One of the most popular images of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn is “Custer’s Last Stand” by Cassilly Adams, who ditched historical accuracy for a romanticized George Armstrong Custer standing tall against the encroaching horde of horseback warriors. Thanks to a widespread distribution by Anheuser-Busch as a beer advertisement, it settled in the American imagination as a representation of the US 7th Cavalry’s defeat. However, since one of the few surviving representatives of the Army was the horse Comanche, the knowledge of what really happened was with the victors: the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.
One of the most vivid and thorough accounts is a series of 42 illustrations by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior who fought in the battle. While rarely shown, 12 of these ledger art depictions from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives are going on view in January in Red Horse: Drawings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. (You can see all 42 digitized on the Smithsonian’s website.) This is the first time since 1976, the battle’s 100th anniversary, that a selection of Red Horse’s drawings have been exhibited together.
Ledger art was created across tribes from about 1870 to 1920 as pencils, pens, and colored pencils became available, and gets its name from the trading ledgers which supplied much of the paper. They’re valuable as eyewitness accounts of historic events and indigenous life in the midst of Westward Expansion, such as Howling Wolf’s illustration of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre where a militia of 700 attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho village, slaughtering up to 160 people, mostly women and children. With such events, it’s no surprise tension was high on the Great Plains on June 25, 1876 when the two sides engaged near Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River.
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.
“I find these images particularly moving,” Scott D. Sagan, Caroline S.G. Munro professor of political science at Stanford, told Hyperallergic. “The excitement and sense of honor of a warrior in battle is depicted, and the horror of the aftermath is clearly seen. Many ledger drawings made for the white tourist market later in the 19th century depict Custer, standing bravely in the middle of his men, fighting to the finish. But of course the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the fog of battle did not know who was commanding the cavalry troops attacking the village. The Red Horse drawings let us see the battle through Lakota eyes. They are the Little Bighorn without Custer.”
The exhibition at the Cantor evolved from a class Sagan teaches called “The Face of the Battle,” on participant perspectives in engagements like Little Bighorn. In collaboration with Connie Wolf, director of the Cantor Arts Center, Red Horse: Drawings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn will be a cross-disciplinary exploration of history, told from the perspective of someone who was there.
Red Horse: Drawings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn will be on view January 16 to May 9, 2016, at the Cantor Arts Center (328 Lomita Drive, Stanford, California) at Stanford University.