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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.