The Day That Custer’s Luck Ran Out

 

The battle of the Little Bighorn as recorded by Chief Red Horse
The battle of the Little Bighorn as recorded by Chief Red Horse

Just The Facts, Please

On June 25th in the year of 1876 General Custer met his maker when he lead the Seventh Calvary on an attack of a large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. During the ensuing battle 268 U.S. Soldiers died in a short-lived conflict that only lasted a hour or so.

The Immediate Effect

The news of Custer’s humiliating defeat ripped through the Eastern US like a shock wave. The general public was in shock and awe as to how a whole command of soldiers could be eliminated in one battle that didn’t even take up a whole afternoon. In population centers, such as Washington, New York and Chicago, the general public was distraught at the outcome of the battle, for it was never realized that the US Army could possibly lose such a battle.

Out On the Great Plains

The Plains Indians should have been rejoicing on their thrilling victory against one of the most foremost military commanders in the US military. They celebrated, but their were many among the Native population that could see the handwriting on the wall. The “Old Ways” were coming to the end and the future was not all that bright, especially for the colorful lifestyle that had evolved on the Great Plains for the Sioux, Cheyenne and other nomadic tribes of the region. Life on the reservation was becoming inevitable.

A Modern-day 180

When I was a youngster growing up there was a popular frozen custard eatery, named after the famous battle. “Custard’s Last Stand” was a very popular place to eat in suburban Baltimore. Our family would occasionally drive by the place on our Sunday drives, but we never stopped to enjoy the frozen treat, despite strong protests by me and my younger brother. Finally one day, our father relented and our small family got a chance to enjoy the custard delight. For me, it was a “coming of age” moment, when I was at last old enough to be a patron of “Custard’s Last Stand.”

Little Big Man has a one on one encounter with General Custer
Little Big Man has a one on one encounter with General Custer

A Book and a Movie Lampoon General Custer

Since the sixties tn has been popular to make fun of the General and famed Indian fighter. Johnny Cash accompanied by Buffy Saint Marie did a nice job on Cash’s variety hour, when they performed a singing number, entitled “The General Don’t Ride So Good Anymore.” But even more angst came with a book called “Custer Died For Your Sins”, written by Vine Deloria Jr. and of course the Hollywood classic, “Little Big Man”, where George Armstrong is humorously portrayed as a narcissistic warrior, obsessed with becoming president of the USA. This may be great entertainment…..but is it true.

Maybe Custer Was Just Unlucky

As a military man, General Custer was always a cunning and brave risktaker. On that fateful day in the grasslands of Wyoming, Custer may have been only doing what he had always done….and that is leading a small elite group of soldiers on a surprise raid against a strong enemy. His strategy had worked against the Confederates during the Civil War and it was also successful against the Cheyenne down in Oklahoma, but for some strange reason, this technique lead to disaster on the Little Bighorn. As one Lakota writer has suggested, the reason this attack failed was that a lone Sioux rider just happened across the advancing war party and was successfully able to warn the nearby encampment. Perhaps, it can be said that the fate of many an important battle has hinged on something so small as this. History is full of little ironies.

 

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Little Big Man Revisited

The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell
The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell

Watching Old Movies

A few weeks ago, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe sponsored a free showing of the 1970 classic, Little Big Man. The film starred Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway and Richard Mulligan, as General Custer. The western spoof was a box office hit, but just as important was the reality that the film adaption, which came from a Thomas Berger novel of the same name, opened the door to Indian awareness in American cinema. 

Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name
Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name

Furthermore, the movie launched a new wave of Native American actors, actresses, writers and directors, some of whom are still active today. One of these persons, a film director from the Cheyenne-Arapaho nation by the name of Chris Eyres, introduced the film and attempted to explain what the film meant to him, even though he was too young to appreciate the film, when it was first released. Chris Eyres, who teaches filmmaking in Santa Fe, is best known as director of Smoke Signals, which is drawn from a Sherman Alexie’s story, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”.

Chief Dan George from Wikipedia
Chief Dan George from Wikipedia

The Big Names

The cast of Little Big Man really helped to make the movie, for it featured a couple of the big names at the time. These included Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man and Faye Dunaway who did a great job in portraying an erotic preacher’s wife (Louise Pendrake) and an eccentric hooker with a mild Southern accent (Lulu Kane). The movie also got a big name director, Arthur Penn, and a seasoned musician, John Hammond to write the music score.

The Newcomers

Little Big Man helped launched the career of Chief Dan George, a Native American from Canada, who did not begin his acting career until he was 60 years old. Dan made Little Big Man, when he close to 70 and followed with several other film appearances, including a minor role in the Outlaw Josey Wales. Richard Mulligan portrayed General George Armstrong Custer as a military man with a severe psychosis. It was Mulligan’s biggest role of his career, even though his portrayal of Custer as a man on the edge of insanity is probably not historically accurate. Custer may have made some bad military decisions and severely underestimated the number of Indian warriors in the area, but there is little evidence that he was off his rocker. Still, the idea of Custer, as unstable, still has considerable appeal today.

The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.
The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.

Indian Humor

Most importantly, Little Big Man, introduced  history of the “Old West” from a Native American perspective, along with Indian Humor. This second link goes directly to a passage from Vine Deloria’s classic book, “Custer Died For Your Sins”, a witty and humorous title that superbly underscores the concept of “Indian Humor”.