Dear Dirty America


Marching Into the Untamed Classroom Again with the Spirit of the General

Marching Into the Untamed Classroom Again with the Spirit of the General
August 26
14:50 2014

after an impromptu vacation and very quiet period for DDA;
edited remotely by Hubert Humdinger

A new college semester looms again. Back into the untamed classroom I descend, to demand students read essays and try their best to write in the manner in which they’ve read — formally, and one word at a time.

Praire_DakotaTo train their wild imaginations that live and feed upon their own layered fantasies presented to themselves in waves and rhythms, and coerce them back into the familiar chains of grammatically-sound sentences, strung rigidly across the endless white pages, locked like links, letter by letter, conveying socially acceptable ideas.

After the long summer vacation, I do not go easily back to the classroom. I do not readily adjust to twenty or more faces watching me, calculating my movements and hanging on every word — or nodding off, or flipping through picture after picture on their smartphones, and other things students do in a 21st century classroom.

So, to bolster my mind and soul, every August I rip through books about General George Armstrong Custer, the famous “Boy General” of the Civil War, and known later to the natives as Long Hair.

Like the good general, an instructor is a leader, and his subordinates must be whipped into shape. In Custer’s day, that meant horsewhipped. In our modern era, that means pleading with the students to listen, pay attention.

Trudging back into the classroom brings a mixture of excitement and despair. It is a fluid situation that not even a highly-organized plan of attack can fully contain.

The swell of emotion and mental exhaustion of fielding hostile questions and hunting down the purpose and objective for every assignment is comparable, in my mind, to the physical exertion of the general treading along the path of recent lodge pole trails and still-warm campfires in pursuit of his mission — to corral the wild native prairie Indians and force them onto their reservations for re-education and assimilation into the great American machine. To harness what is raw and self-sustaining to make dependent upon and naturally unnatural.

Many teachers will testify to a fevered surge of a creative, revolutionary spirit among students, who are less willing to be herded into the arranged, civilized systems of mental thought. The symptoms are as follows:

Undisciplined discovery of self. The pursuit of free knowledge, in hasty bits and chunks, as it makes itself available to each individual. The spontaneous student of life, repulsed by the treacheries of institutionalized learning, forced research, and tedious understanding of history. These are the hallmarks of a digital age — a frontier without perceivable boundaries, and inestimable risks for the established centers of pre-digital society. These are the inhabitants of a new world.

Yet many will think it crass to compare teaching college students to the offensive summer killing campaigns waged long and hard by the US military in the late 19th century. Even I shudder a bit at the comparison. Yet, Custer is woven into my DNA whether I like it or not. We’re both laden with stubborn German roots, and there is more than a slight resemblance between Long Hair and myself (see below).

Although it is trendy among Millennials to harbor a healthy sense of white guilt, there is little in the way of dissolving it. Maybe that’s the goal, ultimately, to harness one’s self with a spiritual burden that cannot be lifted unless the entire accepted historical narrative is altered.

I’ve seen white men take ceremonial whacks at burying the perceived hatchet, but it is dangerous when you don’t know what you’re swinging at.

Blood brothers in the upper midwest

In North Dakota, back in 2006, two buddies of mine were sitting with me in a dive bar in the university town of Grand Forks. We’d drunk heavily. The special was two-dollar pitchers of cheap beer, and we’d been emptying them all night.


Blood brothers, as it were

We noticed, with bleary eyes, that we were the only white folks left in the bar. Everybody else was Native American, and they were emptying pitchers faster than we were.

Back then, we called them Indians, because, as one Indian man told me, “We are not Native Americans. That is the pilgrims you’re thinking of. We are not native to what the wasichus created. We are indigenous to this continent. But we did not begin America. We were rolled over and buried by it.”

The jukebox was pumping in the bar. 80s power ballads, which are usually just one part of a complex combination, which also includes cheap liquor, endless draft beers, the local hockey game on TV, and heaping plates of fried food that fuels many an evening in the warm lodgings holding back a blustery North Dakota winter.

Feeling gregarious, we sidled over to a table where one young man and his woman sat. We tersely chatted about how much we’d drunk and the bitter winter weather.

One of my friends, Ben, seemed to really take delight in connecting with another culture. Hell, he could drink, they could drink, it was all in good commonality. Descendants, all of us, of Norwegians, Germans, Lakotas. What’s the difference, anyway?

Ben started saying, now slurring, that he was so proud to meet a Native American. How pleasing it was, he said, to find something in common! Yes, I thought, a dislike for freezing temperatures and a love of cheap beer. That’s a slogan with which to rally the world. A global village, centered around the hatred of shivering and the easy warmth of intoxication.

I too was caught in the good vibrations, though. How much guilt there was, piled up and filed away into my DNA like stacks of unpaid parking tickets, in someone like me who resembles the late great general George Armstrong Custer. Slayer of natives, ultimately slain, but not before his men fled like black-tailed prairie dogs who’d forgotten where their holes were, and bled dry into a quenchless Montana prairie.

I am a timid soul, yet I carry an ancestral brutality not quite dissolved. How does one untwist that genetic history into a straight path of unconditional love and forgiveness, thereby cleansing his heart and passing on a proper mindset to his future children so they don’t develop into more of the same primordial human creatures we see wiping their runny noses on their mothers’ sleeves as they trail through America’s malls muttering, “Gimme, gimme”?

When the Lakota warriors overtook Long Hair and his men, they used knives to carve the dead cavalry men’s ear holes larger — next time, in the next life, the Indians said, the whites would hear the Lakota coming.

Maybe we were too naive to think we could bury the hatchet in that little North Dakota bar on a frigid winter’s night, (after all, one might exclaim, “What hatchet?”) but we tried to bridge the gap we thought existed. My friend Ben overcompensated.

The Native American’s face was pocked with little scars — the devastating results of the Age of Acne — and the bumps and crevices caught the blue neon light from the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window. His dark hair was slicked back with a sheen. His collared shirt was buttoned to the top. He watched with glassy eyes my friend go on and on about their new found relationship. “You’re my boy!” Ben kept saying, and reaching across the table to slap the man on the shoulders. “You’re my brother!”

In a flash, the Native American had his hand beneath the table, and then above it again. By the time our boozy brains could comprehend what had happened, we were locked into a terrible situation. With a click, a shiny silver blade flipped out from the handle our friend held. “Then let’s be blood brothers,” he said without a smile.

Behind his head and mounted high on the wall was an old TV flashing that week’s greatest plays in sports. Men dressed in colorful tights and wearing helmets fought each other for a queer-shaped brown ball. The aggression of the prairie brought to the turf of the mega-dome, courtesy of Bud Light. I stared at that while keeping the glinting knife blade in my peripheral vision.

Ben put up his hands. “Whoa,” he said, “I don’t do that.”

“This is what we do with our brothers,” the Indian man said. He held the knife steady, his other hand open. “I go first.”

Dear Lord, I thought, if he gashes his palm wide open, we’ll have to seal the deal. Or he’ll kill us for not fulfilling the pact. The other half of me was thinking, But what a cliche. Blood brothers? What a stereotype! After what seemed like minutes of staring at that blade and the unblinking offer made by our new friend, the man put away the knife.

“We’d better order another round,” Ben said, and we used the excuse to leave the table. We went back to our table and left the bar, quickly. So quickly, in fact, that we each carried out a half-filled pitcher to keep us warm on the brisk walk home.

[Dakota prairie photo from Tom Koerner/USFWS; classroom photo from Intelligentguy89]

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  1. Herstory repeats itself
    Herstory repeats itself August 26, 20:32

    Apparently, he was called “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass” for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline. Of course those names may very well have been overshadowed by the more derisive “Ringlets” for his vanity and long, curling blond hair in particular.

    I will leave it to history and your personal legacy to confirm or deny the 6 degrees of separation from the Boy General, professor.

    Source: Welch, James; Stekler, Paul (2007). Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians.

    Reply to this comment
    • DDA
      DDA Author August 26, 21:41

      Great comment, Herstory. He was very strict according to what the soldiers wrote in their journals. Fearless, too, in such a way that he was reckless, although General Sherman said Custer had the ability to understand a battle situation within seconds and determine the best course of action — charge or retreat. His first charge in the Civil War nearly killed him, as his horse was shot out from under him. His last charge…well, he didn’t crawl out of that one. I always think, How long did he expect to live? How many times can a person ride into battle like that and expect to ride out alive? Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ride out of downtown LA alive, and that is not Civil War status yet.

      Reply to this comment
  2. Joanna
    Joanna August 27, 16:22

    I had to read this article again because I sensed I had missed something the first go around. I had to engage in something very counterculture for the 21st century bent on lifehacking: slow reading. I needed to be awake and attentive this time. As I allowed myself to chew on and savor the words, images, and concepts, it really became poignant. You can’t skim it, scroll it, or speed read it from page to brain else you’ll only get the amuse-bouche and not the full meal.

    Great stuff here!

    Reply to this comment

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