Film Study Guide


In the early 1860s, disillusioned with the Great White Father's reservation policy, angry Indians inhabiting the North American Plains took to the warpath. Some Indians resisted outright any limits to their hunting grounds; other tribes, willing to accept the government's boundaries, felt betrayed whenever whites infringed on their designated lands. A series of bloody engagements ensued between Indians and bluecoats throughout the West over the next three decades.

Fierce Sioux resistance in the Powder River region of southeastern Montana Territory and northern Wyoming Territory caused the government to seek negotiation in 1868. The resulting Fort Laramie Treaty called for the United States to abandon its guardian forts along the Bozeman Trail, awarded to the Sioux all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and allowed the Indians to continue hunting buffalo within the "unceded territory" stretching from the western boundary of the Black Hills to the summit of the Bighorn Mountains. Essentially, the Sioux could choose to live on the Great Sioux Reservation and draw provisions from the government, or roam freely throughout the Powder River Basin to hunt buffalo. Either way, there was to be no significant interference from whites. Within a half dozen years, both treaty parties would commit acts in violation of the Fort Laramie agreement.

During the summer of 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was assigned to lead an enormous expedition through the Black Hills. Its dual purpose was to determine a suitable location for a military fort (to better supervise the Indians) and settle the question of gold in the Hills. The expedition's confirmation of gold there made whites immediately covetous of the region. While geological survey parties were sent into the Hills to confirm the presence of gold, army patrols made half-hearted efforts to keep prospectors out. However, it was just a matter of time before the government would bow to the influx of settlers. In 1875, the United States began to apply pressure on the Indians to sell the Black Hills. Some Sioux were willing; others indignantly refused, even if it meant bloodshed.

Two of the most defiant Sioux leaders were Crazy Horse, the tribe's preeminent warrior chief, and Sitting Bull, spiritual emissary of the Sioux. Both roamed the unceded territory, resolutely refusing to live on the reservation. An increasing number of the reservation Sioux, infuriated by trespassers and fed up with broken government promises, moved to the unceded land, thus augmenting the militant Indians already there. Then, along with their Northern Cheyenne allies, the massive Indian league headed north to Montana Territory.

In mid-May of 1876, the War Department ordered General Alfred Terry to proceed from Fort Abraham Lincoln in northern Dakota Territory to the Powder River region. Terry's mission was to intercept the Indians there and force them back to their assigned reservations. With Terry was Custer, in command of the 7th Cavalry. According to plan, the Terry column would act in chorus with those of General George Crook (advancing northward from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory) and Colonel John Gibbon (coming from Fort Ellis in western Montana Territory) to converge on the hostiles. When the rendezvous with Gibbon was realized, Terry sent Custer ahead with orders to block the Indians' probable escape route. Once in position, Custer was to avoid engaging the Indians except under dire necessity; only after the other columns arrived would the attack commence.

Custer proceeded at an intense pace, covering almost 60 miles of difficult terrain in just two days. Instead of swinging well to the south and then doubling back to block the Indians' escape, as instructed, Custer turned his march almost directly toward the massive Indian village. It appeared he was making ready to attack even though Terry, Gibbon, and Crook were still far off!

On the morning of June 25, Custer divided his already grossly outnumbered command. (The Terry/Gibbon forces were not expected to arrive until the next day; Crook's column had been halted several days earlier by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud.) He dispatched Major Marcus Reno with three companies to cross the Little Bighorn and attack the Indian encampment from the south. Captain Frederick Benteen, as well, was assigned three companies accompanied with vague orders to sweep the bluffs southeast of the valley. Another company, under Captain Thomas McDougall, stayed to guard the vulnerable pack train. Custer would lead the five remaining companies against the Indian village from the northeast.

The formidable Indian alliance, numbering at least 2,000 strong (some estimates go as high as twice that amount), was led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Other notables present were Gall and Rains In The Face, both courageous Sioux chiefs, and Two Moons, a daring Cheyenne leader.

While historians know with high degree of accuracy the events leading up to the Little Bighorn clash, piecing together the details of the battle itself is a much more difficult task since there was no white survivor to tell the story. The questions that linger have served as fodder for myth and legend about Custer and his "Last Stand."


The movie Son of the Morning Star is largely based on Evan S. Connell's 1984 national bestseller of the same title, considered by many scholars to be the definitive work on George Armstrong Custer and the Little Bighorn clash. Meticulously researched, the book explores the complexity of the man and explains the details of the battle. Connell deftly intertwines Custer, other military officers, and Indian leaders whose lives all had one common, eventful date. The historical authenticity of the made-for-television movie, which debuted in 1991, is commendable, but hardly flawless. It presents a balanced story (some Hollywood flare added) told from two starkly different perspectives—those of Custer's wife, Elizabeth ("Libbie"), and Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne.

After the Little Bighorn, Libbie remained a widow until her death 57 years later, writing a trio of volumes about the "Autie" she loved and the General Custer she revered. Her decidedly slanted recollections and interpretations of his thoughts and actions reflect her selfless devotion. Libbie was outspoken and relentless in blaming her husband's demise on the battlefield behavior of two of his subordinate officers, Major Reno and Captain Benteen. (Reno's shoddy performance at the Little Bighorn led to a formal review. Though he was exonerated in this case, the Army later dismissed him on another matter. Benteen, a good military man, was never shy about challenging Custer's leadership and tactics. Nothing that happened at the Little Bighorn tempered his rabid criticism). Libbie's loss revealed her great blessing: she seemed to have had what too many wives never obtain—a real-life husband-hero. The Custers' graves are adjacent at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Bighead was a little girl when she fled barefoot across the snow to escape Custer's 1868 mid-winter surprise retaliatory raid on Black Kettle's Southern Cheyennes camped near the Washita River in western Oklahoma. Later, she transferred to the northern branch of the tribe and was therefore with the Cheyennes who joined their Sioux comrades at the Little Bighorn in 1876. In an interview conducted during the 1920s, Bighead maintained that in the months after the Washita attack her 17-year-old cousin Me-o-tzi (or Mo-nah-se-tah), daughter of slain Chief Little Rock, became impregnated by Custer during the course of his patrols throughout the region, the product of which was a boy named Yellow Hair (or Yellow Bird or Yellow Swallow) because of light streaks in his otherwise dark hair. Bighead also indicated that many of the soldiers at the Little Bighorn fight killed themselves and each other rather than face death by torture at the hands of the Indians. Both claims are very suspect.

The story of Custer's child by a Cheyenne mistress is discounted as mere legend by most reputable historians. Stephen E. Ambrose, for example, classifies it as nothing more than "gossip." Me-o-tzi was one of three captive Cheyenne women taken to Fort Sill after the Washita attack. Those who would believe Bighead's tale point out that Custer described Me-o-tzi as an outwardly attractive woman; she, in turn, attached herself to Custer, assisting him as an intermediary guide when he conducted business with the Indians of the western Oklahoma and Texas panhandle. Even Benteen supported the liaison rumor, slanderously reporting that another soldier observed Custer and Me-o-tzi in the sex act. The determining fact is that the time gap between when Custer first met the woman and the birth of her baby is just seven weeks! Intercourse or not, the biological clock obviously eliminates any chance of pregnancy. (Immediately after the Little Bighorn battle, Sioux warriors wanting Custer's scalp were turned away by Cheyenne women who told them Custer was a tribal relative.)

As for the Army casualties at the Little Bighorn, recent forensic testing performed on bone fragments suggests that perhaps as few as ten percent of Custer's troops were killed by actual battle wounds. Most of the soldiers, wounded and helpless, were murdered after the fight subsided by Indians searching among their fallen enemy for bodies to scalp and mutilate. Moreover, it is questionable that Bighead, as a child, ventured far enough from the Indian village to get sufficiently close to the intense action—no doubt obscured by much gun smoke and dust—to witness as many details of death as she alleged.

The Son of the Morning Star story begins at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1866 (where Custer was first stationed after the Civil War) and culminates with the infamous battle a decade later. The film runs three hours and is rated PG-13. It features Gary Cole as Custer and Rosanna Arquette as his adoring wife. Primary cast members are listed alphabetically below.

Stanley Anderson ... President Ulysses S. Grant
Rosanna Arquette ... Elizabeth "Libbie" Custer
Demina Becker ... young Kate Bighead
Edward Blatchford ... Lt. William Cooke
Mike Casey ... Lt. Charles Varnum
Gary Cole ... Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer
George Dickerson ... Gen. William T. Sherman
Sav Farrow ... Private Giovanni Martini
Wendy Feder ... Margaret "Maggie" Calhoun
Rodney Grant ... Crazy Horse
Patrick Johnston ... Boston Custer
Eric Lawson ... Fred Gerard

Michael Medeiros ... Maj. Marcus Reno
Kimberly Norris ... adult Kate Bighead
Tom O'Brien ... Charley Reynolds
Terry O'Quinn ... Gen. Alfred Terry
Nick Ramus ... Red Cloud
Tim Ransom ... Lt. Thomas "Tom" Custer
Robert Schenkkan ... Capt. Thomas Weir
Dean Stockwell ... Gen. Philip Sheridan
David Strathairn ... Capt. Frederick Benteen
Russ Walks ... Armstrong "Autie" Reed
Floyd Red Crow Westerman ... Sitting Bull
Sheldon Wolfchild ... Bloody Knife

Two notable character omissions are Lieutenant James Calhoun (Custer's brother-in-law) and Captain Myles Keogh (perhaps the most colorful member of the 7th). Both officers fought gallantly to their death at the Little Bighorn. The best performances among the principal actors are those of Tim Ransom (as Custer's younger brother Tom) and David Strathairn (as Benteen); minor acting parts of mention are by Sheldon Wolfchild (as Bloody Knife, Custer's favorite Indian scout) and Demina Becker (as Kate Bighead when she was a young child). The narrative voice of Bighead is provided by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Incidentally, Kevin Costner was initially offered the role of Custer, but declined because he was busy producing his own western movie epic, Dances With Wolves.

Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing Son of the Morning Star, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
  1. George Armstrong Custer was called "Son of the Morning Star (who attacks at dawn)" by the:
    1. Crow
    2. Arikara
    3. Sioux
    4. Cheyenne

  2. The lives of George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse were parallel in all of the following ways except:
    1. both were men of aggression and supreme courage
    2. neither heeded fundamental rules of their cultures in attempts to be with the women they loved
    3. both became leaders in their societies at unusually young ages
    4. neither particularly relished the wide-open Great Plains—Custer preferred the large cities back East; Crazy Horse was most comfortable settling near good fishing waters amidst tall timber

  3. The President historically most associated with accelerating the federal government's Indian removal policy is:
    1. Thomas Jefferson
    2. Andrew Jackson
    3. Zachary Taylor
    4. Ulysses S. Grant

  4. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 confined the Sioux to vast territory determined by all of the following boundaries except the:
    1. Missouri River
    2. Black Hills
    3. North Platte River
    4. Bighorn Mountains

  5. The accomplished objective of the 1874 Custer Expedition through the Black Hills was to:
    1. investigate rumors of gold discovered near French Creek
    2. determine a strategic site for construction of a large military fort intended to garrison the 7th Cavalry
    3. chase hostile Sioux from the region in order to protect incoming homesteaders
    4. survey a right-of-way for the Northern Pacific Railroad out of Sioux City, Iowa

  6. Of the following events, the one that happened last was the:
    1. appalling, unprovoked slaughter of Black Kettle's peaceful Cheyennes at Sand Creek, Colorado, by forces under Colonel John Chivington
    2. Battle of the Little Bighorn
    3. complete obliteration of Captain William Fetterman's troops by Red Cloud along the Bozeman Trail
    4. Wounded Knee tragedy

  7. The Sioux tribal name:
    1. is the literal English translation of "Dakota" or "Lakota" (which the Indians called themselves), meaning "alliance of friends"
    2. was first used by French fur traders in Canada in reference to the "southern Indians" occupying Minnesota and the Dakotas; "Sioux" is a French-Canadian variant of "south"
    3. is derived from the language of the Chippewas (old foes of the Sioux), meaning "snake" or "enemy"
    4. was attached to neighboring Indians by white settlers along the central Missouri River (the area most populated by the tribe), especially near the towns of Sioux City (Iowa) and Sioux Falls (South Dakota)

  8. The Sioux disregarded their reservation boundaries in southern Dakota Territory for all of the following reasons except:
    1. food and supplies promised by the federal government were too few and of poor quality, and the Black Hills buffalo herds had worn thin
    2. raiding parties from neighboring hostile tribes, especially the Pawnees, were constantly harassing the Sioux and violating their hunting grounds
    3. the steady advance of the Northern Pacific Railroad toward Sioux territory
    4. more and more prospectors were tramping over Sioux land panning for gold recently discovered in the Black Hills

  9. The lively tune adopted by the 7th Cavalry as its regimental march is:
    1. "The Gallant Seventh," written especially for Custer by John Philip Sousa, the preeminent military band music composer of the time
    2. Stephen Foster's "I'll Be Home To-Morrow," suggested by Libbie Custer
    3. an old Irish drinking song entitled "Garry Owen," proposed by one of Custer's officers
    4. "Mendelssohn's March," the favorite of Custer's great-grandfather, a Hessian officer who fought in the Revolutionary War

  10. During one scene in Son of the Morning Star, an admiring young female approaches a group of dignitaries to request their autographs. In the midst of brief conversation, George Armstrong Custer's name is mentioned. The person whose reaction toward Custer best fits the description of "indifference" is:
    1. General Philip Sheridan
    2. President Ulysses S. Grant
    3. General William Tecumseh Sherman
    4. Senator Henry Laurens Dawes

  11. The 7th Cavalry approached the valley of the Little Bighorn River from:
    1. Fort Riley in northeastern Kansas, where the Republican River joins with the Kansas River
    2. Fort Ellis, close to the westernmost extension of the Bozeman Trail in Montana Territory
    3. Fort Robinson in the very northwestern corner of Nebraska
    4. Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck on the Missouri River in northern Dakota Territory

  12. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry was part of a larger force commanded by:
    1. General Philip Sheridan
    2. Colonel John Gibbon
    3. General Alfred Terry
    4. General George Crook

  13. The Indian alliance gathered at the Little Bighorn River region consisted of:
    1. several fragmented tribes from the Great Plains and the Southwest
    2. Apaches, Shoshones, and Sioux primarily from Dakota Territory, Minnesota, and Nebraska
    3. mostly Sioux and Northern Cheyennes, with perhaps a handful of Arapahos
    4. almost every major tribe of the Great Plains, including the Arapahos, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Comanches, Crows, Kiowas, Pawnees, and Sioux

  14. George Armstrong Custer's favorite Indian scout (who was killed at Little Bighorn) was named:
    1. Black Kettle
    2. Little Crow
    3. White Bull
    4. Bloody Knife

  15. All of the following are plausible reasons for George Armstrong Custer's ill-fated decision to attack ahead of schedule at the Little Bighorn except:
    1. to prevent any possible chance the Indians might have to escape the area before additional Army forces arrived
    2. Custer hoped to gain for himself the recognition of single-handedly defeating the Indians
    3. his Indian scouts informed him that a large group of Sioux warriors coming from Wyoming to bolster the existing Indian force would likely arrive within 24 hours
    4. Custer believed (incorrectly) that he had been detected by the Indians, thus he wanted to salvage as much as possible the keen element of surprise

  16. The least certain of the several factors offered by historians to explain the sound defeat of George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn is:
    1. his overconfidence stemming from past victories against hostile Indians
    2. Custer's decision to split his vastly outnumbered troops before attacking
    3. his underestimation or disregard (whatever the true case may be) of the superior Indian strength, not just in sheer numbers, but in fighting capability as well
    4. the failure of Custer's senior officers to carry out the attack according to his orders

  17. All of the following 7th Cavalry officers appear to have fought stoutly at the Battle of the Little Bighorn except:
    1. Captain Myles Keogh
    2. Lieutenant James Calhoun
    3. Captain Frederick Benteen
    4. Major Marcus Reno

  18. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the massive Indian encampment:
    1. headed north to seek refuge in Canada
    2. was soon completely enveloped by arriving forces under General John Pope and forced to surrender
    3. escaped to the Southwest, persuaded the Apaches to join the alliance, and repeatedly fought off Army attacks for almost three years before finally succumbing
    4. moved south toward the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming Territory

  19. All of the following books are excellent sources for information about the Battle of the Little Bighorn except:
    1. Boots and Saddles, by Elizabeth Custer
    2. Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen E. Ambrose
    3. A Terrible Glory, by James Donovan
    4. Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell

  20. One glaring historical inaccuracy perpetrated by the movie Son of the Morning Star is the:
    1. personal devotion and deep passion depicted between Colonel and Mrs. Custer
    2. idea that Custer drove his men hard, when in fact he was known as somewhat of a lax commander
    3. chaotic scramble of the 7th Cavalry overwhelmed by enemy forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
    4. notion that Crazy Horse and Custer engaged in some sort of duel-like stare down just prior to the latter's demise at the Little Bighorn

  21. Of the following personality contrasts between Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer, the truest comparison is:
    1. Crazy Horse was exceedingly courageous, whereas Custer was more reserved
    2. whereas Custer was a natural leader, Crazy Horse looked to others for guidance
    3. Crazy Horse usually measured his moves beforehand, whereas Custer's actions were typically more impulsive
    4. whereas Custer was arrogant, Crazy Horse was decidedly humble

  22. The last Indians to mount stiff resistance against confinement on government reservations were the:
    1. Florida-based Seminoles, under Chief Osceola (the Second Seminole War)
    2. Apaches of the Southwest, led by Geronimo
    3. Kiowas, under Lone Wolf, and the Comanches, led by Quanah Parker, in the Texas panhandle (the Red River War)
    4. Nez Perces in Oregon's Grand Ronde country, directed by Chief Joseph

  23. The overall historical authenticity of the movie Son of the Morning Star is:
    1. absolutely impeccable
    2. difficult to determine, considering what very little is actually known by historians about the Battle of the Little Bighorn
    3. highly questionable
    4. commendable, but certainly not flawless

  24. Through the years, numerous artists have produced their version of the Little Bighorn clash. The most famous painting—and the one widely distributed to bars nationwide courtesy of the Anheuser-Busch Company—is:
    1. Custer's Last Rally, by John Mulvany (1881)
    2. The Last Stand, by Frederic Remington (1889)
    3. Custer's Last Fight, by E. Otto Becker (1896)
    4. Custer's Last Stand, by Charles Russell (1908)

  25. The college whose athletic teams are represented by a nickname/mascot of historical importance directly linked to George Armstrong Custer is:
    1. the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ("Wolverines")
    2. the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks ("Fighting Sioux")
    3. Montana State University at Bozeman ("Bobcats")
    4. the University of Kansas at Lawrence ("Jayhawks")

Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).
  1. Give a brief account of the government's policies and resulting actions relative to the western Indians during the post-Civil War period. How could the overall Plains Indian policy have been modified to achieve better results?

  2. For each of the following American government policies affecting Indians, present one argument to demonstrate that the intent of the measure was benevolent in nature toward the Indians, and then provide an argument showing general failure of the action to achieve beneficial results for the Indians—Northwest Ordinance of 1787; Dawes Severalty Act; Wheeler-Howard Act; 1953 House Concurrent Resolution 108.

  3. Select any two of the following items and describe the impact of each on the Indians—Proclamation of 1763; Indian Removal Act; Worcester v. Georgia (1832); Battle of the Little Bighorn; A Century of Dishonor, by Helen Hunt Jackson; Indian Self-Determination Act; Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

"Where the last stand was made, the Long Hair stood like
a sheaf of corn with all the ears fallen around him."

Click here to learn more about the Battle at the Little Bighorn.