More than a century after he died, the Lakota warrior Crazy
Horse, who famously fought General Custer in the Battle of Little
Bighorn, is thought of as transcendent force – attuned to the universe
in a special way – though he’s often commemorated in ways that are
somewhat odd. He’s the subject, for example, of a gargantuan (and
controversial) mountain-top sculpture in South Dakota which
– if ever finished – will be bigger than Mount Rushmore. And his
name is the inspiration for a strip
joint in Montmartre that has billed itself as “the most sophisticated
cabaret in Paris.”
It’s easy to forget that Crazy Horse was once actually a real
person, even if the historical record is often frustratingly incomplete.
But Castle McLaughlin’s latest publication brings readers into the
world of the real Crazy Horse. Her book, titled A Lakota War Book
from the Little Bighorn, also delves into one of the more intriguing
art historical “Who-Done-Its” in recent memory.
Drawings by Natives, for Natives
In 1930 the estate of Boston philanthropist George White donated
a ledgerbook filled with drawings by Native American artists to
Harvard’s Houghton Library. For 70 years it sat on the shelves,
unnoticed, until the late Tom Ford, a member of the library’s staff,
brought it to the attention of McLaughlin, the curator of North
American ethnography at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.
Ledgerbooks by Native Americans are relatively common, but most
of them date from after the Indian Wars, when Native prisoners in
Florida composed and sold them to tourists for much-needed cash.
This book stands out because of its early (and quite specific) production
date. As McLaughlin documents in detail, a US soldier discovered
the book near the scaffold burial of an Indian Chief on the Little
Bighorn battlefield, shortly after Custer’s defeat. It was made
not for tourists, but rather is an actual Native American “War Book,”
made by Native Americans, for Native Americans, and filled with
drawings of war exploits.
The 77 drawings in the book record warfare and horse stealing
on the plains; 11 show the protagonist killing, wounding, or striking
a US Soldier or civilian, often with uniforms or guns that are rendered
so precisely that we can date the drawing to its conception. Most
of the drawings are clearly autobiographical, showing diary-like
depictions of day-to-day warrior life.
For Native American warriors, such drawings recorded history.
They acted as a means to boast about their battlefield accomplishments
and to improve their status among fellow warriors. They also believed
the images resulted in “good magic” for future conflicts.
This specific book contains drawings that portray episodes from
Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868), during which Cheyenne and Lakota warriors
– including Crazy Horse – defended the Yellowstone and Powder River
Valleys. It was the only war ever “won” by western Native Americans,
who forced the US military to retreat from the Bozeman trail.
At first glance, the drawings may look childish. But as Picasso
has pointed out, a drawing’s intelligence isn’t simply a matter
of academic technique. Under McLaughlin’s masterful guidance, we
come to recognize that, in fact, the drawings in this book exhibit
extraordinary intelligence of observation. Every detail is telling,
whether it’s a dragonfly painted on a shield or the way war paint
was applied to the horses.
As McLaughlin explains, these drawings are as rich and informative
as any Euro-American literary text, although they speak in the language
of images rather than letters, and shape reality within parameters
set by a very different cultural framework. It’s a remarkable lesson
in the importance of examining something very closely, of learning
to look at images in new ways.
Who is artist D?
Since no names accompany the drawings, McClaughlin designated
each artist with a letter – A through F – and, through careful analysis,
set out to discover who the artists might have been. Artist E, for
example, drew himself connected to a bird in the sky with a wiggly
line. He may well have been the warrior Thunderhawk, who, after
the murder of Crazy Horse, returned the body to Crazy Horse’s wife.
Then there’s artist B, who showed himself killing a bugler. This
could be High Backbone, a friend of Crazy Horse’s who appears to
have killed a US Army bugler in the Fetterman
But the focus of McLaughlin’s detective work is artist D, who,
in one drawing, drew himself streaked with yellow body paint, and
depicted his horse with lightning bolts lining its legs. It’s just
how Amos Bad Heart Bull – a nephew of Red Cloud – portrays Crazy
Horse and his mare in a separate drawing of Crazy Horse in the Battle
of the Little Bighorn.
Could artist D be Crazy Horse? The episode shows the death of
a US army officer and sergeant, which precisely corresponds with
a December 1866 skirmish in which Crazy Horse killed Lieutenant
Horatio S. Bingham and Sergeant Gideon R. Bowers.
There’s also something about the drawings that fits with what
we know of Crazy Horse: they seem to possess a peculiar and distinct
energy. Even among his peers, Crazy Horse was known for possessing
a mystical aura – a presence that set him apart from the others.
As his cousin and contemporary Black Elk once explained:
Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is
nothing but the spirits of things. That is the real world that
is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like
a shadow from that world…. It was this vision that gave him his
great power, for when he went into a fight, he had only to think
of that world to be in it again, so that he could go through anything
and not be hurt.
Likewise the work of artist D differs from the other drawings.
As McLaughlin notes: “His drawings testify that he is a deeply spiritual
man whose success in war follows from his relationships with higher
powers, especially the thunder beings…Artist D’s dynamic, colorful,
well-executed drawings…seem to express a contained inwardly focused
energy that sets them apart from the rest of the images in the book.”
While the evidence is circumstantial, McLaughlin’s patient accumulation
of evidence is powerfully persuasive. By the time you reach the
end of her account, it’s hard to avoid the eerie feeling that you’re
in the presence of drawings by Crazy Horse himself.
The image from the ledgerbook appears in A Lakota War Book
from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half
Moon,” by Castle McLaughlin (2013). Houghton Library Studies 4,
Houghton Library of the Harvard Library and Peabody Museum Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
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