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Remembering 'Little Big Man' in Crow Country

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Posted at 11:40 AM, Jun 21, 2023

GARRYOWEN - It's hard to find a movie that made a bigger splash in Crow Country than "Little Big Man."

Starring Dustin Hoffman, the film tells the story of a man raised by Cheyenne tribal members who fights at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and survives.

The movie turned 50 years old in 2020, and on a recent rainy day in Garryowen people came to relive Hollywood history and revisit Medicine Tail Coulee where some of the most iconic scenes of the movie were filmed.

"This movie was very important to the Crow community because, first of all, the excitement," said historian C. Adrian Heidenreich.

Little Big Man is a 1970s Western that redefined the role of American Indians in cinema.

"It was the first major box office hit movie that dealt with Indians as people, and not just savages or noble savages or just warriors or faceless people," said historian Tim Bernardis. "It developed character, it showed family life. It was a real departure from the typical Western."

And the movie leaned on Montana's Native American communities to host, help and act in the production.

“Not everyone gets to do it, but I can say that I did,” said Duke Goes Ahead, who landed a spot as an extra on the set.

He was a teenager when the film crew came to town looking for Native American riders.

“I was 14 years old and I rode a lot of horses back then," he said. "Riding horses was part of participating as a warrior, as a Sioux warrior.”

Some of his favorite memories are of watching the Hollywood movie crews in action.

“Then I understood why you had to film, then cut it off, then do it again and do it again," he said. "It was a hurry up and wait. You had to have patience.”

He also recalls riding down the bluff in the reenactment of the battle.

“Coming off that hill and coming down that ridge there, we had to do two takes of that," he said. "They told you had to lay back and put your feet against the flanks and hold one.”

Reliving the film and its filming, and preserving that history, is the goal of a three-day symposium in Hardin featuring panels, tours, and exhibitions and put together by Heidenreich and Bernardis.

"We also plan to have a balance between academic or professional film historians, historians of the American West and Custer and literature, Western literature, as being speakers in the symposium, along with the participants here in Crow Country who were part of the movie," said Heidenreich.

“My thinking was, hey, there's still people alive who can talk about this just 50 years later, so let's do it now,” Bernardis said.

Panels of actors, extras, and experts came together to discuss the movie and their first-hand memories. There was also an incredible collection of movie memorabilia, which showed the impact the movie had beyond Montana.

"I went off to Hollywood and did research in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists, the Oscars people, and into their film archives and to their library, where I found a lot of photos, some documents, some film in particular, the film," Bernardis said.

Fifty-three years after the movie came out the legacy of Little Big Man and its giant leap forward for representation of Native Americans lives on fondly in Crow Country.