Dissent Flickering in the Shadows

The Seattle Times
September 20, 2001
By Alex Tizon

HARDIN, Montana – Traveling east from Missoula, racing through the sprawling mass of Montana at 95 mph, feeling small and slow, ants crossing the Great Divide, we came finally to the state’s southeast corner where lies the battlefield of the Little Bighorn. If we were to hunt misgivings about the impending war, we’d probably find some here, or they would find us. This was the site of one of the nation’s most infamous military failures, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

The rented Expedition parked alongside a green pickup with Oregon vanity plates that read LONE. Its occupants were Deanna and Jack Sterrett, of Portland, failed retirees. They were on vacation. When not trying to retire, she’s a computer programmer; he’s an electronic engineer. She wore lots of jewelry and long, graying pigtails under a summery hat. He wore old jeans and a shirt that looked like an Indian blanket.

Hippies both, once and forever. An interest in Native Americana brought them here. Deanna said they came to see the site of “one of the Indians’ triumphs.”

Don’t get them wrong; they’re proud of being Americans and have invested heavily in the stock market, which indicates a certain fondness for the American Way. They were horrified by the attack on the World Trade Center, having once peered from the top of the South Tower.

“Those people who jumped, I just can’t imagine,” said Jack, taking his thoughts somewhere they didn’t want to go. He shook his head in disbelief.

Nevertheless, the United States must be precise in its tactics, and instead of dropping bombs should work to cut off the terrorists’ money supply, Jack said. Deana added that Americans must try to understand the enemy, not just to destroy them but to find out “what makes them behave this way.”

All wars, one historian said, come from not hearing the other side.

The golden-brown hills above the Little Bighorn River fold and press onto each other, creating great creases in the land — ideal for hiding before an ambush. General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry ambushed an encampment of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne here in June of 1876. The U.S. government at the time was forcing all Northern Plains Indians onto reservations. The encampment at Little Bighorn, led by Sitting Bull, was made up of 7,000 Indians who refused. Custer’s mission was to subdue them.

Custer and the 7th Calvary were crushed. It would be one of the last Indian victories of the so-called Indian Wars. We all know how it turned out, and what happened to the First People of this continent.

A five-mile trail winds through the hills, marking the sites where U.S. soldiers fell. The markers look like white teeth growing out of the ground. At the end of the trail, I met a young man walking his dog. He was Crow Indian. The battlefield is now part of the Crow Indian reservation.

I asked his name.

“Just Joe,” he said.

“Justin Joe?”

“No,” he said. “Just Joe.”

He had a wide brown face, with long black hair that he constantly brushed back. He held a leash in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His dog, which he had let loose when no one was looking, was a prancing black dot in the distance. Just Joe was a man of few words.

Regarding the attack: “It was bad.”

Regarding the terrorists: “They might have reasons.”

Regarding President Bush’s declaration of war: “America ain’t always right. They just don’t know it at the time.”

We may not be in the right frame of mind to hear patriotic dissent, but it’s out there flitting in the shadows, not getting much light or press. It amounts to only mutterings, but who knows what it might become if the U.S. response results in massive “collateral damage,” the military term for dead civilians. Custer underestimated the Indians. Gen. William Westmoreland miscalculated the resiliency and ingenuity of the Vietnamese. Though in both cases “the enemy” took disproportionately heavy losses, history, in deciding the morality of the wars, has largely ruled on their side.

What we don’t know, Just Joe may be trying to say, may come back to haunt us, or worse. It was a sobering thought to take into the Montana night.