War and Death Story in Drawings

“June 25 was the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn otherwise known as the Great Sioux War… The United States today is engaged in two deadly counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and the Islamic State…Examining the stunning drawings made in 1881 by Red Horse, a Mnicoujou warrior who fought at the Little Bighorn, provides timeless lessons about war.” S. Sagen, The New York Times

Drawing by Red Horse, “Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn” (1881), graphite, colored pencil, and ink.

Drawing by Red Horse, “Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn” (1881), graphite, colored pencil, and ink.

Excerpt: A Real War Story, in Drawings, BY Scott D. Sagen, The New York Times

“Red Horse, who surrendered the year after the battle, was living on the Cheyenne River Agency, a reservation in South Dakota, when he made the drawings. He spoke no English, and his initial account of the battle to American officials was delivered through Plains Indian sign language — coded hand signals that Native Americans on the Great Plains used to communicate across tribal lines. He later made the drawings with colored pencil and pen to help researchers check the accuracy of the interpretation of his sign-language testimony. But I think that the drawings are the real Red Horse testimony — more direct, eloquent and moving than the translation.

Drawings by Red Horse. Credit National Smithsonian Institution

Drawings by Red Horse. Credit National Smithsonian Institution

These drawings, housed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, are the Little Bighorn through Lakota eyes. In one, of Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Custer and many of his Seventh Cavalry troopers were overwhelmed by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, Red Horse displays his pride in the Native Americans who shot bullets and arrows into fleeing cavalrymen, pulled soldiers off horses or stabbed them with spears.

The cavalry horses appear in columns of two, mostly bluish-gray in the front row and sorrel in the back. This color coordination was not a figment of Red Horse’s imagination. Custer had issued a coloring of the horses order, forcing cavalrymen to trade horses with one another so that each troop company rode mounts of a uniform color.

Drawings by Red Horse. Credit National Archives:Smithsonian Institution

Drawings by Red Horse. Credit National Archives:Smithsonian Institution

Red Horse’s drawings are brutally honest and honest about brutality. His depiction of the scalped and mutilated bodies is an uncensored portrayal of the consequences of revenge and hatred.

In an era in which the Islamic State beheads its enemies, it is worth remembering that mistreatment of prisoners, mutilation and taking of body parts was once common in warfare. The Third Colorado Cavalry Militia killed more than 200 Cheyenne men, women and children in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, taking body parts and scalps and waving them for the crowds in their victory parade in Denver.

During the 2011 trial of the ‘Kill Team’ — American infantrymen stationed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, who murdered civilians for sport — it was revealed that one soldier carried home fingers of the victims as trophies. We should feel gratified that four of those soldiers were found guilty in the killings. Red Horse portrays the face of battle without the rules of war.”

“…stay the hand of vengeance in war, both to defeat the beast in our enemies and to control the beast within ourselves.” ~ Robert H. Jackson~ United States Solicitor General (1938–1940)