Scott Sagan: Lakota warrior documented 1876 Battle at Bighorn

Drawing by Red Horse, “Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn” (1881), graphite, colored pencil, and ink. Image MS 2367A, 08571100 from National Anthropological Archive / Smithsonian Institution

With the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn approaching professor Scott D. Sagan reflects on drawings by Red Horse, a Lakota warrior who was present at Custer's Last Stand in June 1876:
June 25 marks the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand, part of the 1876 counterinsurgency campaign we call the Great Sioux War. Given that the United States today is engaged in two deadly counterinsurgency wars, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it is useful to study this history for what it can tell us about an adversary and ourselves. Examining the stunning drawings made in 1881 by Red Horse, a Mnicoujou warrior who fought at the Little Bighorn, provides timeless lessons about war.

Red Horse, who surrendered the year after the battle, was living on the Cheyenne River Agency, a reservation in South Dakota, when he made the drawings. He spoke no English, and his initial account of the battle to American officials was delivered through Plains Indian sign language — coded hand signals that Native Americans on the Great Plains used to communicate across tribal lines. He later made the drawings with colored pencil and pen to help researchers check the accuracy of the interpretation of his sign-language testimony. But I think that the drawings are the real Red Horse testimony — more direct, eloquent and moving than the translation.

These drawings, housed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, are the Little Bighorn through Lakota eyes. In one, of Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Custer and many of his Seventh Cavalry troopers were overwhelmed by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, Red Horse displays his pride in the Native Americans who shot bullets and arrows into fleeing cavalrymen, pulled soldiers off horses or stabbed them with spears.

Get the Story:
Scott D. Sagan: A Real War Story, in Drawings (The New York Times 6/19)

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