Commentary: What is the price of ‘progress’?

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Every year in May, a colleague and I take about a dozen students on some type of weeklong outdoor experience.

In the past, we have done backpacking or canoeing, but this year, we camped at different historical and environmental locations in western Oklahoma. We spent a few days camping at Black Mesa, followed by a few days at Alabaster Caverns and concluded at the Battle of Washita.

It was on our last day, while watching a video about the battle, that a line caught my attention. The video asked, “What was the price of progress?”

I have thought about this for a few days. Historically speaking, there have been too many instances to count where we thought we were doing the right thing at the time, in the name of progress, only to realize later that we had made mistakes. It makes me wonder, with so many social and cultural changes, what will our price be for progress?

During the Civil War in 1864, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho began to attack Whites who were encroaching on their lands. In response, the Colorado militia under Col. John M. Chivington attacked a village that included Chief Black Kettle.

When the warriors fled, hoping to draw away the soldiers, the soldiers instead attacked the village mostly composed of old men, women and children. The government acknowledge their wrong, and in the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, promised to take care of the Indians if they moved to Indian territory. However, the government did not fulfill their side of the bargain, and Whites continued to encroach on Indian lands. When the natives fought back and raided settlements, the army decided they needed to put a stop to Indian crimes and ordered Gen. Philip Sheridan to punish they Cheyenne tribes. Sheridan turned to his trusted lieutenant and hero of the Civil War, Lt. Col George Armstrong Custer.

Though seen very differently today, Custer was one of America’s most popular celebrities. Made a general during the war at only age 23, Custer was one of the boy generals and was seen as a romantic dashing character. After the war, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and followed his mentor Sheridan out west, where he continued to build his fame as an Indian fighter.

On the other side of the battle was Black Kettle. Even after the Sand Creek Massacre, Black Kettle tried to work with the U.S. government for peace.

He worked so hard for peace that his band was forced to separate themselves from the other Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa camped along the Washita River. On the morning of Nov. 27, 1868, Custer with the 7th Cavalry attacked at dawn against the isolated camp of Black Kettle. Custer led one unit directly into the village, while the others surrounded it to cut off escape. In the end, between 30 to 60 Cheyenne lay dead, including Black Kettle.

Custer then ordered the destruction of 650 horses belonging to Black Kettle’s people to hurt them in the future. It was only after the other camps began to arrive on scene that Custer retreated to Fort Supply.

Here is the thing: Today, we see Custer as a villain, but in 1868, he was lauded a hero. He would go on to win several other major victories, each time increasing his fame. He was so popular by the time of his death at the Little Big Horn that the American population demanded revenge, which justified Sheridan’s scorched-earth policy that devastated the native tribes and forced most of them onto reservations.

It is hard for us to understand the popularity of Custer today. His methods were almost on the level of genocide, but he did it in the name of progress. At the time, Natives were standing in the way of U.S. progress. Their outdated ways and beliefs were thought to be hurting America’s greatness. At the time, Americans needed to grow. They needed more land.

The problem with Indians was that they had not changed with the times. They were considered too old-fashioned. For one thing, they did not use the land “properly.” In the U.S. view, land was meant to be tamed, to be controlled. You were considered not to be using the land properly if you did not section off what was yours with a fence, cut down the trees to build a house and plow under the grasslands to plant crops.

New technologies were allowing Whites to progress faster than ever before, with railroads and steel plows. Railroads needed to cross vast areas of land, lands that had been promised to the native tribes. With these new technologies, as well as the discovery of gold on Indian lands, the U.S. government began to shrink native lands or move the people somewhere else altogether. Forget that these lands had been theirs for thousands of years. They were considered in the way of U.S. progress.

It is hard for us today to grasp that in the late 19th century, the behavior of the Army was seen as in the right. Those who stood up for the natives were seen as out of touch and against America’s progress. The natives did kill Custer and his entire regiment. Anyone capable of such actions was thought to need punishing. Yet the price of such progress was cultural genocide.

What is the price of progress that we will have to pay today? Nineteenth-century Americans could never have imagined that they would be judged harshly for their treatment of Indians, who were considered savages who were hurting America.

What are we doing today in the name of progress that people will look back on in 100 years and think, why did they allow that? What are we doing that could ultimately cause harm to our society or culture but yet seems like the right thing to do?

Dr. James Finck is an associate professor of history at the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is also the chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium and writes the blog Historically Speaking, where this was first published. Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.