What a lot of people choose to not know is that Custer wasn't an enemy of the Native Americans. He wasn't luke warm to them, either. As we all well know— either from the FBI's crime statistics or our own lives— the most terrible things that will be done to you will be done by those closest to you. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Germans and German Jews. Palestine and Israel. Civil wars from time immemorial up into the future unforeseeable. Always: Fathers beat sons, sisters kill brothers, friends hack away at each others arms.
And, of course, there is a fearful symmetry to this equation: the most terrible things you will do, you will do to those you love.
Custer was close with the Native Americans, loved them, and they loved him back. Before he came to the crook of the Big Horn and LIttle Big Horn Rivers, they warned him "Don't come. All of the Sioux Nation and their allies will come out to resist you; there'll be more of us there than there are stars in the sky. You cannot prevail."
But Custer was American— preternaturally so, a Patriarch of America. His unyielding steel is the very reason for ours, and so, despite the warning— maybe, even, in the dark chambers of his heart, goaded by it— he still came.
And saw teepees, out on the plains, stretching out into the hazy horizon, a terrible labyrinthine, rawhide archipelago that had been driven up from beneath the waves of sweetgrass overnight.
And still, maybe even only goaded on by his own steel, by the fact that he could never stoop to conquer, he went out to battle, to his last stand, riding at the head of the middle column like the fletched, razor-sharp obsidian tip of an arrow.
Afterwards, a group of Lakota squaws found his corpse, cleaned it, and pierced the eardrums with an awl, so that next time, maybe he could listen better.
When NASA was preparing for the Apollo 11 moon landing they needed to test their equipment extensively. In all honesty, the entire endeavor was heady to the point of arrogance. Putting men on the moon— it was far beyond the low-earth orbits and monkey space shots they had, more or less, gotten down pat. It was a whole new ball game, and they charged in not because it was wise, or because they knew they could do it, so much as they were goaded on by their own dark steel, coiled in the chambers of their hearts and down into their spines, where it refused to let them stoop to conquer.
These were men, in America.
It was 1966, and really, in a practical sense, they knew nothing of the Moon. They had detailed photographs— not much of an accomplishment; Galileo had gotten a pretty detailed look at the surface of the moon, its topography and major geographical features, half a millennium earlier— and calculations.
So NASA built their equipment as best they could, wielding the double-barrels of sleuthery— observations and guesses— and then set about testing. A team was sent to the Badlands— the most Moon-like stretches of land in the United States— with the lunar rover prototype, a flat-bed truck with four wheel drive, and a thick binder full of descriptions of types of terrain— rocks of such and such size on inclines of this and that many degrees with substrate of this sort of grain and so on. When they arrived, they went out to the reservation they'd be gallivanting over and hired an elderly Sioux man to guide them about, based on their descriptions of the sorts of things they wanted to drive over and through. The old man spoke no English, so his grandson— bilingual, like so many grandsons in America— was brought along to translate. The NASA men would tell the kid the sort of terrain they needed, and he'd describe it to his grandfather, and grandfather would think, then begin to rattle off a long, unpunctuated strong of rising and falling consonants, and the kid would urgently start translating, and they'd be off, a rooster-tail of dust settling in their wake.
Neil Armstrong was with them, there to learn to drive that balloon tired sidereal hot rod, like a kid in the back field with his dad's old, rusted-out six speed pick-up, taking notes on his tape recorder.
At some point in the afternoon, as they were bouncing over one unmarked two-track or another, Armstrong happened to mention to the kid that he'd be taking that very tape deck with him into space so he could listen to his music. The kid tells this to his grandfather, and the grandfather asks him something back, and the kid replies, and the grandfather responds to that, and the kid turns to Armstrong and asks "That tape recorder? That one you're holding?"
"Yeah," Armstrong says, confused, "This one. I'm taking it to the moon."
The kid conveys this, and the old Sioux becomes agitated.
"That one?" the kid asks, "You're gonna take that tape deck to the Moon? That one you're holding?"
"Yeah," Armstrong confirms, "This very one."
The kid turns back to the old man, and they talk, and the old man becomes very excited. They argue. The kid, blushing, turns back to Armstrong and says, "Grandfather would like to record a message to be played on the Moon when you arrive, but I already told him that you guys aren't gonna—"
But the men from NASA cut him off— they're excited, too. Everyone in the truck is excited; The first Indian message on the Moon! They're saying. That's a cultural milestone, taking several cultures to the Moon, together. What an opportunity! Great PR!
Everyone's excited— even Armstrong— and he agrees immediately, which the boy conveys to Grandfather, who cackles with glee. Armstrong puts a fresh cassette in the recorder and hands it to the old man, who begins talking, the consonants rising and falling, without pause, like the waves of sweetgrass licking around teepee after teepee stretching our to the horizon.
The NASA guys are beaming— What an opportunity!— and Armstrong is smiling and the kid is flushed and Grandfather goes on and on, the consonants rising and falling like waves, and soon the kid begins to snicker, although he tries hard to clamp the laughter down behind his teeth, and Grandfather is laughing, and Armstrong and the NASA guys, they're at a loss.
Finally, the old man finishes up and hands the recorder back to Armstrong, who asks the kid "What did he say? What's his message?"
"Grandfather said, 'Hey, you Moon Men better look out; these guys probably want your land'."
As a young man Bruce Shining Lie mostly liked to drink too much and thunder over the sterile humps of his people's meager land on his rattle-trap dirt bike. He did these both separately (mostly in the winter, when it was too cold for his bike to start most days and there was little else to do but watch snowy television and drink) and together (mostly in the summer, when the night air was cool and clean in his lungs and hair, and he could make good money poaching coyote and get good meat poaching jackrabbits, out on the rez land and the BLM land and the private land, all of it equally god forsaken and barren in a charmingly Native American way.)
And one night Bruce came thundering up over a rise, only a little drunk but burning with a flame-solid conviction that he was about to set on something big, a wolf or an elk. He crashed over the top of the hill, like a wave rolling in across miles, inexorably, fated to meet the shore at an exact spot, at an exact moment, in an exact point in history, like a corpse going down in the sea of sweetgrass, or a cassette deck forgotten on the moon, and saw something incredible.
Bruce Shining Lie was, in that moment, scared sober. Although he'd drink again, he was never again able to get drunk, much as a tree cannot be unchopped, or a man with steel in his heart, in his spine, can never stoop to conquer.
Below him, out on the plain, a chrome saucer ship hummed in the night, low and soothing— a sound not at all like the high tension power lines that buzzed-crackled in the hands of the steel Africanish towers marching across the sweetgrass— squat as a toad and pulsing with cold starlight, like a firefly made in a factory in Detroit or Japan.
But that wasn't what shocked Bruce, sobered him, steeled him. Before the ship stood a slight, luminously grey man, sampling the night air like a business man out for a stroll and a smoke.
Breathless, thoughtless, Bruce killed the bike's engine, swung off, heedless of the much-beloved Kawasaki falling to it's side in the grit and rocks.
He watched the little man— the space man— who now crouched before his ship, scooping up handfuls of the barren Badlands dust, letting it trickle through his four long fingers.
Bruce did not think of natives running to the shore to greet Columbus upon his arrival in Hispaniola, did not think of Manhattan Island sold for $24 in trinkets, did not thing of General Amherst's smallpox blankets, did not think of Indians coursing through the winter white New England forests like bucks, pursued by blunderbussed Pilgrims.
He didn't think of any of that, 500 years of fire that had forged the steel in the dark chambers of his heart, the steel that coiled out up through his spine.
The little man was lovely and peaceful, fascinated with the soil that Bruce, in his limited capacity to love anything, loved as much as he could ever love.
Bruce was thoughtless, a spring, a cog, another gear grinding away, locked with the German's and their Jews, with Cain and his brother, with fathers and daughters throughout history.
He dropped to one knee and shouldered his rifle, drawing his sights onto the little man—
Later that night Bruce returned with gasoline, and finished the saucer and space man alike, the fire roaring and crashing like storm swept sweetgrass.
It was not the last saucer he burned, nor the last space man he killed.
And nobody knows— even now, even today— that it is Bruce that keeps us safe from marauders and explorers, that makes sure that whoever is coming only knows earth as a hostile land, where scouts land and are never heard from again.
Some nights, as he sits at his kitchen table drinking cheap beers, Bruce Shining Lie watches his son, Leonard, study and study, poring over his history books, burning with the fire that forges steel in men, in boys.
"You know," he tells Leonard, rolling the can back and forth, listening to it crinkle between his hands, "There's only one lesson American History can teach Indians: 'Shoot first and ask questions later.' Do they have that in your book there?"
"No, Pops," he says, looking up from Wounded Knee, from Tecumseh, from Geronimo, "Not in this one. But it'll be in the one I write."
Bruce smiles at his son, "Good boy," and nods. He tosses the can in the trash as he heads out the back door.
Leonard hears the Kawasaki growl to life and spray gravel as it tears out, only half-wondering where his dad goes every night on his old rattle-trap dirt bike.
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