THE STORY OF CUSTER’S DEFEAT DEPENDS ON WHO IS TELLING IT
The 1876 Battle of the Greasy Grass, commonly known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand, is typically depicted as either a great victory by Indigenous nations or a heroic sacrifice by American Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry.
Among those who saw it as a triumph for the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho people was the Oglala Lakota artist Amos Bad Heart Bull. Like his father before him, Bad Heart Bull was the historian of the Oglala.
Important events were traditionally recorded through pictures on buffalo hide. These served as calendars and were called winter counts, with one picture representing a year’s most significant event. The winter count pictures were used in conjunction with a more extensive oral history.
Bad Heart Bull (1869–1913) adapted this tradition to include pictures on paper with captions. He taught himself to draw, as well as to read and write in English and Lakota. Encouraged by his uncles, he sought out the stories of his tribe and documented them in a used ledger. Using a variety of materials, such as ink, crayons, pencils, and watercolours, he created more than 400 drawings. Included among these drawings was a series showing the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
The ink-on-paper illustration at left is titled Retreat of Major Marcus Reno’s command. Reno was Custer’s second-in-command. He was ordered to make the intial attack on the Indigenous encampment near the Little Bighorn River. Soon overwhelmed, Reno’s 140-man batallion retreated.
The picture shows soldiers at the rear incurring heavy casualties as Sioux and Cheyenne warriors overtake them. In the meantime, Custer led an attack from a different point, but his troops were forced back onto a ridge, where all were killed.
Reno survived the battle, but his reputation did not. The army and the public blamed him for the defeat.