Little Bighorn

"Custer's Last Stand," oil on canvas, 1899, by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

“Custer’s Last Stand,” oil on canvas, 1899, by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

The multiplicity of paintings about the Little Bighorn during the last two centuries is proof of the compelling workings of a myth. A partial list of painters who produced versions of Custer’s Fight would include John Mulvany (1881), John A. Elder (1884), Cassily Adams (1885), E.S. Paxson (1899), Otto Becker (1896), W.R. Leigh (1939) and J.K. Ralston (1959). Acclaimed Western painters Frederick Remington and Charles Russell also produced several works on the Custer theme. From the Native point of view, the Little Bighorn has elicited drawings by Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, Kills Two, No Two Horns, One Bull and Standing Bear (Lakota); White Bird, Lame Deer and Wooden Leg (Northern Cheyenne); and White Swan (Crow).

The painted picture on this bison hide, circa 1878, shows the battle of the Little Bighorn, where the Plain Indians fought Lieut. Col. George Custer's troops. (Cheyenne artist / Museum of the American Indian)

The painted picture on this bison hide, circa 1878, shows the battle of the Little Bighorn, where the Plains Indians fought Lieut. Col. George Custer’s troops. (Cheyenne artist / Museum of the American Indian)

Pictographic drawings by native warriors who participated in the battle provide a telling corrective to the Western iconography of Custer’s death:

  1. Little Bighorn began with an attack by the U.S. Army upon an Indian village that sheltered women, children and old people. This fact is invariably absent from Western paintings.
  2. After the failed attacks by Reno and Yates (down Medicine Tail Coulee), Little Bighorn degenerated into a running battle in which the Lakota and Cheyenne pursued Custer’s men until the final skirmish at Custer Hill. In Western portraits, Custer and his men always steadfastly confront the enemy—never flee—from the Indian onslaught.
  3. A common motif in both Western and Indian representations of Little Bighorn is the killing of horses by soldiers to create barricades at Custer Hill. The slaughter of horses was a particularly grievous occurrence for horse-loving cultures such as the Plains Indians and the U.S. Cavalry.
  4. In Western paintings the iconic image of Custer is always center (the rest of the 7th soldiers are barely identifiable), enacting the role of protagonist in an American tragedy. Most of the Indian pictographs have no center and no protagonist. There is only chorus—a non-hierarchical panorama of opposing warriors, none of which is singled out over another.
Battle of Little Bighorn (Piotr Tysarczyk).

Battle of Little Bighorn (Piotr Tysarczyk).

There were no sabers at Little Big Horn. Because of the heat on June 25, Custer had worn a blue, not a buckskin shirt. His fabled long “yellow hair” had been cut short before the battle. The Lakota and Cheyenne did not know, until long afterwards, that Custer had been present at the battle. Witness accounts of soldiers who surveyed the battlefield affirmed that Custer’s body had not been mutilated.

The story of Little Bighorn evokes the fateful, violent encounter between Indian and European America; between Americans who worshipped the Earth and those who pledged allegiance to the Constitution that formed the United States. The confrontation still haunts our days, for we have not yet acknowledged that we are the bastard children of that conflict, and that our true American souls belong to one side as well as the other.

OG

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