indigozeal (indigozeal) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

48: Not named for his appetite.

woodenlegNow for one of the best books I read this year. For obvious reasons, there are few first-hand accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the 1930s, however, a researcher with an interest in the Cheyenne persuaded one of the surviving warriors, a tribal judge named Wooden Leg, to tell his story. Wooden Leg recounts not just his own perspective of what happened leading up to and at Little Bighorn, but how everyday Northern Cheyenne life was before major conflict with U.S. soldiers.

I'd like to emphasize above all how intensely readable Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer is. In a way, that's aggravating, as you can't really describe what makes a book readable - but if I had to guess here, I'd say it's Wooden Leg's perspective, so common-man and relatable. He doesn't have the removed, stoic voice so many feel is necessary to relate Native history; he tells his story very straightforwardly, as one would to a friend. But he doesn't embellish his tales, either, and the book is remarkable in its perceived honesty: facts that would paint Wooden Leg or his people in a bad light are not whitewashed, and even events that prove momentous are not built up if they seem didn't like big deals to the participants at the time. You're not getting a wide, sweeping historical perspective on what happened (though it is quite historically useful), but a layman's.

As a result, we can see things very clearly - even if Wooden Leg in some instances himself can't. We learn, for example, that the lives of a surprising number of Cheyenne women ended in suicide - which, in retrospect, probably isn't surprising given their limited rights and how they're swapped around so freely, but which hints at pain that's elided in other narratives. We see how circumstances led to the Bighorn battle - government forces unilaterally declared all Indians in what the Cheyenne perceived as their territory as hostile to harvest the land; the Cheyenne and others initially stayed put because they perceived they had a treaty and would not be harmed if they followed its terms; several tribes banded together for strength and mutual support after soldier attacks; Custer decided to attack preemptively after straying across a splinter tribe he judged to be an advance squad but was just lost. We learn how the terrain at Little Big Horn made the U.S. troops' allegedly more advanced ranged weapons a liability and gave bows and arrows an advantage (since guns shoot straight, the U.S. troops had to leave cover to fire; the Indians, who could just arc their arrows upward to where the soldiers were trapped, didn't). We can understand why Wooden Leg's Cheyenne would ultimately surrender to U.S. forces - food is forever scarce in Cheyenne life and conflict an inevitability - and we even get the sense of how reservation life at the time been perceived as humane through the presence and actions of some understanding soldiers. But we understand the author's wistfulness for the times "when every man had to be brave." Wooden Leg doesn't wallow in more depressing matters, even when he would be perfectly justified to do so, and he's a practical compromiser, but he does make it plain when the Indians were mistreated or given the short end of the stick.

(Wooden Leg doesn't, though, paper over actions he himself took that some could find objectionable; he's quite eager to fight the troops, fires many shots into enemy lines, and returns to battle even when he has a chance to quit, and he takes a scalp from a dead soldier's body in a rather macabre manner (he takes part of the face as well to preserve some facial hair he found interesting). A couple folks on Amazon called foul because he doesn't recount killing any troops firsthand, but it's made pretty clear in the pitched long-range battle that it was difficult on either side to ascribe specific kills to anyone.)

It sounds odd to say this about a book concerning Little Bighorn, but I really enjoyed this personal perspective into Cheyenne life and the famed battle. No one here on either side is an actor on the grand stage of history - everyone's just someone trying to survive, and is relatable enough to be your neighbor. Well, except for the scalp thing. But maybe not. I don't know your neighborhood.
Tags: cultural studies, history, memoir, native american, non-fiction, recommended book
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