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Mató Nájin/Standing Bear, Battle of Little Bighorn

Mató Nájin/Standing Bear (Minneconjou Lakota/Teton Sioux), Battle of Little Bighorn, c. 1920, pencil, ink, and watercolor on muslin, 91.4 × 268 cm, made in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, United States (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

TORRENCE: One of the most extraordinary pictorial works in the Diker Collection is this painting by Minneconjou Lakota artist Standing Bear that was done around 1920. It’s painted on muslin, dramatic in its scale. It’s three feet high and over eight feet long, drawn in pencil and ink and then filled in with watercolor, and it depicts one of the great episodes in American history of the West that has become almost mythic in America, and that is the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place in June of 1876 when a combined force of Lakota and Cheyenne destroyed the force of General George Armstrong Custer when he attacked their village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. This is one of five paintings that Standing Bear did portraying this particular event. He participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn when he was sixteen years of age, so he grew up within the traditional nomadic culture of Plains people and came to the Pine Ridge Reservation with Crazy Horse when Crazy Horse’s band surrendered in 1877, and from that time, he, as well as his people and family, moved into the realities of reservation life. Although the painting presents this battle as one grand event, it’s actually a piecing together of different episodes that happened over probably about a forty-five-minute period of time. And these episodes have all been verified. We see a group of cavalry horses that are being driven off, leaving the soldiers on foot to finish the battle. Towards the middle, there is a group of soldiers that are running towards a ravine. There they were overtaken and killed. A group of soldiers are trying to ride away, and interestingly they’re firing their guns into the air, they’re not shooting at anyone, and there’s a sense of panic and confusion. The center of the painting shows Custer and the remaining group of forces surrounded by Native warriors coming in on all sides. There are two small episodes in this painting that bring the viewer away from the grand scale of this battle into something that is personal. In the lower left there is a man who is on horseback. He’s leaving the battle with a dead or wounded comrade over his horse. The man has slipped his headdress off. It’s hanging to his back, he’s finished with the fight, and he’s bringing his comrade back to the village. On the far right there is a depiction of a Lakota healer offering perhaps water to a wounded comrade, and he’s in the act of singing. Standing Bear was producing works intended for sale, based on the tradition of warrior autobiographical art, where men depicted their exploits in battle on painted robes. We also know from Arthur Amiotte, Standing Bear’s great-grandson, that Standing Bear, in the tradition of the Lakota, used these paintings to pass down the history of his own life and that of his people, and Arthur talks about hearing Standing Bear working on these muslins at the kitchen table with former warrior comrades in the room to help him with details, and young people in the room, as well, hearing about what it had been like to be there.