June 25, 1876: An Interpretation of an Historical Event

by Bruce Lesh

Essential Question

How should events from the Indian Wars be commemorated by the federal government?

Background
 

The Battle of Little Bighorn was one in a series of conflicts that occurred during the American attempt to remove native tribes from the West. Between 1850 and 1890, the United States military subdued numerous tribes through a concerted effort to destroy the buffalo and disrupt hunting patterns. The battle along the Big Horn River emerged from transgressions of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The treaty, resulting from Red Cloud's defeat of the United States Army in 1866-67, promised that the United States would abandon forts along the Bozeman Trail and granted the Sioux access to the sacred Black Hills and all territory to the west. Incursions by homesteaders, miners, and travelers, as well an American government-sponsored exploration for gold in the Black Hills quickly raised tensions between the Sioux and the American military. General George Armstrong Custer, famous for his efforts in the American Civil War, led a military force into the Black Hills to seek gold. In 1876, Custer was ordered to assist in rounding up the Sioux Indians and placing them on the reservation. Attacking at dawn on the morning of June 25, 1876, the year of America's 100th anniversary, Custer was defeated by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the collection of tribes encamped along the Greasy Grass, near Hardin, Montana. Although a deflating defeat for the Seventh Cavalry and General Custer, it turned out to be a temporary setback when subsequently the Sioux were defeated and forced onto the reservations. Even Sitting Bull, after four years in Canada, capitulated in 1881 and moved onto the reservations. By 1890, native resistance had ended.

Although the fight at the Little Bighorn River and the eventual surrender of Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux occurred in the nineteenth century, the late twentieth century saw a new incarnation of the battle, which continued to resonate throughout American popular culture. Images of Custer and his famous "last stand" appeared in movies, on lunch boxes, and as a tool to advertise cigarettes and beer. In the 1980s, the question of how to commemorate the events that occurred on June 25, 1876 was raised. Should the park that had been created on the site of the battlefield -- called Custer Battlefield National Monument -- commemorate the valiant defeat of the enigmatic General George Armstrong Custer, or a victory by the Sioux and other native tribes that were attacked? After both a contentious debate and a thorough reinterpretation of what happened resulting from a brushfire that exposed many heretofore undiscovered archchological artifacts, the federal government, in 1993, changed the name of the park from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Big Horn National Battlefield Monument. The debate over how to commemorate the events spoke to the power of myths and icons in American history, the culture wars of the 1990s, and the continual reinterpretation of the past that defines a rigorous study of history.

This lesson explores both battles: the one in 1876 and the one in the 1990s. Students are asked to determine the causes of the troubles between the Sioux and the American government and how the events of June 25th have been interpreted, and then to debate how those events should be commemorated by the federal government.


Objectives

  • compare and contrast images of an historical event;
  • determine the causes of, and motivations for, the Battle of the Little Bighorn; and
  • develop an interpretation of how to commemorate the events of June 25, 1876.

Materials

Activity One

Initiate student investigation by projecting or distributing images of the American perspective of the events of June 25, 1876:

Ask students to examine the pictures and:
1.  describe what is happening;
2.  describe the emotions evoked by the image; and
3.  describe the message being conveyed by the image.

Next, project or distribute images of the event from the Native American perspective:

Ask students to examine the pictures and:
1.  describe what is happening;
2.  describe the emotions evoked by the image;
3.  describe the message being conveyed by the image; and
4.  describe how this image differs from the first.

Then ask the students: Do the images convey different interpretations of the same event? Why or why not?

Introduce the controversy surrounding the naming of the Little Bighorn battlefield. Explain how each of the visual representations expresses an interpretation of the events that occurred on June 25, 1876, and how the representation sheds light on the recent controversy over what to call the battle’s location. Project or distribute a copy of Resource Sheet 3 and explain that students will be asked to select a title from the potential names on the sheet to commemorate the events of June 25, 1876. Discuss the potential names with the students.

Homework

Before the next class, have students read the summary of the events leading up to and during the battle found on Resource Sheet 1.

Activity Two

Review the homework by discussing the series of events leading up to June 25, 1876. Be sure to emphasize the role of the Black Hills, the Fort Laramie Treaty, and the reaction of Sitting Bull to requests that the Sioux relocate to reservations. In addition, draw attention to the symbolic and historic significance of the battlefield for Sioux Indians.

Organize students into groups of three and give each group one of the sources found on Resource Sheet 2. Have students silently read their source and identify:

  1. how the author describes the events of June 26, 1876;
  2. who the author sees as the hero and why; and
  3. how the author thinks the event should be remembered (for example as a victory, defeat, or massacre).

Have each group present its source to the class and explain the perspective of the author on the events of June 25, 1876, on General George A. Custer, on the Native Americans, and on how the events from that day should be remembered. Students should record their notes in their notebooks.

Conduct a full class discussion focusing on how students decided the events should best be remembered. Ask:

  1. Why did some perspectives influence your decision making and others not?
  2. How do you weigh the differing interpretations?

Conclude the story of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Sioux War, and discuss the battle’s overall impact on relations between natives and the federal government and the debate over renaming the site that emerged in the 1990s. Extend the discussion by displaying a copy of Resource Sheet 3 and ask students what they believe would be the best name for the battlefield. Solicit student responses, asking:

  1. Should the story to be told emphasize the American military and General Custer, or the Native Americans?
  2. Is this a story of victory or defeat?
  3. Is it possible to provide a balanced interpretation of the events of June 25, 1876? How? What artifacts, documents, and other sources can help tell this story?

Assessment

Distribute copies of Resource Sheet 3 and based on their previous discussion, have each student select one title to give the National Park Services monument commemorating the battle that occurred on June 25, 1876. Students should justify their choices by discussing the varying historical interpretations of the event, as well as the facts surrounding its causes and consequences. If time permits students can share their responses.
 

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