• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Indians’ Own Story

When Nabokov and Loendorf began writing Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, their purpose was to reverse this ethnic cleansing of the park’s history, and their principal recourse was to material of the classic sort used to write history by white scholars of European descent. The park’s only permanent residents in recent times had been a Shoshonean-speaking people called Sheep Eaters—a literal translation of the name they used for themselves, Tukudika. “Few American Indian groups have been burdened with as many demeaning and dismissive descriptions by non-Indian writers as have the Sheep Eaters of the greater Yellowstone region,” Nabokov and Loendorf write. “Even the California Indians, vilified by the pejorative term ‘Diggers,’ did not have it as bad….”

Compelled to rely on the available evidence from archaeology, material culture, and what can be sifted from nineteenth-century travelers’ tales, many tendentious or hostile, Nabokov and Loendorf manage only the sort of ethno-portrait they admire least—a “snapshot” and “trait list” giving an “essentialized” version of Tukudika culture. The problem is not their intent but the lack of evidence; with the exception of field notes collected by the Swedish historian of religion Ake Hultkrantz from a handful of survivors in the 1940s and 1950s, the Tukudika carried their history to the grave.

It is impossible to say with confidence what the Tukudika would have chosen to record, given a chance, but other Indian peoples left no doubt that their first priority was a readable record of actual people and actual events. This should occasion no surprise; loss of memory triggers panic in every culture. The inevitable response is to tell the young and urge them to remember. Nabokov cites the case of Alfred Bowers, who did field work in the 1930s among the Hidatsa, a town-dwelling people of the upper Missouri who were hit particularly hard by the smallpox epidemics of a century earlier. The Hidatsa told Bowers that they had arrived on a flaming arrow plunging down from the heavens and the spot where it landed—that very spot and no other—was where they lived. With Nabokov’s help Bowers in 1983 pointed out to archaeologists the place Hidatsa elders had suggested to him was the place fifty years earlier. Sure enough, as Nabokov and Bowers watched, the archaeologists dug out “rotten chunks of buried house posts,” which turned out to be “the oldest radiocarbon-dated Plains Indian Village culture site in the entire middle Missouri region.”

Now it was always a given that the Hidatsa had to live somewhere, but this wasn’t just somewhere—it was the actual, exact spot. It was like the difference between just any Civil War knife and spoon, and the knife and spoon your great-grandfather carried at Chickamauga. The one is interesting, the other is sacred—offering the kind of connection the Hidatsa themselves wanted, a tethering or anchoring in the real world. In the 1930s, Bowers had written,

It was the custom of many families to return to living sites and to point out to the younger people the depressions of lodges where certain relatives had lived, their graves, or earth rings on the prairies where various ceremonies such as the Naxpike or Wolf ceremonies were held.

Myths and legends may shore up a people’s identity, but real identification and actual connection is like a jolt of adrenaline. Visit the genealogy room at any local historical society. Watch somebody running a finger down an old marriage register and suddenly stopping, breathless—there it is—the signature of a great-great-grandmother on her wedding day—the living hand itself. It is the matrix of such true facts that secures for people a place in history—not in the imagined past of myth and legend, but in the actual past of real people and real events. The Italian historian Arnaldo Mo-migliano dismissed this sort of petty fact gathering as “antiquarianism”—obsession with unprocessed detail—but history, as an ambitious intellectual enterprise, begins with the accumulation of such detail, and can always be called to account for getting the detail wrong, or failing to admit where the detail is missing or in short supply.

I’m not trying to quarrel with Nabokov here. I admire his breadth of reading and his generous determination to give a full hearing to the whole range of Indian thinking about the past while scrupulously avoiding condescension about its gaps and implausibilities. But in his effort to legitimize Indian historical thinking I feel that he scants Indian efforts to create means of preserving a knowable past—that is, a readable record of actual persons and events. Two such means were perfected to a high level by plains Indians in the nineteenth century—the drawings, frequently historical in purpose, known as ledger art, and the tribal histories known as winter counts. Na-bokov mentions both but moves on quickly, in effect discounting what constitute the two largest bodies of sustained historical work produced by plains Indians born and grown to adulthood before the reservation era.

The making of ledger drawings was common among many western tribes, but winter counts were compiled mainly by the western or Teton Sioux, also called the Lakota. Both forms of record-making are primarily graphic in nature and historical in purpose and are clearly intended to preserve in durable form exactly those things which slip ineluctably over time from unaided memory, what we might call the populated past—men and their exploits, stirring events and sad stories, the years that marked the coming of horses, white men, and smallpox.


The custom of recording personal histories with drawings was well established by the time Lewis and Clark passed up the Missouri River in 1803, but the early drawings, on shirts, robes, and tepee covers, were rudimentary and their purpose narrow. By the 1860s both had changed dramatically—drawings were elaborate, colored, and carefully composed, and the original material of war deeds had expanded to include social customs and communal history. Ledger art got its name from its most common material—ledger books obtained from trading posts where Indians sold furs and bought staples like sugar, coffee, beads, iron kettles, tradecloth, powder and balls, and the like. White soldiers captured a Cheyenne ledger book at the Battle of Summit Springs in 1869, and a few years later, when about seventy Indians, mainly southern Cheyenne, were imprisoned for a time at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, they produced ledger drawings by the score—for personal pleasure, as gifts for white officers and schoolteachers, and for sale to tourists.

Ledger drawings as an art form flowered briefly from the 1870s to about the 1920s during the decades generally called “the early reservation period”—a time of profound cultural trauma as Indians left the old free life of the buffalo-hunting days for a new life as semi-prisoners living on government rations under official pressure to abandon their religion, traditional ceremonies, and old ways of communal living. So far as I know ledger drawings were made only by men and initially served mainly to record the lost life of warfare, hunting, and tribal identity. Thousands of such drawings were made by artists from a dozen tribes and bands, some crude and only half-realized, but others rising to a dazzling brilliance of drawing, composition, and color.

One of the largest bodies of ledger drawings was created over a half-century beginning about 1870 by the Kiowa artist Silver Horn, subject of a recent full-scale study by the Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Candace S. Greene. The numerous illustrations superbly reproduced in Silver Horn: Master Illustrator of the Kiowas demonstrate that the artist’s work served two distinct purposes—to capture the Kiowa love of design, color, and personal display, and to record both Kiowa communal life and the glories and horrors of the old warring life when the Kiowa were in constant battle with half a dozen tribes and the white soldiers and settlers who had come to take the land. Occasionally, Silver Horn attempted a large comprehensive portrayal of a historic event; a notable example is a painting on muslin, now at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, of the Battle of the Washita, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked the village of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle in 1868.

More common were Silver Horn’s drawings of individual combat between Kiowa warriors, many identifiable by their headdress, shield, or other details, and Indian and white opponents. These represent actual, dateable events, and some also address and even settle broader historical questions. It was common among whites of the era, for example, to accuse Indians of torturing prisoners in a manner so horrible that every white was advised to save the last bullet for himself. Surviving evidence suggests that some tribes did this, and some didn’t. Silver Horn settles the question so far as the Kiowa are concerned with a drawing, Goyaesque in power, of a cowboy being burned alive. The cowboy (unmistakeably identified by his chaps) has already been scalped. He is seated directly in front of a fire, tied by the neck to a stake behind him, his arms stretched out like wings and each tied to a smaller stake, in effect forcing him to embrace the heat of blazing logs. An old caption claims that the Kiowa warrior Big Bow was responsible for this atrocity, but Greene argues that those singing and dancing while the cowboy died were actually women, wearing men’s war gear over their dresses. Few white memoirs of the Indian-fighting days contain any scene as brutal or as honest as this one.

Similar horrors, at first glance, seem to be found in page after page of drawings of dead white soldiers created by the Minneconjou Sioux artist Red Horse, collected on the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in 1881 by an agency physician, Charles E. McChesney. Red Horse’s record of the 1876 battle long known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” executed on forty-one sheets of heavy kraft paper each about two feet square, was not published in full until 1999, in Herman J. Viola’s Little Bighorn Remembered.2 Red Horse devoted five sheets to sixty-one drawings of Indian dead, each rendered distinct by details of dress, weapons, shield, or headgear. It is likely Red Horse could have named every one of them, but McChesney did not think to ask. Another five pages contain drawings of more than 120 dead white cavalrymen. Many are naked, many have been scalped, and many have been mutilated. The field is strewn with severed heads, arms, legs, hands, and feet—an accurate rendition of the horror confronted by the white troops who found their bodies two days after the battle. But these were mutilations of the dead expressing victory or triumph, not evidence of torture. The practice of northern plains tribes was to kill enemy warriors, not take them captive.

The Red Horse drawings, now badly deteriorated but preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, are in the first instance an ambitious work of art, the greatest we have by any participant in the battle. But the drawings can also be “read” as an account of the battle itself, capturing not only the broad sweep of the encounter, but details of the way it unfolded. This Red Horse account is persuasively analyzed by Sandra L. Brizée-Bowen in For All to See: The Little Bighorn Battle in Plains Indian Art, along with the work of a dozen other Indian artists. Rejecting the conclusion of the Army’s official report of the disaster, which said that only “the testimony of the field” offered an account of the final moments of Custer and his men, Brizée-Bowen has joined writers like Jerome Greene, Gregory F. Michno, and Richard Hardorff in claiming that Indian participants left readable memoirs in the form of drawings and interviews which add much to what we know from the simple placement of the bodies.

An even larger group of Little Bighorn drawings, sixty in all, was created by Amos Bad Heart Bull, only seven at the time of the battle but evidently an eager pupil of Oglala elders who had ample time during the early reservation period to talk of the past. Bad Heart Bull, nephew of the noted Oglala war leader He Dog, recorded tribal history in a sprawling masterwork of four hundred drawings. The ledger book containing them was purchased at the time of the Ghost Dance trouble in 1890–1891 from a white store owner in Crawford, Nebraska, about a mile up the road from Fort Robinson, where the artist enlisted as a scout for a year. On the death of the artist in 1913 his book passed into the hands of a sister, Dolly Pretty Cloud, who lent it to Helen Blish for study in the 1930s.

Blish’s doctoral dissertation based on the ledger book, along with the photocopied drawings, was published in 1967 by the University of Oklahoma Press as A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. This extraordinary book, long out of print, represents what is probably the single greatest effort by any Indian at any time to record the history of his people. The original ledger book is now long gone, buried with Pretty Cloud when she died in 1947, but Brizée-Bowen reproduces seventeen of Bad Heart Bull’s Little Bighorn drawings, and in them she helps us to see a sweeping narrative of the battle as great in its way as Evan Connell’s Son of Morning Star (1984) or Edgar I. Stewart’s Custer’s Luck (1955).


It is a puzzling fact that the Battle of the Little Bighorn, recorded by so many Indian artists in ledger drawings, is often ignored by the Lakota annual tribal histories called winter counts and is found in none of the ten winter counts possessed by the Smithsonian Institution. The interested reader may scroll through all ten at a Web site put up and handsomely supported by the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives (www.wintercounts.si.edu). Big killings are commonplace in winter counts, as they were commonplace on the plains, but Custer’s fate in June 1876, the biggest killing of all, is missing. Sometime in the next year or two all ten of these counts, with a great deal of additional information, will be published in a volume edited by Candace Green, Silver Horn‘s author, and another scholar on Indian art, Russell Thornton, as The Year the Stars Fell, the name used in every winter count to record the great Leonid meteor shower visible across North America on the night of November 13, 1833. This important book, to be issued by the University of Nebraska Press, will make a wide selection of winter counts available for the first time since a number appeared in the 1880s in the fourth and tenth annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

The Lakota words for winter count are waniyetu (literally, winter), meaning a year as measured from first snow to first snow, and wowapi (count or counting)—in effect a count or list of years. A winter count in the first instance is a series of small drawings, each representing the signature event by which that year is later known. The purpose of a winter count is twofold—to fix in tribal memory the signal events of communal history, and to provide a chronology for dating personal or tribal events. Elderly Sioux in the twentieth century, filling out government documents, often answered with a winter count year when asked when something happened. Ellen Long Cat, applying for a pension in the 1920s as the widow of the US Army scout Long Cat, told a hearing officer that she had been “born the year that Conquering Bear was killed” (1854) and had married her first husband, Lodge Skin Moccasin, “the year that the tree fell on the old woman and killed her” (1869). These dates not only fix the woman’s age at fifteen on first marrying, but clearly identify her as an Oglala since other Sioux bands did not date 1869 with the falling tree incident. The drawings standing for such events are sometimes arranged in a spiral, reading out from the center; sometimes in page form, reading from top to bottom, left to right. Some winter counts are painted on hide, while others are recorded on muslin or even paper.

The span of years covered by a winter count is variable; some begin deep in the eighteenth century, others at the beginning of the nineteenth. Some halt in the 1870s, when the Sioux were confined to reservations; others include the Ghost Dance trouble and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 and continue on into the twentieth century. But the spine of years is useful as history only when someone survives to interpret it. Each year has a name—“One Horn broke his leg (1832)”; “battle on the ice (1836)”—but the context and significance of these events must be provided by the count’s keeper, who typically remembers the stories as they were passed down to him, and extends the list annually with a new signature event and its drawing.

When the Sioux began keeping winter counts is unknown. The first one acquired by whites was the work of the Yanktonai Sioux Lone Dog, creator of a seventy-year winter count (1800– 1870) collected in 1876 by Colonel Garrick Mallery in the Dakota Territory and published by him the next year in the United States Geographical Survey. At the time Lone Dog’s count was thought to be unique but in subsequent decades many winter counts migrated into white hands, some with written notation of the details surrounding each year’s signature event, some without. The ten winter counts held by the Smithsonian Institution are far from unique; Christina Burke, a research collaborator at the Smithsonian who also wrote part of The Years the Stars Fell, has compiled a list of more than 190, many of which, however, are exact or near duplicates. Certain events are common to most if not all winter counts, especially the plague years, when smallpox, measles, or cholera swept Indian country. Taken together these counts represent an attempt by the Lakota to record the signal events of their tribal history, but they also represent a deeper form of historicity—the effort to place themselves in time by establishing a spine of years allowing all events, not just those chosen as year events, to be placed confidently in chronological order—a first step toward recognizing the notions of change and causality.

One of the fullest and most interesting winter counts, spanning the years from 1759 through 1945, was maintained for many years at the end of its run by John Colhoff, the half-blood son of George Colhoff, a Georgian sent to Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, during the Civil War as a “galvanized Yankee”—that is, a Confederate prisoner paroled into the Union army for service in the West. There he married an Oglala woman and later worked as a storekeeper and interpreter on the Pine Ridge reserva-tion, where his son John was born in the 1880s and died about 1950. Known by the Oglala as Whiteman Stands in Sight, John Colhoff, largely self-taught, was for many years an interpreter and informant for white writers and scholars like Marie Sandoz, author of the first biography of Crazy Horse, and George Hyde, who wrote histories of the Oglala and the Brule Sioux, along with many other books.

The Colhoff winter count3 is a version of the winter count kept by No Ears, who was recorded in the US Army census of Oglala Sioux at the Red Cloud Agency in 1876–1877. Colhoff expanded and modified the No Ears count with the help of eight Oglala elders, all noted warriors of the 1870s. Scholars generally agree that choosing year events for winter counts was probably a collective effort, but this Colhoff count is the only one I know with a roster of named advisers.4 All of these men knew Crazy Horse, several surrendered with him in 1877, and all would have known the old man with the history stick described by Colonel Bradley.

What the stick said will probably never be known for sure, but we know enough to make some educated guesses. It was owned by an Oglala; it probably represented a winter count; and it was almost certainly a duplicate or slight variant of the No Ears winter count. If Colonel Bradley was right about the age of the owner then he would have been born in the year called Miwa tani awi ca tipi—the year the Sioux camped with the Mandan (1794). The last notch on the old man’s stick would have represented the year between the first snow of 1875 and the first snow of 1876. Many Oglala winter counts mark that as the year Red Cloud’s horses were taken by the white soldiers, full of wrath after the Custer fight, but the old man would not have been around for that. He would have been up north in the Tongue River country, living the old life with the people who killed Custer, and it is hard to imagine him picking something else to mark the year. Would he have admitted as much to Colonel Bradley? In my imagination the old man politely waves the matter aside, answering that question with a smile. But one thing I feel is sure: if the keeper of the stick had been asked what he recorded on it he would have answered that these were not mere stories or legends to pass the time on winter nights. These were facts, the names of actual men and the years of real events—“the history of the world from the beginning.”


Nailed Down September 22, 2005

  1. 2

    Times Books.

  2. 3

    Part of the Colhoff winter count was edited and published by William K. Powers (no relation), who knew John Colhoff at Pine Ridge in the 1940s, in American Indian Tradition, Vol. 9, Issue 1 (1963). An overlapping section with much additional information is found in Chicago’s Newberry Library, Elmo Scott Watson papers, Box 39, Folder 589.

  3. 4

    In the order given by Colhoff the advisers were Whirlwind Man, He Dog, Little Killer, Kills a Hundred, Chases in Winter, Little Shield, Short Bull, and Chasing Raven.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print