The Battle of Little Big Horn through America’s Cultural Lens

03 January 2014


Sitting Bull © The Newberry Library, Chicago. Further reproduction prohibited without permission


One of America’s most famous battles concluded 137 years ago today. The battle saw an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, while almost half the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment was wiped out, including George Armstrong Custer. In the media fallout Custer was declared a hero, while the Sioux were described (by the New York Times, at least) as “cruel, cowardly robbers”.

What I find more interesting than the battle itself is the way America’s cultural memory of the Indian Wars has changed over the past 137 years. A good illustration of this is the media’s reaction to an earlier, less remembered conflict known as The Battle of Washita River.

Eight days before his 29th birthday in 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment into a surprise attack against the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s winter encampment. Between 13 and 150 Cheyenne men, women and children were killed (historical estimates range wildly), causing some people to call it “Washita Massacre”.

Newspapers of the day mourned the 21 American fatalities in the battle, which included Alexander Hamilton’s grandson, Louis McLane Hamilton. In his obituary (which will feature in the upcoming American Indian Histories and Cultures), The New York Herald praised the “honourable” Hamilton who sacrificed his life for the “grand march of westward empire” which was “fiercely obstructed by mysteriously doomed aboriginal savages.”

This derogatory characterisation of Indians continued well into the 20th century. One of the earliest films about The Battle of Little Big Horn was Custer’s Last Fight (1912), a silent picture which opens on a close up of an Indian man called “Rain-in-the-face” killing two white men and then boasting about it. A year later, D. W. Griffith’s Battle at Elderbush Gulch depicts a battle which is started when a group of hungry Indians steal two dogs from white settlers with the intention of eating them.

Then the 1960s happened. The counterculture movement encouraged open distrust of America’s traditional storylines. Hollywood responded by creating revisionist Westerns such as Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman. Little Big Man depicted George Custer as a madman with a burning hatred of Indians. The Battle of Washita River also features in the film and is portrayed as a massacre similar to contemporary accounts of the Vietnam War.

The past 137 years has seen an enormous change in attitudes towards Americans Indians and the story of the American West. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the inclusion of Sitting Bull – Custer’s opponent at Little Big Horn – in Barack Obama’s list of thirteen “groundbreaking Americans”. It is hard to imagine any other period in American history where Sitting Bull, and not Custer, would be held in such high esteem by the President of the United States.

The above newspaper report and other accounts of The Battle of Little Big Horn will appear in our forthcoming collection, American Indian Histories and Cultures, due for publication later this year.

About the Author

Thomas Mellors

I started working as Editorial Assistant at Adam Matthew in March 2013. To date I have worked on Popular Culture in Britain and America II and American Indian Histories and Cultures. My current project is American Consumer Culture, 1935-1965. My interests lie in politics and cultural history.