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October 26, 2007

Custer’s Last Stand
Images & Perceptions from the Other Side

238. SZWEDZICKI, C. (publisher). Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, Kills Two, Pretty Hawk, Chief Washakie, Katsikodi, Silver Horn, Unknown Mandan, Unknown Shoshone (artists). Vol. I: Sioux Indian Painting Part I Painting of the Sioux and Other Tribes of the Great Plains with Introduction and Notes by Hartley Burr Alexander. Vol. II: Sioux Indian Painting Part II The Art of Amos Bad Heart Buffalo with Introduction and Notes by Hartley Burr Alexander. Nice, France: Published by C. Szwedzicki, 22 Rue Louis de Coppet, 22, Exclusive Representative for U.S.A. French & European Publications, Inc., New York City, [1938]. Vol. I: 16 pp., 25 leaves of plates (Plate 11 numbered 11A and 11B; Plate 8 on same sheet as 11B). Vol. II: 10 pp., 25 leaves of plates. Titles printed in red and black; letterpress text, introduction, and contents in English and French in parallel columns, 50 prints of drawings in Plains Indian pictographic styles done in collotype and pochoir processes (42 full color, 8 black and white, each sheet measures 40.5 x 38.7 cm). 2 vols., folio (51 x 39 cm), original portfolios (light grey cloth over darker grey boards) with ribbon ties (some ties missing on Part 2), each portfolio with original color print mounted on upper cover. Covers have a few minor bumps, rear cover of second portfolio lightly marred, one small nick (no loss) on first leaf of text to first portfolio, edges of a few plates slightly worn, otherwise very fine, the prints excellent.

            First edition, limited edition (#289 of 400 copies signed by publishers C. Szwedzicki and V. Crespin). Goetzmann & Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination, p. 221: “Besides the verbal accounts of the Little Big Horn Battle, the only visual records are those left by the Indians. Of these, the principal one is a long series of drawings done by the Oglala Sioux, Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, who was only six at the time of the battle, but who became the tribal historian.... Bad Heart Buffalo’s series is a masterful piece of primitive ledger art.” Russell, Custer’s Last, Or the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Picturesque Perspective Being a Pictorial Representation of the Late and Unfortunate Incident in Montana as Portrayed by Custer’s Friends and Foes, Admirers and Iconoclasts of his Day and after, p. 25 & Plate VII. Russell, Custer’s List: A Checklist of Pictures Relating to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, pp. 3 (Amos Bad Heart Buffalo), 22 (Kills Two), Not in Luther’s Custer’s High Spots (1972 version), although it certainly deserves to be (however, Luther does list as High Spot #105 and discuss on p. 47 A Pictorial History of the Oglala Sioux with text by Helen H. Blish and drawings by Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1967).

            These important and beautiful portfolios record a significant event in U.S. and Native American history but also serve as examples of a time-consuming, expensive method of reproduction that accurately captures the original paintings.

            The portfolios were instrumental in promoting and recognizing the worth of Native American art. Having its genesis in the 1931 Exposition of Indian Tribal Art that was mounted at Grand Central Art Galleries, this publication is one of the most significant renderings of Native American art, presenting works painted by several important artists, including Amos Bad Heart Buffalo (1869-1913). Part of their significance is that they show history from the Native American viewpoint, one considerably rarer than that presented by their more prolific American and European counterparts who roamed the West in search of subjects and displayed their works in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. The exhibition and this publication presented Native American paintings as works of art rather than mere ethnographic curiosities to be studied for such details as costumes and customs, probably for the first time. This change was part of the quest at the time for art that was uniquely American, rather than American art that looked like it could have been painted in Europe. These paintings also captured events and persons not witnessed or recorded by others, especially the impatient Anglos who were overrunning the land and culture of Native Americans.

            The volume editor, Hartley Burr Alexander, provides a valuable introduction on Native American art and the place these images have in it. He considered the Plains Indians, whose work is shown here, to be the most accomplished of all Native American artists and lamented that their earlier works had vanished because of the fragile media on which they were originally executed. He also believed that the artists presented here were among the most significant Native American painters and that their works represented the apex of their craft. While admitting that the artists often painted in a non-realistic manner and sometimes concentrated on symbolism, he also argued persuasively that the artists were assuredly artists who deserved respect and admiration for their skills and techniques. Among the somewhat unrealistic features he noted was the Native American practice of rarely including realistic facial features, which, as he notes, rarely change from image to image. On the other hand, he remarks with some admiration on the skill with which the artists depict animals. He seems to harbor few doubts about the accuracy of the diurnal details of dress and custom that the paintings portray. He is particularly redolent in his praise for the painting and compositional skills of Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, who did the images in the second volume, including one of himself as a cowboy trailing a herd. Alexander gives a brief explanation of what is depicted in every image, sometimes with short critical commentary.

            The subjects treated in the paintings range widely, from legends, to daily activities, to portraits of famous leaders, to religious ceremonies (including the peyote ritual). Even a freak accident is depicted. Probably none of the images are more famous, however, than those in the second volume depicting the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the only surviving images of that famous encounter. It is impossible, of course, that the artist could have witnessed the events depicted, but he seems to have learned in detail about the action from his relatives who participated (his father Tatanka Cante Sice and his uncle He Dog, both Oglala warriors). In addition to the otherwise realistic details captured in many of the paintings here, these battle scenes are especially graphic, complete with all the violence, blood, and confusion that must have surrounded Reno’s retreat back across the Little Big Horn River after his charge was overwhelmed. The artist depicts this moment in several images, along with some others showing the attack on Custer’s column. Those images, which are highly different from those of the same event by American artists who tended to focus on the heroic Custer, are juxtaposed with other highly symbolic ones, such as an encounter between Custer and Sitting Bull that never happened. Finally, a map of the battlefield by the artist is also reproduced here. (Unfortunately, two of the artist Amos Bad Heart Buffalo’s paintings in three ledger books had already vanished by the time of this printing.)

            The publisher Szwedzicki issued a series of six portfolios between 1929 and 1952 on Native American art, edited by such prominent scholars as Oscar Burr Jacobson, Kenneth Milton Chapman, and Hartley Alexander. To give maximum effect to the reproductions, the publisher made some of them slightly larger than the originals, printed some details from them, and chose to print them through the expensive combination of collotype and pochoir, thereby making each plate its own work of art that took weeks to complete at least, if all went perfectly the first time. The present volume was produced in an edition of 400 copies, a practical limit probably imposed by the life of the plates themselves. Of those 400 copies, an unknown number were destroyed during the bombing of Nice during World War II.

            The Battle of the Little Big Horn will ever be a compelling, controversial element in American mythology and culture, and it is to be regretted that so few images survive that document the perspective of Native Americans on that bright afternoon in June when the Seventh Cavalry- rightly or wrongly-rode into eternity. This work provides a valuable and brief glimpse of the other side. ($2,500-5,000)

Auction 21 Abstracts

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