May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Doubting that any genuine American Indian leader has been overrated—the excess has been in misrepresentation rather than in evaluation (e.g., Sitting Bull, who has often been credited, or blamed, for Custer’s defeat, did not physically participate in the Greasy Grass fight, a.k.a. the Battle of the Little Bighorn)—I must choose from among the many phony depictions of great chiefs by Hollywood in a day when only Caucasian actors were cast in Indian roles. The choice is obvious: Cochise. Not the respectable Chiricahua Apache of history (c. 1815–74), but the cigarstore effigy on celluloid, a caricature of the Noble Savage.
Of the Plains Indians, the Crows have too often been underrated and sometimes even disdained for being allies of the white man in his conflict with some of the tribes most hostile to his incursions (Jack Crabb, in Little Big Man , makes just such an unfair assessment, no doubt owing to his childhood with the Cheyennes). But it is only human to look kindly on those who share your enemies, and the outnumbered Crows had been at war with the aggressive and expansionist Sioux long before the arrival of G. A. Custer, an event that was therefore welcome to them. When he was killed, they mourned the death of a friend.
In their day the Crows were gallant and formidable warriors. The eloquent memoir of their chief Plenty-coups, as told to and recounted by Frank B. Linderman in 1930, is one of the best of the Indian autobiographies.