Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The story it's meant to tell

That the hide is mislabeled is no one's fault, really. Somewhere along the line, the painting was given a title that was, in all likelihood, a slip of the tongue. That slip got typed up and inserted in the display box to identify the story--the Battle, the note says, of Twin Buttes.

There should be a "The Battle of Twin Buttes." You can almost see Big 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. If there isn't a movie titled "The Battle of Twin Buttes," there should be.

But there never was a Battle of Twin Buttes, not in the American west or tucked away on some shelf in a Hollywood film library. There's only one Battle of Twin Buttes, and that's on the wall at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa.

But the story that hide tells is distinctive, not generic. After all, up there in the right hand corner four cavalry are positioned behind some kind of structure pouring led down on a village. The Sioux or Lakota would never have chosen to fight inside their village, where their women and children could be hurt. All signs point to a U. S. Calvary attack on a village, something that happened during the Great Sioux Wars more than once, but not all that often.

What the historian was drawing is the story of an attack on a village, probably--given the position of the sharpshooters--a surprise attack. And there were, he or she notes, women and children among the victims. That line of cavalry with rifles is taking aim at a brave in a flowing headdress who appears to stand in front of woman, who appears already dead, and a child. The warrior is notably unarmed.

In the fights going on all over the painting, the Lakota appear to be getting the upper hand, even though only one of the warriors (the one bottom center) has a rifle. All the others are armed with bows or tomahawks or long knives. Still, the artist unmistakably presents the warriors as taking the upper hand.

Here's my guess. This incredible piece of Native American history tells the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a fight--a surprise attack on a camp that was not at war--which took place in the far corner of South Dakota, the very first bloody engagement between U.S. Cavalry and "hostiles," as they were called, bands of Sioux people who wanted no part of reservation life, wanted only the freedom of the old ways--old ways that put them in the way of what the white man called "progress."

Under the command of General Crooke and an army that had just lost the most significant battle against Native people ever, at Little Big Horn, a Captain Anson Mills, along with 150 troopers, by pure happenstance, ran into the village pictured on the hide, and, contrary to Crook's orders, decided to attack.

Mills and his men were thirty miles from the General's half-wasted army, a haggard bunch of survivors 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 knew his men were in no shape. In truth, he was next thing to fighting mutiny.

But Mills determined to assault 48 lodges of two Miniconjou leaders, American Horse and Red Horse. It was--and this can't be said enough--a peaceable village. But after Custer's massacre, no white man in uniform was in the mood for peace. Soon enough the people were cleared out of the village, some of them up in the adjoining hills, some in a gully, where American Horse determined to hold his ground.

Once the firing ceased, famished troops filled their larder and themselves with five thousand pounds of dried meat, the first time some of them had eaten anything in days. When Crook's own troops arrived, he lost control of them--all 2000--very quickly.

Twenty troopers volunteered to go down into the gully and get American Horse. They did, "cursing and yelling" through the shrieks of terrified women.

What followed was a grueling and horrifying several hours of unending volleys into the gully, the cave where American Horse and a dozen of his people--women and children-- remained. " “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.” American Horse came out of that gully holding his intestines in his hands. He died soon after.

That afternoon, after the fighting, Crazy Horse and 400 Sioux came up on the bluffs, but after some exchange of gunfire the fighting ceased.

All that buffalo meat was there from a buffalo hunt--a summer hunt. That's why American Horse and his people were there. Because they were "off reservation," they were considered "hostile," even though the whole band was on their way back to their home.

The cavalry got themselves fed and took 300 fresh ponies to replace the mounts they'd eaten.

Three cavalry were killed, 27 wounded. Exactly how many Native people lost their lives isn't known. The Sioux themselves indicated there were ten dead.

That's the story of the hide up on the wall of the Sioux County Museum, the story it pictures, the story its was created to tell, the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Fredericksburg in 1847, a young German immigrant leader and a powerful Comanche chief signed a mutual defense pact believed to be the only unbroken peace treaty between American Indians and U.S. settlers.