We often discuss the tactically inept decisions made by Custer before the Battle of the Little Bighorn without scrutinizing the uglier details of the battle itself. It’s not that much of a surprise. We want to know what went wrong or what would have happened if things had gone differently that day. What do we care if an arrow shaft was forced up Custer’s penis after the battle was over? Oh, wait, we do.
Certainly, it was common for Native Americans to mutilate the bodies of their dead enemies, but probably not for the reasons you think. Most of us are probably led to believe that the tribes were made up of fearsome warriors, sadistic butchers who were far enough removed from the comforts of civilization that they could do such a thing as shove an arrow up a man’s…well, you get the picture. But that’s not the way it was.
Sure, the Native Americans were fearsome warriors. Many of the longest-lasting, most oft-remembered cultures and civilizations on earth were made up of the same. We can’t speak of the Roman Empire without exploring the military prowess of its legions–or the butchery that they routinely committed.
The Native Americans didn’t butcher their fallen foes for want of blood and glory. They did it because they too believed in an afterlife, and they believed that mutilating their enemies in this world would prevent them from becoming a threat in the next. They were violent with us because we were violent with them.
Mutilation took many forms. Everyone knows about scalping, but it often went beyond that. It didn’t always occur after death, either. Some tribes–such as the Comanche–wanted to make a point. Matilda Lockhart described her rape and torture in the months she was held captive before a deal was made for her release. These are the stories that persevere, even though the Comanche were quite different in their interactions with white settlers than most other tribes, and even helped exterminate some of those tribes.
It’s up for debate whether or not the Native Americans responsible for mutilating Custer would have even recognized the man or known who he was, but we focus on that detail when we talk about it at all. Everyone was treated similarly; not just Custer. Then again, all we have to go on are the uncorroborated stories and reports introduced decades later.
None of the stories are ever so simple when entertained without context.