“Everything I say here is straight and true.”
On June 25, 1876, Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry ignored orders and launched a blind assault on a group of Sioux warriors that numbered three times their size. In a desperate attempt to save their lives from the onslaught of the advancing Indians, Custer ordered his men to shoot and stack their horses to form a barricade. Custer and his men were killed in less than an hour. Among the Sioux warriors who fought at the battle of Little Big Horn, one stands out as a giant in Native American history. His name was Chief White Bull (Eye Witness 1).
From now until March 16,the Sam Houston Memorial Museum is hosting an exhibit depicting the life and times of a young Sioux warrior who later became Chief White Bull. The exhibit is funded in part by the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities and the Associates of the Western History Collections.
The exhibit is based on the collaboration between Minniconjou Sioux Chief, White Bull, and professor for English at the University of Oklahoma, Walter S. Campbell, better known by his pen name Stanley Vestal. The exhibit provided the information contained herein.
As a young Northwestern Plains Sioux warrior, White Bull’s status in the tribe depended on the number of successful coups he completed. To gain recognition for a coup and establish himself in the tribe, a young warrior would make a formal boast about his attack. They were also required to have a witness.
To display their abilities and to make sure that other members of the tribe would not forget their talent and skill, older generations of Sioux warriors would illustrate their feats of war on rocks, hides and tepees.
These records were known as “brag-skins.” White Bull was one of the last practitioners of this art form. Today, the art form is known as “exploit art,” or “heraldic art.” White Bull had gained over 30 coups before he was 30-years-old and was held in the highest esteem among the Sioux.
Drawing on skins eventually gave way to paper as it became available. Those images were called pictographs. They were also called ledger art because they were often drawn on ledgers that were either thrown away, or confiscated from the Army during raids.
Within three years of living on a reservation in the 1890s, White Bull learned the language of the Lakota, and began compiling a series of 36 pictographs including seven that he earned at the battle of Little Big Horn.
In 1930, Campbell commissioned White Bull’s pictographs after originally approaching him for information about his uncle Sitting Bull, whom he had fought with in over 17 battles.
White Bull promptly obliged Campbell, and was paid $70 to copy over 40 of his illustrations that the chief thought could document his coups. Campbell thought it would be a good way to portray the Sioux warrior culture.
Every two-dimensional drawing on display portrays a single deed in the warrior’s life. They are unique in that the action being portrayed moves from right to left. The hero is usually shown mounted on a horse while the enemy is grounded. The pictographs capture a moment in time, a frozen instance of courage where two or more lives hang in the balance.
Each picture records White Bull’s age at the time of the coup, the date and his name in Lacota and English as well as his kinship to Sitting Bull.
The exhibit is summed up in a single Sioux phrase. “The picture is the rope that ties memory to the stake.”
The killer of Custer, the son of Makes Room, a Minniconjou chief and Good Feather, a Hunkpapa bride, White Bull ruled the Northern Plains.
Plains Indians considered the willingness to put one’s self in danger a much braver deed than simply killing someone from a distance. So, a warrior could achieve greater status by approaching his enemy close enough to touch him with a bow or lance before moving in for the kill. This was considered much more impressive than killing the enemy from a safe distance. White Bull adhered to that code.
Campbell expressed the mentality of White Bull concerning warfare during his reign. “his sport, the joy and pride of his life, the thing of which he fought and dreamed, the field on which all his talents and desires concentrated,” Campbell said.
For more information about this exhibit visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum Web site at http://www.shsu.edu/~smm_www.