Custer Didn't Have To Die: If He'd Only Had A Cell Phone!

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

December 15, 2003


On a recent discussion forum called "Indianz.com/Talking Circle" the following example of ignorance, and/or lack of education about genocide against American Indians, was posted by a user named Sky Davis:
On December 2nd and 4th I witnessed a commercial being aired on WWLP-TV22. The commercial depicted the US Cavalry's use of cellular phones to better defeat the Indigenous Peoples who's lives were already the prime target of extermination by the US Government in a claymation format. The commercial is distributed by Wireless Zone, a nationwide business or cellular phone services.
After some research, Mr. Davis found the appropriate corporate lackeys to contact. Expressing his outrage, he asked Mark Asnes, Wireless Zone VP and General Manager to stop airing the racist commercial. To his request, Mr. Asnes replied:
Dear Mr. Davis

First off I would like to say I am sorry you feel offended by our TV commercial. It is never our intention to make any group feel they are being targeted or made fun of. The commercial you are referring has been running for almost 2 years in 13 states and has been seen by millions of people. The concept was only to show how things in history could have been different had thier [sic] been wireless technology. This is the first time we have received a complaint. The commercial was based on a factual event as is the other spot regarding Paul Revere. Both spots were test marketed before focus groups well in advance of their airing.

We take your opinion very seriously and we will consider it when producing additional spots in the future. Thank you again for your feedback.
Apparently Mr. Asnes feels that rewriting history, so that the "evil-doer" comes out on top makes for a good public relations campaign.

Perhaps Mr. Asnes doesn't understand that George Armstrong Custer was a child-killer, that his soldiers murdered native women, that he allowed his men to ride down defenseless old men. He was called "Son of the Morning Star," not as an honorific name, but because he committed his horrific acts of genocide at dawn, while his victims lie sleeping in their homes. Perhaps the corporate executives of the Wireless Zone, a subsidiary of Verizon, think rewriting history will help draw new customers to their products: sure everyone would like to avoid a massacre at the hands of savages. Sign up today and live another day.

Really, the Wireless Zone's new claymation spokesperson, Max Connection, should star in the following commercials: As a crusader with a bloody sword reporting on his cell phone that he had just slaughtered Muslim women and children, calling it a great victory for Jesus. As a slave trader calling up a plantation owner about a new shipment he just rounded up -- as the slaves board the vessel -- so he can corner the market. Or as a Nazi concentration camp officer using his cell phone to order his SS officers to burn the bodies a bit faster because the Allies were getting closer. If these are not acceptable, then why allow a commercial depicting a more efficient killing of American Indians?

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is pervasive in American culture: from children dressing up as Indians and Pilgrims for school plays on Thanksgiving to corporate executives like Turner defending the tomahawk chop and a racist mascot as "honorific." Even though the US Commission on Civil Rights encourages a ban of these images, few schools, corporations or sports teams have listened. The commissioners noted in a 2001 press release:
The US Commission on Civil Rights calls for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. The Commission deeply respects the rights of all Americans to freedom of expression under the First Amendment and in no way would attempt to prescribe how people can express themselves. However, the Commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in school is insensitive and should be avoided. In addition, some Native American and civil rights advocates maintain that these mascots may violate anti-discrimination laws. These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.
Furthermore, the Commission does not fail to note the dangers of such imagery: dangers that include racial motivated hate-crimes. For example, an activist against the Little River High School "Redskins" mascot received several threats after openly opposing the mascot in The McPherson Sentinel on February 8, 1999. The following day he received this e-mail: "By the way, we are going to rape your wife, but that shouldn't bother you since you're an Indian and you guys do that sort of thing all the time," and "Well, I got to go and make some clay pots now." Again, Larned High School in Kansas -- also with an American Indian mascot -- allowed the following activities at a pep-rally: a float on which "savage" Indians burnt sacrificial victims, and a sign painted on the street in front of the school which read: "Blood, the scent of Victory. Scalp Em!" During an accreditation report, school administrators admitted: "Because of prejudice, bias, or discrimination the staff at Larned High School recognized that the students were unable to work effectively both independently and/or in groups." (see, http://www.iwchildren.org/kansas/idontgetit.html)

Racist imagery, like the Wireless Zone Custer advertisement, creates a climate or atmosphere in which racist violence and discrimination are tolerated. Moreover, the Commission warns:
The use of stereotypical images of Native Americans by educational institutions has the potential to create a racially hostile educational environment that may be intimidating to Indian students. American Indians have the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation and even lower college attendance and graduation rates. The perpetuation of harmful stereotypes may exacerbate these problems.
Certainly we shouldn't single out the Wireless Zone, high schools, or sport team owners for promoting racist imagery, hate crimes, and for glorifying genocide. In American culture, the depiction of American Indians as savages who deserve annihilation has a long history. In 1983, "Custer's Revenge" for the Atari 2600, shows Custer avoiding a barrage of arrows while forcing sex on a bound Native American woman. Direct Essay, an online source for plagiarized essays, offers a 583-word essay that argues Custer was a tragic hero; and one shouldn't forget Errol Flynn's portrayal -- among countless others -- of Custer's dying moment in "They Died with Their Boots On," or the 1967 ABC series depicting Custer as hero that was canceled after nine episodes because of lawsuits by indigenous activists.

Still, that image of Custer and his 7th Cavalry on the hill haunts America's public imagination. In 1879 John Mulvany painted his "Custer's Last Rally" and issued a lithograph print that made him a small fortune. Copying Mulvany's success Anheiser-Busch Brewing Company issued a bar sign called "Custer's Last Stand" in 1896. [Pic: Beer sign ad from the Anheiser-Busch Brewing Company.]

Indeed, Buffalo Bill earned quite a fortune with his reenactment of Custer's death; even today Custer County, Montana hosts a reenactment at which the Company A 7th Cavalry Memorial Regiment participates. This group is dedicated to "Reenactments of historical events related to Custer and the cavalry, both locally and in other states" and is affiliated with the National Indian Wars Association (NIWA). The NIWA home page doesn't mention the word genocide, but purports in its mission statement that they wish "to gain an in-depth understanding of the Plains Indian culture; to know more about how the Indians lived and their social customs [and] to recreate, when possible, the life of the Plains Indian by faithfully reproducing the clothing, equipment, housing and customs of that era." One wonders if the NIWA reenacts Custer's massacre of the Black Kettle's people at Washita or reenacts Wounded Knee where the reformed 7th Cavalry sought revenge and massacred 300 Lakota... One wonders if they reenact this historical scene:
There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire -- he missed the child. Another man came up and said, 'Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.' He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and make a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.
Testimony, 1864, Major Scott Anthony First Colorado Cavalry, before the United States Congress, "Massacre of Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek," in Report on the Conduct of the War (38th Congress, 2nd Session, 865, p.27)
Would crowds flock to such reenactments? Would consumers purchase products that glorify child-killers? Yet, that is the message of such reenactments, of the use of "historical facts" to attract tourist and to sell products.

So the Wireless Zone seems to be following an American tradition in holding up as a hero, the reckless boy-general who followed the genocidal orders of US Grant to exterminate the Indians; indeed, Custer's superior General Sheridan coined this phrase: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Unbelievably, in 1996 Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma wanted to erect a Custer Monument at Washita where Custer massacred 400 Cheyenne at dawn. James A. Horsley in Genocide on the Great Plains conclusively shows that Sherman and Sheridan conducted a deliberate terrorist act executed at Washita by Custer as the first part of a formal government policy to exterminate the Plains Indians.

Indeed, a cell phone activated by the Wireless Zone would have helped Custer coordinate his attacks, helping him make many more "good Indians." Perhaps, equal air time for the Plains Indians would satisfy those who have lodged complaints against the company. Imagine, if you will, Crazy Horse using his cell phone to spread news of his great victory over the invading US army, using his cell phone to describe the atrocities committed by Chivington at Sand Creek and Custer at Washita, using his great oratory powers to rally the indigenous people across the West. Imagine that revisionist advertisement. The Wireless Zone can foot the bill.

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Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published December 15, 2003
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