That the hide painting is mislabeled is no one's fault, really. Somewhere along the line of ownership it was a slip of the tongue. That tongue-slip got typed up and inserted in the display--"the Battle," the note says, of "Twin Buttes."
There should be a "The Battle of Twin Buttes." It's a great title. You can almost see John Wayne scan the horizon from his saddle, a hundred Lakota braves, bedecked for war, awaiting a chilling scream from Crazy Horse to reign down terror.
But there never was such a film or such a battle, not in the American west or in a Hollywood film can. There's only one "Battle of Twin Buttes," and that's a hide painting on the wall at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa.
But the story that painting tells is not generic. After all, up in the right hand corner four cavalry are pouring lead down on a village. The Lakota would not have chosen to fight anywhere close to their women and children, so the drawing details a U. S. Calvary attack on a village.
Probably a surprise attack too, given that picket line--and regrettably, the women and children drawn in among the victims. Those rifles appear to be taking aim at an unarmed brave in a flowing headdress who stands in front of a woman and a child.
Here's my guess. This wonderful piece of Native American folk art tells the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a surprise attack on a camp that was not at war, a fight that took place way out in the northwest corner of South Dakota, a bloody engagement between the U.S. Cavalry and bands of Lakota the army called "hostiles," most of whom wanted only to go on living the way they always had.
Under the command of General George C. Crooke and an army just a few months before defeated at Little Big Horn, Captain Anson Mills, along with 150 troopers, ran into the village pictured on the hide, and, contrary to Crook's express orders, decided to attack.
Mills and his men were thirty miles from the General's half-wasted army, a haggard bunch who'd been slogging through the mud for more than a hundred miles with nothing to eat but their horses. Crook had advised no fighting because he was close to fighting mutiny himself.
But Mills determined to bring down 40-some lodges of two Miniconjou leaders, American Horse and Red Horse. After Custer, no white man was in the mood for peace.
Some who escaped the attack took to adjoining hills and found refuge in a gully. Twenty troopers volunteered to go down and get American Horse. And they did, "cursing and yelling," or so the story goes.
“The yelling of Indians, discharge of guns, cursing of soldiers, crying of children, barking of dogs, the dead crowded in the bottom of the gory, slimy ditch, and the shrieks of the wounded," one who was there remembered, "presented the most agonizing scene that clings in my memory of Sioux warfare.”
Eventually, American Horse surrendered, stood straight and tall, and walked out of that gully holding his intestines in his hands. He died soon after.
When the firing ceased, Captain Mills' famished troops filled their larder and themselves with meat, the first time some of them had eaten anything in days. When Crook's troops arrived, he lost control of them--all 2000--very quickly.
All that buffalo meat was bounty from band's summer buffalo hunt. That's why American Horse and his people were there. But because they were "off reservation," they were considered "hostile," even though the whole band was simply on their way home.
That's the story told by the hide on the wall of the Sioux County Museum. It's the Battle of Slim Buttes.
Honestly, the place is gorgeous today, just as it must have been in September of 1876. Alabaster buttes rise like winged ships from the horizon, above a prairie where "the deer and the antelope play"--and the pronghorn. Wildflowers down below carpet the grasses, and white pine stand tall as a tribute high atop the buttes.
But the Slim Buttes are way, way off the beaten path. Just let me warn you. No one just stops by. Foot traffic is unheard of. You got to want to go. What happened there in 1876 is hardly a footnote. Besides, if you don't know the story, that old hide painting treasure will send you on a wild goose chase. You'll never get there.
Maybe that's a shame. Then again, maybe not. After all, if you know the story, you can sit and watch and listen all by your lonesome. Who knows what you might still hear if you sit at the foot of those magnificent buttes? Who knows what they might just remember?