Middle School (9 - 14) Books

RED HAWK'S ACCOUNT OF CUSTER'S LAST BATTLE: THE BATTLE OF LITTLE BIGHORN, 25 JUNE, 1976, Paul Goble; University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), 312 North 14th Street, Lincoln, NE 68588-0484; 800-755-1105, FAX 800-526-2617; original publication 1969, Bison Edition 1992; 62 pages, oversize paperback, illustrated, map, $9.95; 0-8032-7033-X

It is good to have this -- the very first of Paul Goble's books -- back in print almost 30 years later, in a beautifully-illustrated, reasonably priced paperback. This is a fictionalized history, but the only thing fictional about it is that it is told through an imaginary "I", a 15-year-old (at the time of the battle) Lakota youth. (At the end, he is 50 years older, remarking sadly -- in 1926 -- on the way of life that has been destroyed after this last Plains military victory.) Goble researched many Indian accounts of the battle of Greasy Grass (aka Little Bighorn).

Red Hawk is not fleshed out as a character, interacting with others in classical novelistic style. Goble presents him as telling the tale -- in the way a warrior might have, a half-century afterward -- a narrative of the battle only, not a slice of life. Goble restricted Red Hawk's "account" of the battle to those things he saw and heard himself, i.e. this is not a panoramic overview. Red Hawk apparently did not hear the famous vision of Sitting Bull (many soldiers falling dead from the sky into the encampment). But the historic overview is transmitted via the reader working back and forth between a few italicized paragraphs of the military movements and a large two-page map (Indian style) which forms the frontispiece. Goble also spent a great deal of time travelling and visiting in Indian Country -- mostly with plains tribes -- beginning with his first visits, as a European art student, in 1959.

In a preface to the new 1992 Bison Books edition, Goble says: "In the late 1960's my son was watching a children's TV series about Custer, which bore no resemblance to the Custer of history. I searched for children's books which would give the facts, but was unable to find anything." So this became Goble's first book. "I grew up believing that Indian people had been shamefully treated: their beliefs mocked, their ways of life destroyed; and upon threat of starvation, forced to imitat the colorless, joyless, insensitive aliens who had conquered them. I tried to be objective in writing the book, but for me, the battle represented a moment of triumph, and I wanted Indian children to be proud of it." About the art style, Goble says that for this and his next book he was influenced by warriors' advertisements of their coups with paintings on tipis and robes, and by ledger art, before developing his own unique style a few years later.

From my own experience with youths at AIM Survival Schools not long after the original was published -- the first Survival School in 1969 was a Minneapolis storefront -- that this book was wildly successful at involving tenage boys (still the most at-risk and difficult to reach Indian student population). I gave dozens of them to the harassed and broke Indian-controlled school, none stayed. And the same was true a few years later -- after Wounded Knee -- when the first two survival schools had really gotten going in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Goble's second book, taking this same approach of a viewpoint "I" youth came out. For several years -- through the early '80's -- at the two Cities AIM schools, these 2 Goble books were the most popular as history texts, and the most valued when given as student achievement awards. They couldn't be kept in the school libraries (which mostly consisted of a few shelves of the most dreary crap -- donations).

They would disappear. I would order several more and stick them on the shelves. It's a method I still occasionally might follow.

Although Goble considers this a children's book, it is for older youths than all but a couple of his later ones. Ages 10 through 60 (this reviewer) will enjoy it. Older readers will want to go back and forth between the italicized military portions and the frontispiece map, to reconstruct the actual battle, where the inexperienced Major Reno's larger force was pushed across the river, and did not join up with Custer. This book is recommended for all middle and secondary schools. I do wish that University of Nebraska had taken advantage of their new edition to add a bibliography, and perhaps a summary overview of the battle, although I enjoyed puzzling out the troop movements from the map and bits of text.

The large, ornate, Indian-style map frontispiece is deserving of special mention. It's the first artistic map I've seen which actually clarifies events. I'd like to see University of Nebraska Press make a large poster of this map, with call-out text boxes both of young Red Hawk's observations and the military historians' overview. The book's ending is sad, for this is in fact a true history. Red Hawk tells us, 50 years later, that as an old man, he attends a 1926 memorial festivity of "a great gathering to remember the battle" (perhaps a dedication of the national monument, which when I saw it in 1978 honored only the white soldiers who fell there).

"Once the earth was ours: now there is only a small piece of it left which the white people did not want. Our young men who try to walk the difficult road of the white people remember with pride that we won a great victory that day."

There is an interesting postscript to this book. Goble wrote it in 1969. At that time and for some years thereafter, the traditional, conventional military histories of the Custer Battle by professional white historians tended to ignore Indian accounts, both those preserved at the time and those preserved in oral history projects, particularly those of the University of South Dakota, Vermillion. These were considered unreliable, folktales, or, at best, lacking the true big picture. Basically, white historians ignored, for the Greasy Grass battle, as for most of the rest of history, the Indian oral tradition as unreliable and unworthy of belief.

In 1983, there was a large grass fire that swept over most of the Custer Battlefield monument site. This presented an opportunity for archaeologists to examine and analyze exposed artifacts on the fire-cleared hills and river valley. In particular, distributions and locations of shell casings were recorded. These provided solid evidence that the Indian accounts of the battle were correct, and those reconstructed by white military historians not. This was not known to Goble, at the time he wrote this children's book, relying on oral Indian accounts, told to him and as preserved in older writings. Thus his children's book is more accurate as military history than the most substantial and presitigious heavyduty white histories of Little Bighorn. To this day many pro historians remain relucant to give credence to the recorded Indian oral accounts, and those that are still live in oral traditional tellings. They argue with the archaeologists in their learned journals about the "real meaning" of the material evidence that 1983 fire exposed. So this beautiful little book might be the most accurate military history that you can readily obtain of a substantial Native military victory, a battle which is considered so significant historically that everybody knows the phrase "Custer's Last Stand".

A note of sadness: Goble made an extensive study of a picture-and-text book drawn as ledger art (annotated in both English and Lakota) over a 20-year period by Lakota traditional historian Amos Bad Heart Bull, who died in 1913. There is a saga of this book itself. The actual ledger was buried with his sister in 1947, but had been photographed by an art student who spnt summers at Pine Ridge.(She died in 1941.) In 1967, the University of Nebraska Press had just published the book of photos, with the commentary of the deceased art student. Historian Mari Sandoz (who had backed the project of preserving it) called it the "the most comprehensive and tjhe finest statement as art and as report of the North American Indian so far discovered anywhere." There are 400 pages of colored, labeled and commentd pictures, often large overviews, with sidebar pull-out details. One of the 6 sections is Bad Heart Bull's pictorial narration of the Custer fight. (He was there, as a child, but his uncles who raised him had fought in it.) Bad Heart Bull was the son of anothr Amos Bad Heart Bull who had kept the last Lakota Winter Count on elkhide. Goble was probably inspired to startt his first book by this work of Bad Heart Bull's ldger art.

University of Nebraska Press published the miraculously preserved book in 1967 -- two years before Goble published this children's history -- as A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux edited by Helen H. Blish (the art student (who had died in 1941, but lft her phots and manuscripts to the Museum of Natural History in New York; they were found 25 years later). Sadly, University of Nebraska Press has allowed this artistic and historic marvel to go out of print. If they received a lot of requests for it -- especially in an affordable quality paperbound version for school use -- perhaps it would be reissued, and could continue to inspire new generations, as it did Paul Goble's first book.

This book should be mandatory for middle and high schools who have any sort of Native cultural component to their history or literature instruction. Oddly, it is not included in the current Bison Books catalog of University of Nebraska Press's books in print, but it's in their computers, you can order it. Do so. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 1996 - 9:54:17 AM