White Bird’s Little Bighorn

The Saint Louis Art Museum, like a caterpillar trying to become a butterfly is beginning to come out of its three and a half-year chrysalis. The new wing is scheduled to open in June and in preparation for that date the existing galleries, many of which had been stripped because of construction vibrations, are now being repopulated. One such is a third floor Native American gallery that has recently reopened. On Sunday afternoon, I visited the museum and viewed what I perceive as this collection’s signature piece, “White Bird, Northern Tsistsistas Warrior and Artist”. The following is the museums description of this work:

This exceptional hide painting is believed to be a first-person account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876, a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. Drawn with ink and pencils on native tanned deer hide, this eyewitness depiction by the artist White Bird brings the story to life. Warriors, gallantly astride their horses, leap across the surface of the hide leading the charge and surrounding the army. By contrast, the soldiers remain motionless and packed closely together in a defensive pose. White Bird conveys the individuality of each warrior and horse, carefully recording the specific regalia and individual face paintings that represent the “personal medicine of the warriors who fought.

White Bird, a Northern Tsistsistas (Cheyenne), fought as a young man in this famous battle, also know as “Custer’s Last Stand.” In this battle, Plains warriors from several tribes banded together to claim a decisive victory over the U.S. Army. Fifteen years later, Captain John M. Webster, stationed in Fort Keogh, Montana, commissioned this painting from White Bird, who at the time was serving as a scout for the army, a widely respected profession after the warrior societies were disbanded in the Plains. Plains warrior art is a visual record of war achievements, and depicts the autobiographical recounting of an individual coup or war deeds of a warrior, or in this case, the rendering of a particular event involving many warriors.

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