18 April 2007

How The West Was Won By Atari

The Past Isn't Dead; It's Not Even Past

Custer, that golden self-dramatist, was butchered wholesale along with his men in 1876, on the centennial. That year, the states and territories that he served celebrated a hundred years of nationhood and Union - through war, having cowed rebellions in the south and the west; and by rail, the Atlantic and Pacific now linked in steel.

The dead at Little Bighorn were mutilated: castrated, scalped, defaced, teeth taken, the wounded killed. This was commonplace. U.S. cavalry cut out the sexual organs of Indian women and stitched them to their hatbands. Custer had died in part because the Dakota gold rush had reached the Black Hills: sacred land and, incidentally, foreign soil.

I've been researching background for a Western screenplay set in Lead in 1877, just a year later; this is on my mind, as is Deadwood (written about previously here).

Below the fold: American exceptionalism, rape, and Atari.

The Black Hills are the profaned holy ground that David Milch's Deadwood rests on. Custer's defeat looms over the mining camp; everything here could be swept away in an instant. This terror pervades the first four-episode arc. The Sioux, bogeymen & scapegoats - and invisible - lurk at the edges of every utterance, every profanity.

And in the face of a newly centennial Union - the capitalization matters; Harper's Weekly wrote during the Civil War, "the Union is only another name for freedom, progress, & civilization" - the Sioux are not just impediments, they are in breach of covenant with God Himself, who said: Replenish the earth and subdue it.

When Swearengen says heathens, says dirt-worshippers, when road agents leave families massacred in the Indian style, we see the stamp of fear, but also of transference: we carry whiteness and civilization because They do not.

The Sioux wars across the Plains weren't setpiece battles but spasms of massacre and butchery. They inspired a Western literature of terror. Writers cried quite consciously for wholesale extermination; it was historical inevitability. This from a speech by Governor Ramsey of Minnesota in 1862, fifteen years earlier in a St. Petersburg newspaper at the onset of the Sioux uprisings:

Infants hewn into bloody chips of flesh [...]; rape joined to murder in one awful tragedy; young girls, even children of tender years, outraged by these brutal ravishers till death ended their shame; [...] whole families burned alive[...]. Such are the spectacles, and a thousand nameless horrors besides, which this first experience of Indian warfare has burned into the minds and hearts of our frontier people; and such the enemy with whom we have to deal.
That year, on the day after Christmas, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, 38 Dakota men were hanged to death in Mankato for murder and rape.

All of this only touches the surface of history; what it should also do is explain, why, in light of my reading, the fact that yesterday night I was forwarded this Wikipedia article seems exceptionally perverse.

It's a link to a 1982 video game for the Atari called Custer's Revenge, a pornographic side-scroller that has our hero back from the dead, naked save for bandanna, phallus, and cavalry hat, dodging arrows and other obstacles in order to reach a large-breasted Sioux woman tied to a cactus named Revenge, in order to force sex upon her.

Let me be clear: There is a way to personify an American Hero and enact the rape of a subdued native - over and over again - that was mass-produced as a consumer good in the United States of America in the last quarter of the 20th century, just after the bicentennial.

When Turner said the frontier was closed, he never could have envisioned this kind of reopening.


John B. said...

Stunning and shocking. It staggers my imagination that so many people thought this game was just the star to partly hitch their corporate wagon to.

Have you read McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian? The passage from the newspaper has some of the feel of certain moments from that novel. It's the most haunting novel I've ever read.

Cordelia said...

I came across your blog via Blog Explosion, and have been enjoying your thoughtful commentary. The Atari game is beyond unbelievable. I think it's important to keep track of these things, before the onslaught more and more games will convince people that such a game could never have existed when it did (or at all).