Custer. His portraits of Little Bighorn re-enactors are complex and interesting (although one would have liked him to point out that the Custer folks are getting their rocks off re-enacting an attempt at wholesale extermination). He is also quite comfortable describing the US expansion of the nineteenth century as colonialism (although he makes sure never to bring up the nasty corollary term, genocide, going through some ridiculous syntactic contortions to avoid its application).
In other words, it’s a decent book. But it ain’t the great book I was expecting. Maybe it’s just me, but it came off as a thin, fairly interesting read about national parks and ill-advised historical reenactments, with not a whole lot to offer about either the Indian wars, or, for that matter, Custer.