In June 1876, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the Seventh United States Cavalry were killed to the last man by Lakota and Cheyenne Indians on the hills overlooking the Little Bighorn River in what later became Montana. Americans are still asking how this could have happened, and it was probably inevitable that Larry McMurtry, the country’s leading western writer for at least a generation, would come to Custer at last, as a mountain climber might come to Everest. But he approaches the stubborn questions of Custer’s disaster from an oblique angle, not claiming what virtually all other writers announce with drums and trumpets—a new explanation.
McMurtry is interested in the man Custer. Castle McLaughlin is interested in the people Custer went out to conquer, beginning with the most basic question—who they were. The Little Bighorn is not the subject of A Lakota War Book but it looms over the story as Dallas looms over the life of John F. Kennedy. The seventy-seven drawings in A Lakota War Book were all completed by their Lakota and Cheyenne Indian artists before—probably many years before—the battle that made Custer immortal. The Little Bighorn wins a place in McLaughlin’s title by accident, because the drawings were found near the battlefield in a funerary lodge a few days after the fight. The details of the discovery are interesting enough, but it is the drawings themselves—what they represent and who made them—that give us a rich and startling view of life on the Northern Plains in the last years before the Indians who thought they owned them were confined to reservations.
But that rich and startling view does not come easily. The book described and analyzed by McLaughlin, the curator of North American ethnography at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, is the work of many hands—several Native American artists, a white Chicago artist and engraver active through the 1890s, a bookbinder and conservator of the same period, and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who joined US troops in the field a month after the battle.
The drawings, almost all done first in outline and then colored in, are of a kind known as “ledger art” because most were executed on paper from ordinary ledger books lifted from dead men or obtained from traders or military posts beginning in the 1860s. Understanding the drawings first requires vigorous clearing of underbrush, starting with the confusions introduced by the reporter, James W. Howard, who often signed his news stories with the name of an Athenian statesman, Phocion.
Howard acquired the original book of drawings from Sergeant John R. Nelson, who said he had found it on June 28, 1876, in…
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