Historical revisionism has gotten a bad rap. While we should reject fanciful notions put forth without any corroborating evidence, revising the historical account to reflect the truth of what actually happened is not only invaluable, it is absolutely essential to enable mankind to come to grips with the reality of the human condition.
Propaganda is the art of replacing historic fact with mythology. Or, to put it another way, the practice of exchanging the truth for a lie. We see this when some researcher gets his name in the headlines for claiming to have uncovered “evidence” that Jesus Christ had a wife and children while the vast bulk of evidence, including eye-witness testimony, supports no such conclusion.
Propaganda is employed in advertising and politics as well as within the environmental movement. To be successful, a propagandist must be able to change the public’s perception of reality. Lies are substituted for the truth and repetition is used in order to form consensus and create conformity. But making an effort to discover the truth of a matter through careful research and information gathering separates the lazy from the diligent, the righteous from the unrighteous.
In 1971, Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld discovered Klaus Barbie (1913-1991), living under an assumed name in Bolivia. Known as the infamous “Butcher of Lyons”, Barbie played a leading role in implementing Hitler’s “Final Solution” to exterminate Jews in France. In 1983 the French government finally managed to arrange his extradition. In 1987, Barbie stood trial in France for war crimes that had transpired over four decades earlier.
Instead of trying to refute the overwhelming evidence arrayed against him, Barbie’s defense team cunningly chose to portray him as a victim of circumstance. Barbie himself liked to point out that had the AXIS powers been victorious, the history books would have recorded that the NAZI’s were great heroes instead of terrible monsters. Barbie would have been promoted to some high ranking position within the triumphant government rather than being forced to flee to some obscure South American country.
During his trial, Barbie’s team of expert lawyers worked to expose the true extent of French collaboration. They provided irrefutable evidence detailing the efforts of the French government to hide their own guilt and cover their own tracks. French duplicity in Nazi war crimes became the focal point of the trial. Barbie was eventually found guilty, but the mountain of information revealed during his trail caused history books to be rewritten virtually overnight.
The French learned three important lessons from the Barbie trial. The first lesson was the realization that, “If history could be revised one way, it could be revised another”. If propagandists could insert lies and misconceptions into our textbooks, then historical revisionists armed with new facts had to be free to make corrections based on the evidence.
The second lesson is that understanding historical events requires seeing them from multiple perspectives. As a result of the embarrassing revelations brought out at Barbie’s trial it was said that, “The French are now capable of understanding what happened in their country.”
The third lesson is that the whole truth, when it is revealed, brings reflection, repentance and humility. The Barbie trial forced the French to admit their own failures and mistakes. It also gave the French a stronger appreciation for doing the right things. “Thus, by understanding France’s whole history, that is, taking the bitter with the sweet, the French were able to realize both the full depth of the collaboration and the full glory of the Resistance.” 
Contemplating what would have happened had the Nazi’s been victorious in creating a new world order may help us understand how propaganda is being used to manipulate people today. If Hitler had succeeded in his conquest of the civilized world, all remaining dissenters would have been killed or subjected to a government program of forced re-education and intimidation. Children would have been taken away from their parents and sent to government schools to learn how to be good little Nazis. As unpleasant and evil as this sounds to most Americans, we need to admit that this is exactly what happened to the families and children of American Indians at the hand of the U.S. Government.
Americans need to own the many historical wrongs perpetrated by past generations, no matter how much it hurts or how much time has elapsed. From a historical perspective, we certainly have no right to stand up and claim glory for all of the good things America has brought to the world if we refuse to acknowledge the less savory aspects of our own history. The forced removal of native American children from their homes and families and sending them off to far flung boarding schools in the name of “re-education” is one such injustice. Before comparing ourselves to others, we need to taste the bitter aspects of our own history in order to fully appreciate the sweet taste of our many wonderful and noble accomplishments.
My grandfather, William Michael Scanlan (1886-1976), was a private in the U.S. Army stationed in France at the close of WW I. After the war, Grandpa Scanlan, nicknamed “Wild Bill”, homesteaded a section of prairie in the Conata Basin in South Dakota. Unable to raise much of a crop, he survived by taking a job as a cook for a small cattle outfit just to make ends meet.
Grandpa Scanlan was befriended by a Lakota man named “Dewey Beard” (1858–1955), an eye-witness of both the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Beard’s Indian name was “Iron Hail”, but he changed it to Dewey Beard following his conversion to Catholicism. It is interesting to note that several prominent Cheyenne and Lakota warriors who were involved in defeating Custer at the battle of the Little Big Horn, including Dewey Beard, later became converts to Catholicism. Black Elk (1863-1950), a famous Oglala “holy man”, was perhaps the most well known of these converts.
Although he was repeatedly refused admission to seminary by Church authorities, Black Elk was allowed to become a lay minister and spent the last years of his life ministering to the spiritual needs of the Indian people, with the full blessing of Church officials. Despite this historical fact, it is difficult to find mention of Black Elk’s Catholicism in the history books, while references to him as a “traditional medicine man” are common.
My grandfather’s friend, Dewey Beard, was the last living survivor of both the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. During the attack at Wounded Knee, Beard lost his father, mother, two brothers, a sister, his wife and infant son. Beard was shot twice but lived to recount both of these historic events to many people, including his adopted granddaughter “Celene Not Help Him” and my grandfather, Bill Scanlan.
The Battle of The Little Big Horn is one of the most researched military confrontations of all time. But many gaps remain in the “official” historical record. As time goes by some details are lost, but other details emerge, some decades after the event. My grandfather told me that Dewey Beard’s version of the events of the battle are not the same as what has been recorded in our history books. According to Dewey Beard, the soldier’s attack caught the Indians by complete surprise. Beard grabbed the first horse he could catch and rushed out to defend the village. He was an exceptional horseman, but in his haste to join the battle he accidentally ran over his own grandmother with his horse.
Beard told my grandfather that there were many “Custers” on the battlefield that day. Beard claimed that several Calvary officers were wearing buckskins and big hats, while some may have even donned blonde wigs. Beard’s testimony is backed up by an Oglala named Chief Red Horse, whose detailed description of the battle is documented in the PBS series “Archives of the West”. Beard’s claim is also supported by historian Jeffrey Wert in his book, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer [c. 1996].
The use of decoys clears up a lot of the confusion surrounding Custer’s death. It is a historical fact that many different Sioux and Cheyenne warriors claimed to have actually killed Custer, or seen others do it, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip, Brave Bear, and Joseph White Cow Bull. All of these men were able to recount details about the killing of a “long-haired officer wearing buckskins and a big hat”, but their accounts very in detail and in location. Other eye-witnesses claim that Custer was not killed by any of the Indians, but died of a self- inflicted pistol shot to the head while being surrounded by a group of women.
If Custer did actually employ decoys, it not only confused the Indians, but likely led to a great deal of confusion among his own men, especially as their situation began to deteriorate and discipline evaporated. There are accounts that someone wearing “buckskins and a big hat” tried to ride away from the battle at a gallop accompanied by one other rider holding the battalion battle flag. The likelihood that Custer would abandon his men in order to try and save himself is highly speculative. However, this scenario is not beyond the realm of possibilities and does correlate with some of the eye-witness accounts.
In 2005, after more than a hundred years of silence on this very issue, Cheyenne elders and history-keepers came forward and claimed that a woman named “Buffalo Calf Road Woman” was responsible for using a traditional war club to strike the blow that knocked “a galloping Custer off his horse”. The Cheyenne historians are adamant that a group of women were responsible for Custer’s death, an account that is supported by several eye witnesses, all of whom are women. Perhaps Road Woman’s blow merely struck down a decoy, but there is strong evidence to support the conclusion that she likely felled the real Custer. As Lakota activist Russell Means noted in his book, “Where White Men Fear to Tread”, [c. 1995], his own grandmother, “Grandma Twinkle Stars”, also supports the Cheyenne account.
The women claim they saw Custer galloping on a horse near the village and that a group of Cheyenne women chased him on foot with whatever weapons they could snatch up, cooking pots, sticks, and a few knives. When they finally surrounded him, they claim Custer pulled out his revolver and shot himself in the head. Other sources claim Custer was knocked off his horse while he was alive, and just as some of the women were preparing to torture him, an Indian warrior rode up, jumped off his horse and shot Custer in the head. Such an act of mercy seems very unlikely since it would have spared Custer from the unspeakable acts of torture these women had in mind.
Two days after the battle, General Terry arrived to inspect the battlefield. An examination of Custer’s body revealed that he had two bullet holes, one in his chest cavity just below his heart, and one through his temple that was likely fired at close range. While there is a great deal of speculation about the head shot, it is a historic fact that unlike most of the other dead soldiers who were carved up and mutilated, Custer’s body was left relatively untouched. The relatively un-mutilated condition of Custer’s body puzzled General Terry and became the source for all sorts of speculation in the history books.
The answer to this mystery can be found in comparing and weighing the credibility of the stories passed down from the people involved. Among the plains Indian tribes, Custer was despised beyond all men. He was considered a liar and a butcher, and this hatred of him should have insured that he received the slowest most painful death imaginable and that his dead body would have been desecrated beyond recognition.
According to the history keepers of the Cheyenne tribe, a group of women came forward in 1920 to provide first person testimony about the killing of Custer. The elders kept the information secret, passing it down to the next generation of history keepers, until revealing it publicly in 2005. The Cheyenne women testified that Custer was knocked off his horse by Buffalo Calf Road Woman. The Lakota women were eager to begin mutilating his body, but several of the Cheyenne women yelled out, “Don’t do this! He is our relative!” The Cheyenne women claimed that Custer had engaged in a sexual relationship with one of their cousins during a visit to their camp.
In Cheyenne culture a sexual relationship is traditionally equated with “marriage”. The women were thus obligated by Cheyenne tradition to treat Custer as “family”, which is why they pleaded with the Lakota women not to mutilate him. Custer was, by tradition, one of their “relatives”. However, the women did see fit to drive sewing awls into Custer’s ears so that “he could hear better” in the next life. Another particularly gruesome, but telling detail about the condition of Custer’s body was not released until 1933. The women had shoved an arrow up Custer’s penis, a fact confirmed in military records de-classified in 1933 following the death of Custer’s wife, Elizabeth. By desecrating Custer’s body in such a manner, the women made sure that he would not be able to have children (or sexual relations) in the after life.
The revelation that Custer was considered “married” into the Cheyenne tribe offers the most likely explanation as to why Custer’s body was one of the few not mutilated to the same extent as so many of the other soldiers. But you will not find this explanation written in any of the biographies of Custer or in any of our so-called “history” books prior to 2005. Even today, most of our history books are still being published without these historical, albeit gruesome, facts. Some misguided souls are in favor of omitting such information permanently, claiming that such revelations are damaging to the country because they tamper with established American values and folk-lore. Unfortunately, too many people still believe legends and myths are more important than truth.
So, who really cares? What does all this mean for those of us who are alive today?
“Six months after the [Wounded Knee] bloodbath, Beard – who also survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn – entered the Pine Ridge Indian Agent’s office with a revolver, fully intent on killing the man he considered responsible for the death of his family and friends. But before he could pull the trigger he had a change of heart. An Indian friend named Little Finger explains, “He realized that there was no need for recrimination, there was no need for retribution.” Little Finger attributed Beard’s change of heart to an insight into the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Lakota. Beliefs that One Horn, Big Foot and the rest of the Flying River Band shared – among which is the certainty that there is a place in the heavens and a place on Earth where there is peace, and in that place of peace is the act of forgiveness.”
Ironically, descendants of many of the Indians who fought against the 7th Calvary, also fought for America in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq. While it is an established fact that many of Sitting Bull’s own descendants are proud to fly the American flag and offer their lives in sacrifice to protect the land of their ancestors, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that one of these native American patriots, a man or woman of Cheyenne ancestry, is also a direct descendent of George Armstrong Custer.
“The commitment of the Native American Peoples to the defense of the United States is unparalleled by any other population sector of the United States. [Emphasis added] As a people, we are the smallest ethnic group of the American population, and yet on a per capita basis we provide more members to the Armed Forces than any other population sector. The Native American People provide more members to the elite force structure of the Armed Forces than any other population sector. Native American Veterans however, utilize their Veteran Benefits the least of any population sector.” 
Family and culture remain driving forces in the quest for dignity and meaning. It is a fact that many native Americans feel alienated from the dominant culture. Native activist Russell Means and his American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) protestors can help us understand why, following service in war, so many returning Indian vets fail to claim their well deserved V.A. benefits. In 1972, A.I.M. protestors disrupted several of Sen. George McGovern’s campaign speeches. At the time, Sen. McGovern was running for the Presidency of the United States on a platform of ending the Viet Nam war, expanding welfare to the poor, and granting amnesty to war protestors, draft dodgers and deserters.
At one campaign event Means and his band barged in carrying a sign that read, “George Custer McGovern ignores Article VI of the U.S. Constitution”. While Sen. McGovern cowered behind the podium, Means shouted at him that Indians wanted to exercise their rights for self determination as outlined by treaty under the laws of the United States. Means yelled, “Indians don’t want welfare, it’s dehumanizing and degrading!”  The protestors dumped bags of white flour and other government commodities, donated clothing, mismatched shoes, and other worthless items onto the floor. Both men died this week. The “right wing” Constitutionalist and avowed libertarian Russel Means outlived his “left wing” Socialist adversary, George McGovern, by exactly one day. So much for small victories.
The American Indian Movement was labelled a “terrorist” organization by U.S. government authorities. Although they practiced civil disobedience and sometimes resorted to violence, the group was originally formed for the purpose of securing Indian Treaty rights as guaranteed under the authority of the United States Constitution. A.I.M.’s 19-month long occupation of Alcatraz island in 1969-71, and their shoot out with the F.B.I. during the 1973 occupation of the B.I.A. office at Wounded Knee, which resulted after a failed attempt to oust the corrupt tribal government, galvanized the negative narrative surrounding the aspirations of the group and obscured their goals. Sadly, many Americans still believe that the poverty and despair that still exists within the reservation system, which A.I.M. unsuccessfully tried to address, while tragic, is not only well deserved, but of the Indians own making.
Perspective matters. Truth matters. As Klaus Barbie noted, it is a fact of life that those who win the wars get to write the history books. But when we really dig down and try to discover the truth of a matter, it leads to one irrefutable conclusion. Human history has taught us that while some people behave like devils, none of us are angels. We are all flawed human beings, and yet we are all related.
 Alain Finkielkraut, Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity. Trans. Roxanne Lapidus with Sima Godfrey. (New York, Columbia University Press. 1992.) p. 90
 Grandma “Twinkle Stars” as recorded in Where White Men Fear to Tread [c. 1995] p. 16
 Russell Means, Where White Men Fear to Tread [c. 1995] pg 159.