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Monday
Jan052015

Mniconjou: The Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Unlike the linear arrays of a certain kind of depiction of war, battles and their aftermaths, this set of 26 drawings uses an entirely different narrative form.  The whole set is on an american tribes forum and charts the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.  There is an accompanying text by Mniconjou, a Lakota chief who was there.  Both the text and the drawings were recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881, at the request of McChesney, an army doctor at Fort Bennet collecting material for a study of sign language.  Known as ledger drawings, as they were done in blank ledgers, often with ruled pages, columns and general accounting pencils, this set is on blank paper with an array of coloured pencils, which makes them unusual.

These drawings depict in terrible detail the wounds and mutilations on both sides  – horses die, heads and hands are chopped off – this is ghastly warfare.  But then all warfare is, and it reminds one that most of us, who have never been in a war, hear the statistics on deaths in Syria and never think that it is actually like these drawings.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881The US Army troops are undistinguishable: they have beards, blue trousers, black hats; their horses wear saddles.  The Lakota nation however is drawn in beautiful detain, the different war bonnets carefully counted, the shields inscribed with totems. The army is a homogenous unit; the Lakota are individuals, carrying their family histories with them.  And what of the horses.  They die as well, their saddles gone just as the army dead have lost their boots.

The previous post's paintings and drawings flatten the space of war into a representative frieze.  These ledger drawings are simultaneously profile and plan.  The top of the page is no less important than the middle or the bottom, all participants are equal in size – there is no re-scaling to fit any laws of perspective.  We have been taught that renaissance perspective gives a scene veracity: distance blurs, makes dim and small.  In these ledger drawings the veracity is more overwhelming, everything is foreground, everything is heroic, nothing is diminished for 'art'.  The frieze drawings gain their power in presenting the line of soldiers, or police, as a clear middle ground with no ameliorating fore or back grounds.  The ledger drawings present similar lines, but many of them and all in the same space of the page showing rank after rank of cavalry and warrior riding toward each other and clashing violently.

I've shown just three of the drawings here, the full set of 26 is both breathtaking and sobering: a tragedy drawing in careful detail.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

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