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“A Good Day to Die”–Or Not

Little Big Man (1970) is a very funny tragedy. One of the most repeated lines in the history of movies is, of course, when Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) proclaims that “It is a good day to die.” He does this first when he sets out to fight the white man, and he says it again in this scene when he realizes that the white man cannot be defeated.

I guess race and the questioning of assumptions about it is my theme this week. I’m sure there are plenty of racial inaccuracies in this movie. Chief Dan George was himself a member of a coastal tribe from Vancouver, not from a Plains tribe, for instance, and there are no doubt elements of the depictions of Native Americans here that are questionable. The dialogue at the end of this scene might not be a “flattering” depiction, albeit it is designed to be absurdly comic.

But the film was one of the very first Westerns to center the sympathy and character development on the Native American characters. These Native Americans are not “noble savages” much less “ignoble” ones. The narrator and main character, Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman), a white man adopted as a child by the Native Americans, is a full-fledged liar, so some of this is even made light of on the surface. The movie doesn’t presume to provide a Native American first-person point of view, and Crabb’s stories have other purposes than accuracy, but his heart is in the right place, as was that of his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins.

Old Lodge Skins and his people refer to white people as “white people” and only to their tribesmen and –women—as “human beings.” When I first saw this movie, I was delighted and surprised by this reversal of the Manifest Destiny junk about whites being more human than other races of people. It was one of the first things that got me thinking about the importance of perspective.

In this scene, Old Lodge Skins finds that it is not yet his day to die after all.

3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Thank You, I’m Alive! « Joyous Crybaby

  2. I meant to reply sooner, but I’m slow at times and that’s not a good thing in the blog-o-world (or outside it for that matter). Two things jump out regarding this. One, the “It’s a good day to die” was something my mentor in the Fish and Wildlife Service used to say about fighting over resource issues. At times, when the argument was over something fairly large, say, for example, a policy direction of the Army Corps on how to protect wetlands over most of the state, he would say that before heading off to a meeting with them. Essentially, don’t come home with any arguments unsaid; don’t be afraid to piss people off and blow up the meeting if necessary. You don’t want to lose the fight thinking that you held something back.

    The second point is not that related to the “good day to die” but instead struck me as I read the post. That point is how much my (and probably a lot of white USA’s) thoughts about “Indians” is wrapped up in the Hollywood treatments of Indians which almost always involves the Plains tribes. Growing up in the east, with no reservations within miles, I always thought of “Indians” being a western US thing.

    Yet one of the more revealing things I’ve read in the last few years was a history of the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War) and how the Six Nations of the Iroquois (at one time 5 nations) was able for a long time to play off the French and British against each other. From the first permanent European settlements until 1763 (the end of the Seven Years’ War) — over 100 years — they allied themselves with one side or the other in order to give the (either the French or British) a momentary advantage, but never quite throwing themselves in so far with one side or the other to compromise their independence or allow one European side to be crushed. They even represented themselves to the French and British as the “go to” people on behalf of many other tribes not in the Iroquois Confederacy (e.g., the Delawares) — to the disadvantage of those tribes. And that all happened in my own back yard.

    It failed when the British colonies had enough people to moot the need for the alliance and French Canada was destroyed in the Seven Years’ War. But for 100 years, the Iroquois astutely played the political games in a way that would have made Bismarck smile.

    • Slowness is not to be disdained! Milan Kundera even wrote a novel all about it.

      I love the story about your former colleague saying “It is a good day to die” before fighting tough battles. We have to get ourselves psyched up for certain things. Anyway, thanks for putting a new twist on my understanding of that line. For me the emphasis was on everything leading up to that moment, but I like how this interpretation focuses on the moment at hand.

      My first awareness of Native American culture and traditions came from childhood visits to Chucalissa in West Tennessee, an archaeological site we visited–with its mound and reproductions of grass huts from around 1400-1500. Later, when I was in elementary school, we happened to live in a neighborhood along the Tennessee River that contained an “Indian mound.” The developers had named the area Sequoyah Hills, and we had lessons in school about Sequoyah and his development of a Cherokee alphabet. So I learned pretty early on about non-Plains Indians, and I was horrified by the story of the Trail of Tears, when the Choctaws, Seminoles, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Cherokees were forcibly relocated to the west. from across the southeast in the 1830s.

      Perhaps this was because I loved the East Tennessee mountains so much that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have lived there my whole life and be forced to leave. And in fact East Tennessee was full of Native names. Even the word Tennessee came from the word Tanasi, which was what the Cherokee called what is now known as the Tennessee River. I went to Camp Tanasi Girl Scout Camp. Hiawassee River, Tuskeegee University, Tellico Dam–I was surrounded by the flowing sounds of Cherokee.

      So thanks for sharing your learning about the Iroquois. I did a lot of reading about Native American culture in my youth, and some in grad school, but you make me think I need to do more.

      So great hearing from you, Mark! I love it.


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