Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Paul Goble's Custer's Last Battle: Red Hawk's Account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Slapin uses quotation marks around the name "Red Hawk" because that is a fictional character. Slapin's review may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.

Goble, Paul, Custer’s Last Battle: Red Hawk’s Account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, with an introduction by Joe Medicine Crow. Wisdom Tales / World Wisdom, 2013.

Each year on June 25, Oglala Lakota families at Pine Ridge gather to celebrate the Lakota people’s victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, where, in 1876, as Oglala author and activist Debra White Plume says, “Custer wore an Arrow Shirt.”

“Warriors get ready,” the announcer calls. “Be safe, and thank your horse when you’re done.” The warriors, mostly teens, race off to find and count coup on the white guy who’s volunteered to stand in for Custer. No one knocks him off his horse, but they take his flag. “Our ancestors took that flag from the United States of America,” White Plume says, smiling. “We’re the only people who ever did.”

“I think it’s important,” she continues, “for the young men and young women to receive the training of the Warrior Society as our ancestors lived it, because that’s where the important values are played out, like courage and helping your relative and taking care of your horse and taking care of the land. All of that was important to us then and is important to us now.”[1]

How different the people’s reality is from “Red Hawk’s” lament at the beginning of Goble’s story:

We won a great victory. But when you look about you [sic] today you can see that it meant little. The White Men, who were then few, have spread over the earth like fallen leaves driven before the wind.

Goble’s new edition of his first-published book contains a revised “narrative,” a new Author’s Introduction, and a short Foreword by Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow, whose grandfather had been one of Custer’s scouts. According to Goble himself, “The inclusion of the Foreword by Joe Medicine Crow… gives the book a stronger Indian perspective.” Of the 20 sources in Goble’s reference section, only two are Indian-authored—My People, the Sioux and My Indian Boyhood—both by Luther Standing Bear, who was not at the Greasy Grass Battle (because he was only eight years old at the time).

In the two previous editions of Red Hawk’s Account of Custer’s Last Battle, Goble acknowledges the aid of “Lakota Isnala,” whom one might presume to be a Lakota historian. He was not. In this 2013 edition, Goble finally discloses that “Lakota Isnala” was, in fact, a Belgian Trappist monk named Gall Schuon[2], who was adopted[3] by Nicolas Black Elk. Custer’s Last Battle, writes Goble, is his fictional interpretation of Fr. Gall Schuon’s interpretation of John G. Neihardt’s interpretation of Nicolas Black Elk’s story. (And there has been much criticism by scholars—and by Black Elk’s family—of Neihardt’s exaggerating and altering Black Elk’s story in order to increase the marketability of Black Elk Speaks.)[4] In other words, Goble’s book is a white guy’s interpretation of a white guy’s interpretation of a white guy’s controversial interpretation of an elder Lakota historian’s oral story, which he related in Lakota.[5] Finally, at the end of his introduction, Goble writes, “Wopila ate,” which is probably supposed to mean, “Thank you, father.” Except it doesn’t. “Wopila” is a noun and means “gift.” So, “wopila ate” would mean, “gift father,” which is just a joining of two unrelated words. “Pilamaya,” which is a verb, means “thank you.”

Returning to Goble’s introduction, there’s this:

Because no single Indian account gives a complete picture of the battle, Indian people telling only what they had seen and done, I added explanatory passages in italics to give the reader an overview of what might have taken place…

In truth, Native traditionalists in the 1800s[6] did not offer linear recitations of events. Rather, they narrated only those events in which they had participated. Sometimes historical records consisted entirely of these narratives. Sometimes contemporaneous Indian historians, such as Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa)[7], assembled credible historical records. Sometimes persons from outside the culture, who knew and respected the Indian traditionalists, successfully assembled written records of oral narratives.[8] And there certainly is, today, a wealth of material, much of it put together by descendants of those who fought in the Greasy Grass Battle.[9]

In the same paragraph, Goble writes,

[T]here were no survivors of Custer’s immediate command, and there has always been considerable controversy about exactly what happened.

By limiting his discussion (and the story) to the casualties of Custer’s “immediate” command, Goble sidesteps the reality that, although five of the 12 Seventh Cavalry companies were completely destroyed, there were many survivors in the other seven. And, according to the histories passed down by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho traditionalists, there was never any “considerable controversy about exactly what happened.” In one of the major battles, for instance, it’s said that as the fighting was coming to an end, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse saw no sense in continuing. Rather, Crazy Horse posted snipers to keep the surviving Blue Coats behind their barricades—watching helplessly as he and his thousands of warriors returned to camp to help take down their lodges and move south.[10]

So, to be clear, there is nothing in Goble’s fictional Indian narrator’s voice, accompanied by Goble’s explanatory passages—even if they were accurate and appropriate, which they’re not—that might add anything of value for children or anyone else.

Piling romantic metaphor onto romantic metaphor appears to be Goble’s way of trying to imitate “Indian” storytelling style, which it doesn’t. Toward the beginning of the story, for instance, “Red Hawk” describes Crazy Horse: “A tomahawk in his hand gave him the power of the thunder and a war-bonnet of eagle feathers gave him the speed of the eagle.” Goble’s magical tomahawk stuff notwithstanding, Crazy Horse never wore a headdress. Following instructions given to him in an early vision, Crazy Horse wore the tail feathers from a red-tailed hawk at the back of his head, and a reddish-brown stone behind his left ear; his battle paint was a lightning mark across one side of his face, and blue hailstones on his chest.* 

Besides being mired down with cringe-worthy metaphor and misinformation, Goble’s fictional narrative paints the Lakota people as “brave yet doomed.” Here, for instance, “Red Hawk” relates the camp’s panicked response to an impending cavalry attack:

In an instant everyone was running in different directions…. The air was suddenly filled with dust and the sound of shouting and horses neighing. Dogs were running in every direction not knowing where to go…. Warriors struggled to mount their horses, which reared and stamped in excitement, while women grabbed up their babies and shrieked for their children as they ran down the valley away from the oncoming soldiers. Old men and women with half-seeing eyes followed after, stumbling through the dust-filled air. Medicine Bear, too old to run, sat by his tipi as the bullets from the soldiers’ guns already splintered the tipi-poles around him. “Warriors take courage!” he shouted. “It is better to die young for the people than to grow old.”

Goble’s melodrama notwithstanding, the Indian camps were extremely well organized. In times of war, everyone knew what to do. Children were protected, as were elders—not abandoned, helplessly sitting around “splintered tipi poles” or “stumbling through the dust-filled air.” Compare Goble’s fictional “narrative” above with a piece from Joseph Marshall III’s In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, in which Grandpa Nyles explains what happened to his grandson:

It was customary for Lakota wives and mothers to hand weapons to their husbands and sons. And they had a saying that gave them encouragement and reminded them of their duty as warriors…. The women would say, “Have courage and be the first to charge the enemy, for it is better to lie a warrior naked in death than it is to run away from the battle.”…It means that courage was a warrior’s best weapon, and that it was the highest honor to give your life for your people.

And. Goble’s description of “shrieking” women is taken from the many outsider accounts of “wailing” women. In reality, the camp women were singing Strong Heart songs to give their warriors courage as they rode off to battle.

And. “Red Hawk’s” recounting of what Medicine Bear said seems to have been “borrowed” from Luther Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle. But what Standing Bear really wrote was this:

When (I was) but a mere child, father inspired me by often saying: “Son, I never want to see you live to be an old man. Die young on the battlefield. That is the way a Lakota dies.” The full intent of this advice was that I must never shirk my duty to my tribe no matter what price in sacrifice I paid…. If I failed in duty, I simply failed to meet a test of manhood, and a man living in his tribe without respect was a nonentity.

More misinformation: Toward the end of “Red Hawk’s” story, he says, “White Men have asked me which man it was who killed Long Hair. We have talked among ourselves about this but we do not know. No man can say.”

Although there may not be written narrative accounts of who killed Custer, Indian people know it was Rain-In-The-Face. Besides the oral stories that have been handed down, there exist Winter Count histories in pictographs, which are at least, if not more, reliable than histories written by outsiders.[11] On one particular Winter Count, the pictograph detailing the most important event of that specific year, or winter, shows Rain-In-The-Face (along with his name glyph, or signature tag, of rain falling in his face) firing a rifle (with smoke coming out of it) directly at Custer (who is shown with long hair, falling backwards).

For the most part, and for cultural and pragmatic reasons, Indian people at the time did not have a lot to say to white people about their participation in the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Dewey Beard, for instance, said only that: “The sun shone. It was a good day.” But Goble chose to rely on the easily available written versions, rather than on the oral and pictograph versions—which he probably would not have understood or respected anyway.

In what has come to be known as ledger art, the Indian artists used basic media of whatever was available—crayon, colored pencil, and sometimes ink—on pages torn out of discarded ledger books. What they created was art of great beauty. Early ledger art related the histories of the great battles, the buffalo hunts, and other scenes from their lives. In the battle scenes, there were iconic name glyphs over the heads of individual warriors to identify them. There were handprints on their horses—coup marks—to show that these horses were war ponies, that they and their riders had previously seen battle. There were horses of many colors—reds, yellows, purples, and blues—because people who really knew horses could see their many shades. There were hoof prints at the bottom of the pages to denote action. The warriors shown often carried the prizes of war that they had taken from the enemy—US flags, cavalry sabers and bugles—that represented power. And often, there were wavy lines coming out of the mouths of the warriors as they charged, to symbolize that they were “talking” to the enemy—“I’m not afraid of you!” “I’m coming to get you!”

Although the details were generally the same or similar, techniques varied from tribe to tribe. According to Michael Horse, a talented contemporary ledger artist and historian, Cheyenne and Lakota styles, for example, were mostly stick figures, while Kiowa and Comanche styles were more realistic.

Even after people had been incarcerated in the prisons and on the reservations, these ledger paintings represented freedom and bravery.

On the other hand, Goble, as a European transplant, has transplanted his European aesthetic and style onto his “Indian ledger art.” It’s clear that he has looked at—maybe even studied—the old ledger paintings, taken what elements or designs he considers important or typical or romantic, and discarded the rest. His paintings are devoid of the historical and cultural content that were so important in the originals—they have no story and no spirit. All of Goble’s warriors are decked out in regalia and carrying weaponry—much of it unbelievably cumbersome—yet none of the warriors is identified by a name glyph, so we don’t know who they are. The warriors are not shouting at their enemies—they don’t even appear to have mouths. There are no symbolic, brightly colored war ponies—Goble’s “Indian” ponies exist only as blacks, browns, roans and an occasional gray. None of the ponies has a coup sign. There are no hoof prints, so there is no motion—just ponies and their riders suspended in space and time. They are indistinguishable, with a lack of identity, a lack of action, and a lack of Indian reality.

It would not be a stretch to say that Paul Goble does not know—and probably does not care to know—how to read Indian ledger art. Rather, it would seem that he perused actual direct statements from the original artists and saw only “decorative motifs” to be kept or discarded. I would also opine that Goble does not regard Indian ledger artists—traditional or contemporary—as artists.

Speaking at a conference a few years ago, Joseph Bruchac coined the term, “cultural ventriloquism,” to refer to the many non-Native authors who create “Native” characters that function as dummies to voice the authors’ own worldviews. So it would not be a stretch to imagine that Goble’s “using the voice of a (fictional) Indian participant” and “illustrat[ing] the picture pages in the style of ledger-book painting” are to showcase his own art by pretending to make this whole thing authentic. As such, Custer’s Last Battle can in no way be considered an Indian perspective of an historical event. It’s not even a well-told story that approximates an Indian perspective. It wasn’t successful in 1969 and it’s not successful now.

Returning for a moment to Goble’s introduction. He writes,

I grew up believing that Indian people had been shamefully treated, their beliefs mocked, their ways of life destroyed. I tried to be objective in writing this book, but for me the battle represented a moment of triumph, and I wanted Indian children to be proud of it. (italics mine)

Plains perspectives of the Battle of the Greasy Grass are not difficult to understand and do not need to be interpreted by someone from outside the culture. Plains traditional narratives are not incomplete and do not need to be rewritten by someone from outside the culture. Plains traditional and contemporary ledger art forms are not primitive and do not need to be fixed by someone from outside the culture. The children at Pine Ridge, against all odds, are holding on to their traditions, histories, arts, and cultures. The last things they need are fake narratives and fake art, combined with a cultural outsider’s arrogance and sense of entitlement—to “give” them pride.

—Beverly Slapin


There are many excellent sources of information about the Battle of the Greasy Grass; biography, fiction and nonfiction about the people who lived in that time period; and historic and contemporary ledger art. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

An outstanding short film, produced by the Smithsonian and from an Oglala perspective, is “The Battle of the Greasy Grass,” and might be a good beginning for study (grades 4-p). 

An important documentary, from American Experience and produced by James Welch and Paul Stekler, is “Last Stand at Little Big Horn—Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse Battle Custer”

For information about the Battle of the Greasy Grass or that era, see:

Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains

Edward and Mabel Kadlecek, To Kill an Eagle: Indian Views on the Last Days of Crazy Horse

Joseph Marshall III:
The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn: A Lakota History (2007)
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (2015)
The Long Knives are Crying (2008)
Soldiers Falling Into Camp: The Battles at the Little Rosebud and the Little Big Horn (2006)

Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle

James Welch and Paul Stekler, Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Big Horn and the Fate of the Plains Indians

For examples of, and information about, traditional ledger art, see:

Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art by Joyce M. Szabo (University of New Mexico Press, 1994)

Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings (Smithsonian, November 2009-January 2010). 

Ledger Narratives: The Plains Indian Drawings in the Mark Landsburgh Collection at Dartmouth College, by Colin G. Calloway and Michael Paul Jordan (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

The Schild Ledger Book: Drawing a Culture in Transition, in Texas Beyond History, University of Texas.

For examples of, and information about, contemporary ledger art, see:

“Ledger Art: Looking Between the Lines” by Gussie Fauntleroy, in Native Peoples Magazine, September-October 2011.

“This is Not Your Great-Great-Grandfather’s Ledger Art” by Wilhelm Murg, In Indian Country Today, 10/25/13.

Women and Ledger Art: Four Contemporary NativeAmerican Artists by Richard Pearce (University of Arizona Press, 2013).

[1] Quotes here are from the short video, “The Battle of the Greasy Grass,” produced by Smithsonian Magazine. 

[2] Goble writes, “Father Gall spoke Lakota fluently and was steeped in all things related to Lakota people. While working on the book many letters passed between us to verify one thing or another.”

[3] While Father Gall Schuon appears to be an interesting character, we don’t know in what sense he was “adopted.”

[4] The full title of this book is Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of an Oglala Holy Man, as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow).

[5] As Black Elk told his story, his son, Ben Black Elk, translated.

[6] On both sides of the Greasy Grass Battle, these might include Lakota traditionalists Sitting Bull, Two Moon, Gall, Crazy Horse, as well as Cheyenne, Arapaho and Crow traditionalists.

[7] See, for example, Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, vivid biographical sketches of people Eastman knew well: Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Rain-in-the-Face, Sitting Bull, Little Crow, Chief Joseph and others.

[8] See To Kill an Eagle: Indian Views on the Last Days of Crazy Horse by Edward and Mabel Kadlecek, who lived near Pine Ridge and listened to the stories of Indian elders who had known Crazy Horse.

[9] Some of the best accounts of this historic battle, in fiction and nonfiction, include: Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Big Horn and the Fate of the Plains Indians by James Welch (Blackfeet / Gros Ventre) and Paul Stekler (1994); Welch and Stekler also collaborated on the important documentary, “Last Stand at Little Bighorn.” There’s also The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn: A Lakota History (2007), The Long Knives are Crying (2008) and Soldiers Falling Into Camp: The Battles at the Little Rosebud and the Little Big Horn (2006) by Joseph Marshall III (Sicangu Lakota), as well as Marshall’s new children’s book, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (2015).

[10] See a description of this maneuver, for example, in Marshall’s In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, pp. 120-121.

[11] Each Winter Count pictograph portrays the most important event that occurred in a particular winter, or year. It could be a major battle, or an outbreak of disease, or the death of a leader, or something else. The pictograph that represents 1876 shows the killing of Custer at the Battle of Greasy Grass.

*Edits to this paragraph made on Feb 8 2016 at the request of Beverly Slapin. 


Anonymous said...

This is a serious question and not a complaint or criticism. Do you believe that any historical fiction regarding Native Peoples is acceptable? Certainly, any fiction book will contain fictional characters, and it is common for historical fiction books to have fictional characters interact with historical characters in a way that is imagined by the author. And certainly any fiction book will have dialogue, action, and circumstances that are not truthful, because that is the nature of fiction. It has been common, in past years, for authors to even manipulate time lines and other facts for the sake of the story.

It is a legitimate position to say that all such historical fiction is unacceptable. I'm just trying to get a feel for where the lines are. Thank you.

Debbie Reese said...

I wish there was an easy answer, Anonymous.

Yes, historical fiction depicting Native peoples is acceptable and there are many excellent titles. Louise Erdrich's THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE, for example, is outstanding.

I understand the need to imagine conversations of people who lived in past times but it is very hard to do well. Far too much of what people think they know about Native peoples is shaped by romantic ideas. If the dialog reflects that romanticism, I'll note it as a problem. Gina Capaldi did that in her biography of Carlos Montezuma. She had him saying "talking leaves." She also manipulated a lot of events in order to tell the story she wanted to tell about his life. I found that manipulation problematic, too.

I don't think I know anyone who would say that all historical fiction is unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. You provided me a thoughtful answer, and I appreciate it.