The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn; Joseph M. Marshall
Six years ago Wendy and I set out on a road trip that wound up in North Dakota, and towards the end we visited Wounded Knee. We were surprised to see that the only sign was an obviously amateur locally made one and there was no historical marker. There were some tables down off the road with local Nakotas who were very willing to tell us what had happened there.
The following year we retraced our steps with a couple of friends and, this time, went further North to Little Big Horn. The contrast was very clear! A visitor center with books and souvenirs and a regular guided tour round the site where the message was all about the heroic ‘Custer’s last stand’.
Marshall’s book tells the history of the Nakota from the first arrival of French explorers in the 16th century right up to today. He is a professor of history, an academic and a Nakota. His book tells the story of Little Big Horn and Wounded knee from the Nakota perspective. It’s both triumphant and horrific, of course.
When we visited Little Big Horn we did the tour which was led by a local Nakota and he was following the script which was completely focused on the Custer story. So it was both refreshing and informative to read this book. It portrays the battle as a triumphant victory for the First Nations which led on, of course, to the vengeance that was wreaked at Wounded Knee.
Marshall comes right up to date in the 21st Century with the aftermath of the ‘Indian Wars’ including the removal of First Nation children to special schools, the stealing of the land and the removals to the reservations. He even mentions Sitting Bull joining Buffalo Bill’s wild west show for a tour of Europe!
I first became interested in this history when I discovered my grandad had seen Buffalo Bill’s show in my home town in Scotland in 1908. A good friend and marvelous songwriter discovered his father had also seen the same show and wrote this –
My good friend Randy Shell runs a used bookstore here in Wytheville called Oracle Books. About six months ago he began a section of records – LPs and CDs (even some 78s). It’s amazing some of the things I’ve found there.
The latest is one of a series called ‘Ballads from British Tradition’ in Virginia and this particular one focuses on this south west corner of the state. Included, of course, are Texas Gladden and The Stanley Brothers, but what really startled me was the field recordings of obscure (to me) singers and musicians. The recordings were made in towns around here including Norton, Wise, Galax and the wonderfully named Meadows of Dan.
Although ‘British Ballads’ is technically correct most of them originated in Scotland. The great Francis James Child of Harvard University published his definitive ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ in the late 19th century and most of them were Scottish. Then a few years later Cecil Sharp traveled through Appalachia and produced his ‘English Ballads of the Southern Appalachians’. They were also mostly Scottish, although I suspect he meant English language rather than originating in England.
Our old friend Tom Burton who is Emeritus Professor of folklore at East Tennessee State University carried out research some years ago resulting in a paper called ‘The Lion’s Share’. In it he constructed a kind of ‘top twenty’ of British ballads found in Appalachia based on how many variants had been collected. The majority were originally from Scotland and the top five were all from there. He had to discount Barbara Allan as there were so many versions it completely skewed his calculations!
Another friend – the great English singer Brian Peters, has pointed out to me that although the majority of the Appalachian ballads may have originated in Scotland, many got there via England and there are quite a few distinctly English ballads that came over as well. Another piece of research by Tom Burton bears this out. He was able to trace the route by which the Scottish ‘Gypsy Laddies’ ended up in Appalachia as ‘Black Jack Davy’ and it wasn’t (as he’d assumed) via Ulster in Ireland, but actually by way of south west England.
In the end it’s just fascinating that these ballads continued to be used as either moral signposts or just as pure entertainment by the folks who came over and settled here.