Eyewitness to History

NAA MS 2367-a
Red Horse pictographic account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881.

Not long after my live tweeting of Dances With Wolves, a friend of mine from Montreal sent me a link to an interesting exhibition. Red Horse: Drawings from the Battle of Little Big Horn was on display this past January at Stanford University. For the first time in 40 years, many of the Minneconjou Lakota Sioux’s drawings were collected and displayed together. The collection represents an eyewitness account of the battle and its aftermath, captured in pencil and pen in ledger books. (The entire series can be found online at the Smithsonian).

Red Horse’s drawings, commissioned by Army doctor Charles E. McChesney in 1881, methodically recall the events of the battle, with the blood spurting from casualties on both sides, and the Lakota eventually leading away the captured cavalry horses. And absent from each page is Custer. (source)

The importance of this archive–and the importance of having continuous public displays of these drawings–is that it is the telling of Little Big Horn from a Native American who was present. Gone are the romantic ideals of Custer and his men’s “sacrifice” in the land of the savage. The collection not only depicts the chaos of battle, but the horrific aftermath, some pictures featuring the scalped cavalry soldiers and others showing a field of fallen horses, blood flowing from arrow and bullet holes. The lack of an American narrative is apparent, the drawings–simple and stark in form–are a graphic illustration of the realities of battle. “The Red Horse drawings let us see the battle through Lakota eyes. They are the Little Bighorn without Custer,” said Scott D. Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford.

This collection fills in part of the gap in Native American voices in the history the United States. Too often the stories of battle are written by the victors, yet in this case, the victors has been and continue to be so suppressed by an occupying force that their small victories are depicted as acts of savagery and treachery. For centuries the colonization of North America has been visually romanticized in art, movies and television with an agenda that forces the indigenous population into the role of “ungracious hosts.” Red Horse’s depiction of one of the most “storied” battles between the occupied and occupiers are an indispensable addition to our national narrative and worthy of more exhibition and study.



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Writer, teacher, PhD student, former web developer, jerk

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