The sun is setting on the old battlefield. From out of the cottonwoods down by the river, a soft breeze blows that Western perfume of sweetwater and hay. As the sky fades from robin's-egg blue to pale violet, the light slanting across the Little Bighorn casts long shadows behind white markers that stick up like broken bones in the brown grass. They mark the spot where the bodies of George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry were found. Custer made the one mistake you must never make in the West. He misjudged the landscape. These days jeering magpies flutter over the place where he fell. The Sioux and Cheyenne who left him on his little hill didn't fare much better. Within a few years they were all rubbed out or herded onto reservations. "They call it 'Custer's last stand'," says the park ranger down in the museum where old Yellowhair's size "S" Army-issue jockstrap is now on display. "Really, it was the Indians' last stand."
The Custer syndrome-curse of the West. You could write a history of the region on the theme: a tragedy with no permanent winners. At its heart is a vain and deadly attitude. The West is mine. I'm going to fight you for it. And only one of us is going to get out of here alive. No compromises. No prisoners. This sounds unfair to Native Americans, who were in place long before white men came butting in. But then the Sioux took the Black Hills from the Crow before Custer, so they did have something in common with him. Now with the ranchers, timbermen and miners squaring off against the environmentalists and recreationists, Washington is hovering anxiously in the middle and, as usual , infuriating everyone. "I hate government," says Pete Story, a Montana rancher who served 18 years as a state senator before giving up to fight the granola crowd on his own. "If I wasn't so square I'd be an anarchist."
To understand the Custer syndrome, you have to grasp the seductive power of the Western landscape. Drive over the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, up past outcroppings of Devonian and Ordovician rock, farther back in time the higher you go, until you reach the top, where, amid granite outcroppings 2 billion years old, a moose is seining his breakfast from a swampy meadow flecked with wildflowers. Or take the 5 a.m. puddle jumper from Bend to Portland and watch the sun beyond the wing turn the lava slopes of Mount Jefferson copper and orange, while the blackened, shattered top of Mount St. Helens up ahead reminds you that, Freud and Darwin notwithstanding, geology, not biology, may be our destiny. Or stand at 7,000 feet on Mesa Verde, near the four corners of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, with a black thunderhead spiking white flashes of lightning at your shoulder and the ruins of the Anasazi Ancient Ones beneath your feet. Look out and each mesa is an acropolis, each canyon a cathedral.
To see the West is to lust after it; and from the rimrock to the ramparts, where the shouting always begins, it is only a short leap. The basic question is, "Who owns the West?" The correct answer is, "Everyone," or if you take a geological view of the problem, perhaps, "No one." But very few people ever get it right. This is because Westerners and Outsiders always get themselves so badly tangled in The Myth of the West. To rustle an insight from William Kittredge, a fine writer transplanted from Oregon to Montana, white Westerners tend to think they own the place because they settled it, brought law to it, suffered and shed blood over it and survived, earning the right to do with it as they see fit. Forever. "We see ourselves as a society of mostly decent people who live with some connection to a holy wilderness, threatened by those who lust for power and property," he wrote in "Owning It All," a superb memoir. "We look for Shane to come riding out of the Tetons, and instead, we see Exxon and the Sierra Club. One looks virtually as alien as the other."
The first problem is that there's not one myth of the West, but many, and separating them is about as easy as getting the pepper out of a hot pot of chili. The West and East were once the same, after all; Plymouth Rock was the country's Western frontier on the day the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower. But after the Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, symbols like Daniel Boone, the sharpshooting Western frontiersman who could survive in the wilderness, loomed into the national epic. And after the Civil War, the winning of the West itself became a symbol of restored togetherness. The Western lands were held in common by all the people. No matter which side you had been on during the war, no matter what your religion or language, you could pack your wagon and head toward the sunset to make a new life and build a new nation. "The myth of the West began as a myth of unity," says Paul Fees, senior curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. "It is a myth of accomplishment that has powered American growth ever since."
That's the good myth. To drop it would be to drop a fundamental American sense that for every problem there is a solution if enough thought and elbow grease are applied. But consider what has been left out: killing the Indians, wiping out the buffalo, ravaging the rivers, clear-cutting the forests, overgrazing the range and gutting the mountains in a boom-bust frenzy for precious metals. Consider what has been glossed over. All those rugged individualists had the advantage of free land, and women and neighbors contributed more to the settling of the West than loners who could only say yep-and nope.
Myths and realities-the Westerner's sense of owning the public lands springs like a cliff-top juniper from the crack between them. Over time, the attitude of those who rent public land and those who run it has come to be, "We lease it; we tend it. It's ours." "There are no good guys or bad guys, just different philosophies," explains Mike Art an amiable innkeeper from Pray, Mont. Art once set out to improve fishing on the Yellowstone River. "I'm not going to let you change my river," a furious game warden snarled at him. "My river?" Art thought. "What about our river? Don't we have a piece of it?"
With the growth of the West's cities and the rediscovery of wilderness, the power once held by grazing, timber and mining interests has ebbed. The votes are now in those cities, where water, health, education and drugs loom as competing problems. "We need to strike a balance," says Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona. "I'm talking about fairness, cooler heads. " He thinks that the states would manage the public lands better than Washington. Some would put more of them into private hands. Others disagree. "To get rid of the public lands is the way to kill the West," says Donald Kerr, director of the High Desert Museum in Bend, Ore. (box). "Sell the public lands and you might as well kiss the West goodbye."
The worst of the West, says actor Robert Redford, who has won the Audubon Society's medal for conservation, is that "the people who work the land are giving way to the money people-real estate runs the show." Redford contends that instead of setting aside more wilderness areas and getting more help to people who work the land, George Bush has been largely out to lunch. "When I saw the president, he told me he was an environmentalist because he liked to fish," he recalls with a shrug. "He says all the right things, but his actions belie his words." Redford is one of the few who can persuade Big Oil to talk to Big Conservation. He doesn't believe the War for the West has to end in unconditional surrender for either side. "We have to accept that we are going to be dealing with a changing West," he argues. "We can't keep treating it like it's the back of a nickel or Mount Rushmore."
The reality is that as the old, rural West enters the information age, ranching, timbering and mining are heading the way of the family farm in the Midwest and the steel mill in the rust belt. "We should take no pleasure in this," says Jim Maddy of the League of Conservation Voters. "Every other country that puts an industry out of its misery moves to support the losers." That's not happening yet. The war is too hot; all sides hope to win. What's needed is a new spirit of the West. The novelist Wallace Stegner calls the West "the native home of hope." In "The Sound of Mountain Water," he wrote, "When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery." When that day comes the West will be won.