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Art of War: Plains Indians as war artists
Question of the Day
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.”
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