Warrior's view of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on display at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center
The Red Horse exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center provides a treasure trove of illustrations and insights on the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
A rare exhibition of 12 drawings by acclaimed artist Red Horse, a Sioux warrior who fought against George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, is on display at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center through May 9.
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Red Horse: Drawings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn offers a deep look into the Native American perspective on that iconic battle as well as the American military history and indigenous cultural aspects of the late 19th century.
And it all began with a Stanford brainstorm.
From Custer's Last Stand to Stanford
The Red Horse exhibition originated from a course taught by Stanford political science Professor Scott Sagan that allows students to examine key battles from the perspectives of the people involved.
For the Battle of the Little Bighorn, students in Sagan's Sophomore College course actually explored the Montana battleground where Custer's Last Stand took place. They immersed themselves in the characters of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, Lakota woman Kate Bighead, mixed-race cavalry scout Mitch Boyer, and other Native Americans and U.S. soldiers. In doing so, they explained and relived some of the decisions made during the battle.
To prepare for their roles, Sagan's students visited the Smithsonian Institution, where they viewed ledger drawings created by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior involved in the battle. Commissioned by Army doctor Charles E. McChesney in 1881, Red Horse's illustrations featured the Battle of the Little Bighorn combat, wounded and dead warriors and soldiers, and Native Americans on the battlefield.
The students were inspired and impressed by Red Horse's artwork, and Sagan took note.
"In his drawings, one senses the fear and excitement of combat, the brutal violence of battle and the sadness of death," Sagan said. "This is the Little Bighorn through Lakota eyes. It is the Battle of the Little Bighorn without Custer. Red Horse was not producing a work of art for the white tourist trade. He was drawing for his people and for himself, much like warrior artists before him who recorded their life stories on their buffalo-hide robes and tipis."
Sagan approached Cantor Arts Center Director Connie Wolf about the drawings, which eventually led to the decision to bring the art in exhibition form to the Stanford campus. The illustrations are on loan from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
The result is an exhibition on view for the first time at a West Coast museum, and the first time that a representative selection of these remarkable works has been displayed together since the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1976.
Research, perspectives, insights
In true interdisciplinary fashion, the Red Horse exhibition offers an opportunity to view multiple artistic perspectives and historical analyses on military history and Lakota culture. The exhibition now serves as a resource for courses across Stanford, especially those involving the American West, international security and Native American studies.
In the gallery, the drawings are displayed in chronological order, accompanied by Red Horse's testimony of what he witnessed. This allows viewers to see the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its aftermath unfold through the eyes of a Lakota warrior. Sagan hopes that the "stark honesty" of the drawings will be as moving to visitors as it is to him.
The exhibition led to a student-initiated course this past year at Stanford, The Art and Artifacts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which featured weekly guest speakers and culminated in a student-curated exhibition. That show, Contemporary Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, opens Feb. 24.
Karen Biestman, associate dean and director of Stanford's Native American Cultural Center and lecturer in Native American studies, was the faculty sponsor for the course.
Said Biestman: "I am honored to champion the student-led initiatives surrounding the Red Horse exhibition, and specifically, the course supporting a companion exhibit curated by students featuring comparative and contemporary imagery where Native voices are celebrated. If the goals of a Stanford undergraduate education are to own knowledge, develop global citizenship, lead with empathy, and learn to work collaboratively in diverse teams, then the student-learning opportunities sparked by the Red Horse exhibition represent the finest of these ideals."