The Battle of the Greasy Grass (Battle of Little Bighorn): The Complete Story in 18 Drawings

These 18 ledger drawings by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior, still relate the story of the Battle of the Greasy Grass, 140 years later.
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June 25th marks the anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it’s known to the Lakota. Who better to tell that story than Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior who fought against George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at that battle?

Red Horse was living on the Cheyenne River Agency, a reservation in South Dakota, when he drew 42 ledger drawings that showed the indigenous perspective of the battle.

Red Horse wasn’t just a warrior, he was also a respected artist. He made his drawings of Little Bighorn in 1881, five years after the battle, as a testimony about 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 in January 2016, when a series of 12 of the drawings were on display in California. “So he shows them fighting hand-to-hand combat against what he viewed as the invaders from the United States.”

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The drawings tell the full story of the battle—they show the initial attacks, Custer’s forces in battle, they show a graphic portrayal of Native casualties, a field of dead horses, and in the end, both sides leaving the battlefield.

“What’s particularly fascinating about these is they’re so honest in the brutal depictions of warfare,” Stanford undergrad Sarah Sadlier, who has ancestors who were at Little Bighorn and a great-great-uncle who may have been Red Horse’s translator, told The Guardian in early 2016. “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.”

Scott D. Sagan, a professor of political science at Stanford University, called the drawings “brutally honest” in a June 2016 New York Times article. “His depiction of the scalped and mutilated bodies is an uncensored portrayal of the consequences of revenge and hatred.”

The ledger drawings are not currently on display, but are housed by the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

In this pictograph the soldiers can be seen approaching the village.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

In this pictograph the soldiers can be seen approaching the village.

The Indian village. (Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Indians charge Custer’s cavalry.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Indians charge Custer’s cavalry.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Indians charge Custer’s cavalry.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Indians charge Custer’s cavalry.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Custer’s cavalry is seen here fighting.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Custer’s cavalry is seen here fighting.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Indians fight against Custer’s cavalry.

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Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Here we see a group of dead cavalry horses.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

These dead horses are seen with a flag. The upside down U.S. flag is a universal signal of distress and has been used by the American Indian Movement to signal the distress of the Native American people. Scott D. Sagan, a professor of political science at Stanford University, wrote in a New York Times article, that this flag is displayed properly, which is a sign of respect, and with a red spirit line, showing that the Lakota now own the banner.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

These Sioux were killed by Custer’s men. Notice how they are drawn in vibrant color, and later you’ll see when Red Horse draws Custer’s men who were killed, they are not.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

These Sioux were killed by Custer’s men. Notice how they are drawn in vibrant color, and later you’ll see when Red Horse draws Custer’s men who were killed, they are not.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

These Sioux were killed by Custer’s men. Notice how they are drawn in vibrant color, and later you’ll see when Red Horse draws Custer’s men who were killed, they are not.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

See how Red horse depicted the many dead cavalry men, all in the same blue uniform.

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Another pictograph showing the dead after the battle.