The Night of Little Big Man
The very first time I see my father stop himself from flying into a violent rage, I’m eleven. An hour beforehand, he had arrived home after a long day of work with a VCR case and three VHS tapes he’d rented from the local store: The Return of the Pink Panther, The Gods Must be Crazy, and Little Big Man. Maybe it’s the Friday of a three-day weekend. I register that this night is special. It’s an opportunity to be with the best of our father—a night when he wasn’t at the bar or cutting firewood in the twilight or fixing a fence, no metallic thwack, thwack, thwack of the post hole driver. This ritual of the VCR rental is new, and we’re all delighted when we have enough money and time to view a story together, not having to travel 60 miles to see a movie.
My father passes into the kitchen to kiss my mother on the cheek, then disappears into the bathroom to shower off the grime of cutting wood, or herding cattle—or the real source of our income: the residual smell of the town’s garbage that he collects. Meanwhile, my brother and I help Mom set out the TV trays, folding paper towels and filling cups of water to accompany our meal: venison from a buck she shot and field dressed, along with mashed potatoes and green beans—both from the garden.
The venison is always good—shot clean. Mom’s an excellent hunter. My two teenage sisters are as well—they have both been through the hunter’s safety course and been out with her and Dad. It’s a point of pride for Mom that both of her girls got their first buck when they were with her, not Dad. This woman who used to pass out at the sight of blood is now a formidable provider. We have a collection of hunting rifles; two lean into the corner by the TV, two rest in the gun rack in the back of our pickup. I will enroll in a hunter’s safety course next summer, and the expectation is that I will also become a hunter, that I will engage in the violent, powerful act of helping to provide for my family. We need my contributions. We are connected to the land because of how it deeply sustains us and has done so for so many generations, no matter where we have rented.
In ten minutes, Dad emerges from the bathroom in clean jeans and western-cut button-up shirt. It’s strange to see his bare feet; they make him appear so vulnerable, so regular. Not the man talked about as the fierce fighter never to be crossed.
We all walk past the painting of a Native man on the wall behind the wood stove—the only image in our house besides the feed store calendar. I remember my father telling me this is Geronimo. When I am older, I will realize that this illustration of the Apache leader is unusual. He’s wearing a U.S. military jacket and a traditional cloth headband, so maybe it isn’t Geronimo. We walk past this strong face with its watching eyes to reach the living room to watch and eat.
For a while, everything is as usual, which is to say the stereotypes about Native people are all present and familiar. We might be watching any other Western. We chew our venison while Jack Crabbe talks about Custer and his encounters with the most violent Indians, while we watch those Indians perpetrate that violence on a white family home.
But this is not like any other Western we’ve watched. As an adult, I now understand that Little Big Man was meant to be a commentary on the U.S. military. Reading up on the film I learn it’s really an indictment of American involvement in Vietnam, that the massacre along the Washita River was supposed to parallel the My Lai slaughter, perpetrated by U.S. soldiers. It’s a parallel moment where civilians are at the mercy of military might. I now know that in Little Big Man, the tragedy and comedy play off of each other to create a complex protest, one where the Native people are deeply humanized—especially in contrast to the typical Westerns. Yes, the film evokes many stereotypes about Native people, but it’s doing something rare in the genre.
It seems to go on forever.
Now, these brutal images seem to roil within Dad. His jaw tightens and his hands are curled into fists.
When Dad throws his fork on his plate and stands, he’s tall and lean, and moving toward mean. We all wait. Will he become violent himself? I remember the night we ran and ran down the dirt road and through the woods, to get away from his fury. Someone from the bar had called and said he was on his way to get my mother. We bolted in the moonlight, my feet slipping inside the t0o-big cowboy boots of my sister’s, pulled on in the trembling moments after my mother had hung up.
“Turn it off,” Mom directs a sister, and she does. We hold, poised.
He walks out the door, and the night swallows him.
We sit in the now hushed house, waiting. I don’t know whether to vomit or to cry. Geronimo watches us.
Then, suddenly, his frame is large in the doorway. “I’m done eating.”
And Mom moves to grab his plate.
“It’s all right, Diane.” He sits back down. And we know, suddenly, that he has a hold of himself, that he isn’t at the dangerous edge. There’s reassurance in his voice rather than poison. We’ve heard him gentle her this way before when trying to coax her onto a horse or drive over a washout. This is the voice he used when he was teaching her to hunt. For a moment, we are all stunned into silence that feels like peace and fear and confusion all at once, until my father nods and one of my teenage sisters gets up, rewinds the tape a little bit, and presses play.
That evening was different from so many others. So often, Dad came home in a slurred rage and sat at the kitchen table, wiping blood from his nose, while on the other side of the wall, my siblings and I lay in bed. I never knew whether they were awake as well, tuning into our father’s pain. Sometimes his return was relatively calm. It was easy to hear him and Mom talking over his bar fight, which might have started when someone called him half-breed or chief.
And sometimes, his return felt catastrophic. This memory is grafted onto my first—Dad on top of her in the kitchen, yelling at her for not having cooked a meal properly, the alcohol of his breath staining the air. My siblings and I are not in bed, but right there in the kitchen. They are yelling at him to stop, to leave her alone, and I’m three and curled into the corner, my hands holding my chin, as if this action might be able to stop my crying.
We all knew his violence was at the ready, but so was his laugh and his quick affection. To this day, when I think of my parents, I ask myself to also remember their moments of joy: when they raced each other into the river on hot summer days, their gaggle of children watching every beat of their connected laughter. They would dive under the surface, then come out at the same time, two heads in the emerald green of the Eel. Dad would take turns with us all, holding us in his powerful arms and swishing us through the water, back and forth. Mom got the longest turn. When she left the river to warm in the sun, we’d rush back to Dad and beg to be lifted up so that we could jump from his shoulders, Mom watching and smiling.
They were a striking couple when they stood side-by-side—a contrast I didn’t often see elsewhere. He was dark, his skin browned, ruddied by his work outside. When he was in the garden, he didn’t wear a shirt, his upper body coaxed russet. Mom was so fair, so blonde, so blue-eyed. When they were married, he was twenty-two and she was a few weeks into her seventeenth year. Only two photos exist from that day—one Mom sent to her own mother—who refused to show the picture to anyone after someone said Dad looked like an Indian. It seemed to me that my grandmother’s shame had a gravity none of us could escape, and that this story pulsed in their every moment together.
I was a watcher: Sometimes my father called me a hawk, taking in everything. Most especially him. I knew when he was angry by the clench of his fists and his jaw. When he relaxed at the piano, his shoulders rode lower on his body.
So that night, I could tell he was expecting something different from this movie. While he hooked up the VCR cords, he had told his five offspring that this was going to be a good story because finally, a white man gets his ass kicked. He crawled backward when he said, “Enough people have tried to beat the hell out of me for looking like this.” He pointed to his face, to the darkness there, to the sharp angles of his nose, then lifted his chin to the image of Geronimo. “But, we’re fighters, aren’t we?”
I liked the resolve in his face, the sense that he wasn’t alone in his experience. I didn’t like the fights, the blood, the ways the world sometimes seemed to pull him from within.
In our small town, Dad’s personality and appearance shaped how we all moved through the world. I didn’t know at the time that I was following in his footsteps. On the playground at school, I was confronted more than once about my father, about his temper, his looks. One morning two years before watching Little Big Man, I was being chased by the boys in our class. I ran and looked to the mountains, knowing the ocean lay on the other side. I saw that the fog had traveled the thirty miles from the Pacific and was slipping over the range’s lip. Up the hill, Mom cooked at the diner.
The boys were after me. I didn’t know what they wanted, but I did know I didn’t want this. This kind of attention was its own kind of violence that I didn’t know how to name. Five boys after me—I decided to aim for the girl’s bathroom, even though it was out of sight of the playground attendant, out of her ability to protect me if I needed it. I asked my legs to carry me swiftly past the horde. Right at the point where the breezeway began, a new boy stepped into my path and arrested all my motion.
He’d been in our town for three months. This boy—I’d like to think one of his shoes was untied or that he was somehow not a hundred percent together as he delivered his news. With the other kids gathered close, all of us winded nearly into a trance, he said, “My dad was warned about your Indian dad. He’s a mean drunk. Looks for a fight.”
All eyes were on me. It was hard to know how to read his statement. I didn’t know if any of these boys had a father who called mine half-breed and Chief.
I wanted to tell all of those eyes that yes, it was true: My father was mean and didn’t know how to contain the liquor or the anger. But he also played the piano, filling the marrow of our lives with Ragtime and classical music; he could be gentle and funny and playful. He was more than the narrow band of his fury, but I didn’t have the words or the time to explain how complicated my dad was, or how difficult our story was to tell.
So, I cocked my hip, jutted it into my hand and said, “That’s right.”
I might’ve even pointed at the boy, letting the power of my father’s reputation rip through me, feeling anointed in the action.
The space Dad occupied had traction—more force in the world. I wanted some of his power for myself. I wanted to link myself to him and his stories. At the same time, a wave of shame spread over my skin as if the sun had emerged from the fog and zeroed in on me and what the boy had said.
The night of Little Big Man and the day on the playground, my sense of self was so tied to my parents, it would take me years to begin to understand who I could be outside of their shadows. The way Dad looked was part of how I was seen in our small community, I sensed, but I didn’t have concrete evidence. I knew when people called him a mean drunk or a crazy Indian, I held my head up higher, not lower. There was and will always be, even in his absence, a defiance in him that I wanted for myself. And there was also the burning need to assert that he was not alone in those taunts, even though those exact words would never be flung at me. I was and remain in alliance with him, this father who held so much power in our lives.
Dad must have learned about power, in part, through the Western movie genre: going to the movies with his father, a semi cowboy who even auditioned to be in a Western flick when he was only eighteen. Granpa didn’t get the part but he always had a horse. On the mantle above our fireplace, Texas longhorns hooked into the air. On the shelf below them, a longhorn bull figurine hunkered, two horse figurines flanked him. In the dominant narrative, there’s so little room for options, for subtlety. When I think about my father, and who I was in that moment when the boys were chasing me, maybe it had been easier to show aggression in the face of racism—to lean into that dominant narrative both because it was easier and it had power. And maybe that was the case for my father, too. That there was some comfort in simply being dangerous. But there was so much of him that the dominant narrative never touched.
I also saw other people—those with blue, piercing eyes—taunt him with generic, hateful names. I watched him laugh with them, but in a different way. In a way that made him harden rather soften; he stood taller, his eyes cut to the sides, assessing. A laugh, that with enough tension, might turn first into a sneer and then a fist.
The night of Little Big Man, when he came back to us, when he wrangled himself away from his typical response with the world, stays with me in a palpable way. I’ve thought a lot about how the story of who my father was surged and knotted within him, how what was happening in the movie churned his sense of self. The movie wasn’t an external experience for him. It crossed a threshold within, and he didn’t know what to do with that crossing.
I have watched the film many times since, trying to access my father’s experience. Later in the movie, a second slaughter happens along the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. Here, the movie juxtaposes the orderly lines of the drummer and bugle unit playing “Garry Owens” against the thrust of a bayonet into a woman’s back, into a child’s small body. We see the “civilized” culture adding musical commentary to the violence.
We are meant to squirm, and we do.
And when Jack Crabbe is watching his wife, Sunshine, running and running and running with their newborn in her arms—he cannot get to her, he cannot cross the river to save her—the film goes silent.
He has to watch, powerless, as Sunshine’s back blooms with blood, as she falls onto the riverbed, baby still clutched in her arms.
The story plays sound against silence. There aren’t words for the kind of slaughter that is our common history, and the filmmakers let the silence stretch; they don’t let us move away from this.
Perhaps in that silence, the soundtrack of power, violence, and identity that played in my father’s head quieted as well. Perhaps the constant roaring he must have felt internally for the ways he’d always wanted to be known and against all those Westerns he’d digested, filled with stirring strings and stereotyped tom toms, was hushed by the horrific silence of Western expansion.
The night we watched Little Big Man as a family we sat together but alone. We tumbled into the maw of tragedy, and I know now I was feeling the cellular stretching of identity happening inside our father.
We stayed together that night—or rather, he stayed with us. Maybe the film was just honest enough—just complicated enough in its rendering of history that it made room for his own complexity. It allowed him to experience anger and helplessness all at once in a context where he felt safe and loved enough to be both of those things. The story of who he could be shifted enough for him to calm himself and return to us.
Remembering this brown man take in the movie and the new narrative of Indian, I prickle with an ache. It makes me consider the power of stories, how the ones that get dragged out over and over again leave so little room for the counter narrative, one where a father can be both violent and peaceful or kind and caustic. Or for a young girl to be approached about her father with curiosity and not judgment.
And as we watched, ultimately, we saw the image of the blonde colonel wandering the battlefield, so undone by the magnitude of his error, and we watched Dad smile.
It was both wonderful and horrible.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan