Multiple Perspectives and Assessing Non-Fiction Narratives

Mr. Steel


During this unit of study, students will be introduced to the challenges of reading non-fiction and historical texts. “How can we determine the truth about events? Can we take one account of events as the whole truth, or must we look more broadly?  Are all accounts of events equally credible? How do we assess the credibility of an account? And can we understand events by looking only at the events themselves, or must we look at those events in a broader context?”

Student inquiry will focus particularly on some of the characters and the events surrounding the Battle of Little Big Horn. In particular, students will read first hand accounts surrounding the events at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where the infamous General George Custer made his “last stand.” Selections from Custer’s own earlier autobiographical writings entitled My Life on the Plains will be studied as a background to the battle, along with a first-hand account of the battle by Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man. Biographical information on these men will be provided along with some secondary literature on the Sand Creek Massacre and the Battle of Washita River, both events being significant preceding events to the Battle of Little Big Horn.


Work and Assessment:


1. Read the excerpts from Custer’s My Life on the Plains and respond to the following questions in complete sentences:

(i) Examine Custer’s use of language in his memoir to describe the Indians of the Great Plains. Provide some examples of words that he uses, and offer up your own impressions of how these words are meant to affect our view of native people.

(ii) Why does Custer say that our beliefs about native people are inaccurate. What does he say most people believe about them? What does he say is actually the case?

(iii) Why does Custer feel like a “victim” of unwarranted persecution as a member of the army? Are you sympathetic? Why or why not?

(iv) What reasons does Custer provide for the army’s “incursions” into Indian territory?

(v) How are the chiefs portrayed in their meeting with General Hancock? Provide examples/evidence.

(vi) What is significant about the manner of Custer’s reference to the Chivington/Sand Creek massacre? What effect is his story about the two “rescued” children meant to have upon the reader, and how does this narration cloud what happened there?


Read the secondary literature on the Sand Creek massacre carefully. Make a list of details about what happened during this massacre. What did the army do to the native people? Put yourself in the native people’s place: how would knowledge of this massacre affect the way that you saw white people and American soldiers thereafter?

(vii) Study the manner of Custer’s contrast of the two opposing armies. How is each army (Chapter two) depicted?

(viii) Custer’s army was commissioned with the task of clearing the native people off of the Plains to make way for settlement. Why were the native people unwilling to stay in the village with the army all around them?

(ix) In Chapter four, what new reasons does the army have for attacking the native people, apart from rounding them up and containing them on reserves? What is General Hancock’s new “field order”? Examine and assess Custer’s account of the reasoning behind this order.

(x) What happened during “the Box Massacre” and the massacre of Lieutenant Kidder and his detachment? Why does Custer tell these histories?

(xi) Examine Custer’s account of “the Indian” in Chapter eight. What is the intended effect of these short anecdotes about Indians?

(xii) Why does Custer want to attack the Indians during the winter? Are the native people he hunts bothering anybody? Where does he find happen to find them? Why does he attack them?

(xiii) Recount Custer’s story of the Battle of the Washita. Why does Custer tell this story? What does his account of the “battle” emphasize?


2. Now read the secondary literature concerning the Battle of the Washita. Compare what Custer says about the “battle” with what is written in this short history. Try to find differences between these two assessments of what happened and make a list of them.


3. Read the biographical information relayed in the secondary source about George Custer. How does what you learn here inform your understanding of the events Custer describes?


4. Read the excerpts from Black Elk Speaks carefully and answer the following questions:

(i) Black Elk was 13 years old at the time of the following battles. In the chapter entitled “The Fight With Three Stars” (“Three Stars” being the name that the natives called General Crook), why did Black Elk and a number of other people in his tribe decide to leave the Soldier’s Town and go to find Crazy Horse? What was happening to all their land and their free movement in the land? Why? What had many other tribes done as well?

(ii) What did the white people (Wasichus) do that inspired Black Elk’s party to attack them on the way to find Crazy Horse?

(iii) Having read Custer’s account of how Indians fight, compare this with what Black Elk says about how Wasichus fight, and why they are ineffective.

(iv) What does Black Elk say happens in the Sun Dance ceremony? What meaning/significance is invested in this ceremony? Now put yourself in the shoes of the Wasichus: How would this ceremony look to you, and how would you judge it if you didn’t understand what it meant?

(v) Next, read the speeches of Iron Hawk and Standing Bear. What were the Wasichus trying to do? Conversely, why did the Indians fight with the Wasichus?

(vi) What thing does Standing Bear say the native warriors were doing after the battle that strikes us as disrespectful? How else might we try to interpret these actions?

(vii) Read the chapter entitled, “The Rubbing Out of Long Hair” (aka - General Custer). After the Battle with General Crook, the native tribes that fled from American containment all converged at the Little Big Horn River in the valley of the Greasy Grass. Describe the ceremonies that are performed prior to the battle. What do you think their significance might be?

(viii) Offer up your own analysis of Black Elk’s description of the battle (both sections: pp. 105-113, and 125-130). What parts of his own account do you find particularly novel or interesting?

(ix) Read Standing Bear’s account of the battle. What do we learn about the character of the battle from his story?

(x) Read Iron Hawk’s account of the battle. What parts of his story did you find most interesting and why? What do these elements of his account tell you about the battle and the character of the people involved in it?

(xi) Next, read the chapter entitled, “Walking the Black Road.” What do we learn about the victories of the native peoples against the Wasichus in this chapter? What continued to happen anyway? 

(xii) During this time, where did Sitting Bull and Gall go? What did Crazy Horse do, and what did the American army do?

(xiii) How did the native people eventually lose title to the Black Hills?

(xiv) What happened to Dull Knife’s people on Willow Creek as they slept in their beds at night (specifics please)? What eventually happened to the survivors, including Crazy Horse’s people?

(xv) What was better about life in the Soldier’s Town, according to Black Elk? Why does Black Elk say that “what happened that summer is not a story”? What does he mean by this?

(iv) Having read ”The Killing of Crazy Horse,” explore your own impressions of Crazy Horse as a man and a leader. What was he like? What did he mean to the native people? What does the manner of his death tell you about the Wasichus and native people in his day?