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Cracking the Custer Façade: Red Horse’s Drawings Shed Light on Little Bighorn

Ledger drawings by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior, are shedding light on the indigenous perspective of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
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Ledger drawings by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior who fought against George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, are shedding light on the indigenous perspective of the battle.

“These candid pictures show the reality of warfare at the time, but also Red Horse’s efforts to show the heroism of his friends, his fellow warriors,” Scott Sagan, a political science professor, told The Guardian. “So he shows them fighting hand-to-hand combat against what he viewed as the invaders from the United States.”

Red Horse wasn’t just a warrior, he was also a respected artist. He made his drawing of Little Bighorn in 1881, five years after the battle, as a testimony about the battle.

The 12 drawings, on loan from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, depict the initial attacks on the village, Custer’s forces in battle on a hillside, a graphic portrayal of Native casualties, a field of dead horses, and both sides leaving the battlefield.

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“What’s particularly fascinating about these is they’re so honest in the brutal depictions of warfare,” Stanford undergrad Sarah Sadlier, who has ancestors that were at Little Bighorn and a great-great-uncle who may have been Red Horse’s translator, told The Guardian. “In many ways Red Horse’s work is the most trustworthy sort of visual depiction we have of the battle of Little Bighorn, a Little Bighorn that’s not Custer-centric, one that nativizes from a participant who is a very respected person among the Lakota.”

Custer’s plan, according to The Guardian, was to hold women and children hostage as a negotiating tactic, and as a way to force the warriors to defend the village.

“The portrayal of [Custer] has been one of gallantry, charging in a heroic last stand,” Sadlier, who hopes the exhibition might debunk a myth or two, told The Guardian. “What people need to understand is the impact of his devastating tactics against women and children, completely against the rules of war. I think it’s very important people be aware of that. This is one little crack in the facade that’s been created around Lt Col Custer.”

“Red Horse: Drawing of the Battle of Little Bighorn” is on display through May 9, 2016 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California.