“Garryowen” is the name of an Irish song/tune (a drinking song and a quickstep dance) that became a popular marching tune for military units, both in Britain and the United States. It was the official marching tune of Colonel George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. They played while marching — it was, in fact, the tune Custer’s regiment was playing as it headed off to Little Big Horn. And they played it right before attacks as a way to rouse the men to a focused frenzy. The phrase Garryowen appeared on the regiment’s crest, featured on the pin worn by every Seventh Cavalry soldier.
The tune came to symbolize Custer’s merciless pursuit and massacre of Native Americans at the direction of the U.S. government.
One incident is particularly noteworthy. In November 1868 Custer’s troops had quietly positioned themselves around a small Cheyenne village on the Washita River in Western Oklahoma. Black Kettle, the chief — one of the Council of Forty-Four Peace Chiefs of the Cheyenne — had just returned a day earlier from talks seeking peace at Fort Cobb, about 100 miles to the east. At dawn on November 27 Custer’s troops — 700 men — played Garryowen as they launched a devastating attack on the village of about 250 men, women, and children.
The village was destroyed. Around 50 persons, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed. Pregnant women were cut open, their babies left to die on the frozen ground. Many more were wounded. Another 53 — women and children — were captured and used as human shields (deliberately positioned on horseback throughout Custer’s troops) to keep the regiment safe as they marched on to the next fort.
The body of a Cheyenne child killed in the massacre eventually wound up displayed in a local history museum in Cheyenne, Oklahoma.
In 1968 a centennial commemoration of the massacre (still heralded by white historians as a “great battle”) was held at the original site. A number of Cheyenne living in the area agreed to participate — reluctantly, and only on the condition that the child’s body would be returned to them for proper burial.
The Cheyenne erected tipis and whole families came dressed in their traditional garb to stand by the tipis at the original site. Unbeknownst to them a group of re-enactors, The Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, had been invited from California, and they — also dressed in historic uniforms — came riding onto the scene firing blanks from their true-to-the-era weapons. Children screamed in terror. Even the re-enactors seemed taken aback at the cruelty they’d just unwittingly carried out.
Afterwards, when the Cheyenne chiefs received the body in a small coffin from museum staff, a young Cheyenne woman draped it in a traditional blanket for the procession to burial. The chiefs were dismayed to see that members of the regiment had assembled again at the burial site, this time to offer a solemn gun salute to the dead child. But they decided, per Cheyenne tradition, which required them to present the blanket to someone present, to ask their Peace Chief, Lawrence Hart, a great-grandson of a survivor of the massacre, to present the blanket to the captain of the Grandsons. Once the blanket had been draped around his shoulders, that leader, in tears, removed his regiment pin — bearing the phrase Garryowen on it — and presented it to the Peace Chief with his deepest apology and solemn pledge that never again would Garryowen be played against the Cheyenne.
And yet, at the start of President’s Trump July 4th fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, the very first tune played in the “Spirit of America” medley was Garryowen. Weaponized once again against Native Americans, on land sacred to the Lakota and in the shadows of a rock formation known to the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers (representing Earth, Sky, and the Four Direction) now desecrated with the visages of four white presidents.
Did many in attendance know the dog whistle being sounded in this tune? Of course not. But for any Native American within earshot, the tune would’ve sounded a note of instinctive terror and historical trauma. And among Trump’s deepest, whitest base the tune would’ve offered reassurance that Trump (and those in his inner circle) were in fact celebrating the resurgent rise of white supremacy in this country on the Fourth of July.
When a man is that hollow, there is no end to the evil he can hold within.
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Sources: I first learned of this in a post by Jim Fussell shared on Rebecca Voelkel’s Facebook page. That post referenced only an article from an online Irish newspaper (www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/ireland-song-garryowen-banned-custer). After some further searching I confirmed and filled out the story through pieces on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Washita_River), DailyKos (www.dailykos.com/stories/2007/2/23/305117/-), and most significantly, several Mennonite sources that carry the tale as recounted by Chief Lawrence Hart himself (in its fullest version here: www.themennonite.org/feature/lawrence-harts-vision-peace/).
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.