PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ Renee Klish spent an important part of her career studying works of art that showed U.S. Army troops in action.
But Klish, who is now retired from her post as Army Art Curator with the Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., recalls seeing other works of art that put matters in a different light.
“When I worked at West Point, in the museum there were some paintings done by Native Americans after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Again, they were done after the fact, but it’s what the artist remembered from having been there,” she said.
And that art gave a sudden flash of insight into what the Indian wars of the Great Plains felt like to those who fought them facing east, not west.
For Klish, it was comparable to what she has experienced on some occasions by studying German artists who depicted the very same battles that American artists had also portrayed.
“You see the same scene, but from different sides. It gives more of a 360-degree vision of what’s going on,” she said.
In South Dakota, which has seen several of its young men and women go off to serve as war artists from World War I on, the Plains Indian artist tradition of depicting battle supplies the native context to that larger tradition. Harvey Dunn was one of the first official combat artists ever commissioned by the U.S. government, during World War I. James Pollock, a native of Pollock, S.D., and now of Pierre, went off to serve as a combat artist during Vietnam, as did Iowa-born Steve Randall, now of Sioux Falls. More recently, Pierre native Heather Englehart, a 1997 graduate of T.F. Riggs High School, served as a combat artist in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
But the preface to all of that is what warriors in cultures such as Lakota people of western South Dakota did to celebrate the battles they fought for their homeland.
“It was different than what we did. But it’s still combat art,” says Pollock, who is keenly interested in that Plains Indian artistic tradition.
And there are indications that it was, in some ways, the parallel of what people such as Pollock and Englehart and Randall and Dunn were trying to create _ historically accurate documentation of battle.
For example, the South Dakota State Historical Society has in its collection a work of art done by a Lakota artist that depicts perhaps the most famous victory of the Plains Indians over U.S. soldiers.
“It’s a pictograph of the Custer battle. We believe it was made by a gentleman named His Horse Looking in the 1890s, so it would have been a recollection,” said Dan Brosz, curator of collections for the South Dakota State Historical Society. “I feel pretty confident that he was actually at the battle. I don’t think it would have been well looked upon for someone who was not at the battle to recount it. I see it as a first-hand account of that battle, a document of that battle, just as I would an officer’s report.”
Custer and his troops were killed to the last man at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876.
Interestingly, Brosz said, the pictograph that the Lakota artist made years later is nothing like propaganda, bent on celebrating the victors. It’s more like neutral reportage of what actually happened.
“It shows plenty of carnage on both sides,” Brosz said. “It’s not being lopsided in favor of one side. It shows both sides taking it out on each other.”
Authenticity was necessary because of what the art was intended to do.
“It’s a storytelling device, just as books are for us, “ Brosz said. “Their traditions and stories were passed down through the generations through items like this.”
For a historian and museum curator such as Brosz, part of what is interesting about this pictograph is that it holds in its very material some commentary about the conflict that was going on in the Great Plains.
“The pictograph was painted on cotton muslin obtained through trade,” Brosz said. “It would probably have been produced through the cotton mills of Massachusetts. This would have come out as a bolt of fabric.”
And the artist, Brosz said, was probably from the Standing Rock Reservation.
Historians are almost certain he was from the Standing Rock because the pictograph was collected by Congregationalist missionary Mary C. Collins, who had worked among the Lakota people at the Oahe Mission north of Pierre but also on the Standing Rock Reservation. She was living and working among Lakota people who had fought in the last wars of their people against other tribes and against the U.S. government, and probably it’s no coincidence that Collins also collected another piece of Lakota war art that is now recognized as a masterpiece of Native American sculpture _ a warrior’s carving of his horse in a three-foot long piece of wood, probably of willow or cottonwood.
Historians believe it was made as a “dance stick” in roughly 1875 by a Lakota warrior in Dakota Territory. The horse is flecked with bullet wounds and its legs and ears are tensed as it bounds, perhaps, toward the spirit world.
“The horse is severely wounded but still alive, still fighting, not only for himself but for his companion, who would have been riding him. The artist managed to capture that through the styling of his ears and legs. It’s really a beautiful memorial to a fallen comrade,” Brosz said.
But at whose hands? The best guesses, Brosz said, would be the U.S. Army’s cavalry units on the frontier or, just as possibly, some of the Sioux tribes’ traditional enemies. If the horse effigy had been gathered from the southern part of South Dakota, the best guess would be that the horse effigy celebrated a conflict with the Pawnee or with U.S. soldiers; but since it was gathered in the northern part of South Dakota, probably from the Standing Rock Reservation, it’s more likely to show an engagement with the Crow Indians or U.S. soldiers. But no one will ever know for sure.
“I wish the horse could talk and tell its tale from that battle,” Brosz said. “The fact that there are bullet holes doesn’t tell us anything. Given where it was collected, it probably would have been the Crow or the U.S. Army. They were still having engagements with the Crow, their mortal enemies.”
David Hartley, the former museum director for the South Dakota State Historical Society, said what’s very clear about the piece is that it’s the product of a culture that valued valor _ in horses as well as among men. “There was a very strong warrior ethos in Lakota culture,” Hartley said. “One has the same kind of thing in the American military, but it probably doesn’t run through the whole culture to the same extent.”
Brosz said the horse effigy raises many questions. It features real horsehair in its mane and tail, so there is at least the possibility that the horsehair comes from the very horse it is celebrating. But that, like the identity of the carver, remains a question.
“We’re not 100 percent sure who carved it. What we can do is look at other pieces that are similar,” Brosz said.
That is why many scholars think the horse effigy may be the work of No Two Horns, a Hunkpapa Lakota and a cousin of Sitting Bull.
“A lot of scholars who know a lot more than I do have attributed it to him,” Brosz said. “But there is a shadow of a doubt.”
It’s a masterpiece, Brosz said, because even though it is carved fully in the round _ one of only two dance sticks that includes all four legs of the horse – it is far more than a naturalistic representation of a horse.
“It’s not abstract but it’s not accurate. It has an elongated neck and an elongated torso,” Brosz said.
Remarkably, it is that distortion of the horse’s figure that the carver imparted some of the emotion that is so striking to onlookers.
For many people, it’s the favorite piece in the South Dakota State Historical Society’s collection of more than 30,000 items. That doesn’t happen by accident, Brosz said. That’s part of what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece.
Martin Red Bear, a Vietnam era veteran and a Lakota artist, said works such as the pictographs that show the Battle of Little Bighorn seem to him to have a raw power because they are so lean and spare. They are like telling a story in a few words compared to writing pages and pages, he said.
“It was done in a pictograph form. It was done as simple as possible, just simple two-dimensional,” Red Bear said. “At the time the American Indians had not been exposed to the European style of artwork and it wasn’t until Europeans started coming into Indian country that we picked up or started using the idea or the concept of perspective and then new art materials and so forth.”
Red Bear said he has learned from that technique by making his own style a blend of naturalistic and symbolic elements _ sometimes to depict the soldiers he served with.
“It’s more of less symbols that I use, and these symbols depict the warrior,” he said. “My work honors all of those who were in the service.”
The irony of history is that some of those he celebrates are the Lakota, who now fight honorably for the military they fought against at places such as Little Bighorn.