Saturday, March 31, 2012

Custer's last stand


I have at least one more post from Mexico to write, but I want to get back to the theme of cultural differences.

While in Cancun I read Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn."

At one level it is the cavalry vs. the Indians, at the next it is the story of a flawed man and his place in history, and finally it is a story about the clash of cultures.

Once Americans began to push west, the die was cast. No amount of Thanksgiving dinners could have prevented conflict between settlers who sought buffalo, gold and land, and who built railroads, and Indians who hunted buffalo and carried on their own tribal wars and who above all viewed the vast West as their own.

Conflict was inevitable. There was no common language, no common experience, and above all no shared vision of the future.

Ironically, descendants of the settlers, as well as other English speaking modern-day Americans, may feel themselves kindred spirits of the 19th century Indians.

For several hundred years America embodied the dreams of immigrants. Those who didn't speak English when they got here proudly learned it. They Anglicized their names. They forbade their children from using their native tongue. They were Americans. They cherished breathing free so much that they fought against their erstwhile kinsmen in two world wars.

But what was once the land of opportunity is today viewed opportunistically. The shared vision of immigrants is "come and get it." American institutions and traditions are abstractions. That newcomers cling to their culture is partly our fault, because we make it possible for them to postpone learning English for far too long.

America is as vast as it was in the time of George Armstrong Custer, but the world is a much smaller place. Today its legions lay siege to us not with rifles and horses but with cynical indifference to the dreams of our fathers.

Should we worry? Ask Sitting Bull.

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