When I can no longer conjure up a good thought, let alone write a good sentence, I turn on the TV. Last night PBS showed a documentary about Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who was wiped out with more than two hundred cavalry troops he led against the Lakota Sioux and other Indian tribes in 1876. The U.S. government was in the process of stealing the Black Hills area of South Dakota from the Indians, but Custer got too cocky and picked a fight in the wrong place, separated from other units of his 700-man battalion.
The most interesting part of the story wasn’t Custer, a glory hound and all-around jerk, but rather Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief and spiritual leader who had urged Indians for years to resist domination by the whites.
At some point in the show, the narrator quoted Sitting Bull, who had continued to live off the land with other warriors after many in his tribe had become resigned to life on the reservations:
Look at me, see if I am poor, or my people either. The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.
I remembered Eliot’s dismal Prufrock — I have measured out my life in coffee spoons — the antithesis of Sitting Bull. Then I thought don’t kid yourself, Odd Man Out, you couldn’t get through one day without your sugared coffee, not without a great struggle. You are Prufrock.
I tried to imagine Sitting Bull’s daily trek to the Starbucks in Sioux Falls. “Give me the pumpkin-spiced latte, white boy, but go easy on the whipped cream, gotta watch my cholesterol.”
I’m not saying our version of civilization is bad and we should roam the Plains — only that it’s a shame we build the cages we’re in, most of us, often without realizing it. Most people wouldn’t think of stepping out of their cages, of joining something like Occupy Wall Street. It’s too far outside the routine.
In fact, only one person in a hundred in this country really knows what freedom is. I know this because I heard it on NPR yesterday, from the Gallop Poll guy, as I was sipping my midday espresso. Or that’s what I thought I heard. One person in a hundred, but with a four percent margin of error, of course.