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A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn

A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn

The Pictographic "Autobiography of Half Moon"

Castle McLaughlin

ISBN 9780981885865

Publication date: 12/23/2013

Houghton Library and Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press collaborated on the publication of this fourth volume in the Houghton Library Studies series, an innovative cultural analysis of the extraordinary composite document known as “The Pictographic Autobiography of Half Moon, an Unkpapa Sioux Chief.” At its core is a nineteenth-century ledger book of drawings by Lakota Sioux warriors found in 1876 in a funerary tipi on the Little Bighorn battlefield after Custer’s defeat. Journalist Phocion Howard later added an illustrated introduction and had it bound into the beautiful manuscript that is reproduced in complete color facsimile here.

Howard attributed all seventy-seven Native drawings to a “chief” named Half Moon, but anthropologist Castle McLaughlin demonstrates that these dramatic scenes, mostly of war exploits, were drawn by at least six different warrior-artists. Their vivid first-person depictions make up a rare Native American record of historic events that likely occurred between 1866 and 1868 during Red Cloud’s War along the Bozeman Trail.

McLaughlin probes the complex life history of this unique artifact of cross-cultural engagement, uncovering its origins, ownership, and cultural and historic significance, and compares it with other early ledger books. Examining how allied Lakota and Cheyenne warriors valued these graphic records of warfare as both objects and images, she introduces the concept of “war books”—documents that were captured and altered by Native warrior-artists to appropriate the strategic power of Euroamerican literacy.

Praise

  • The Little Bighorn wins a place in McLaughlin’s title by accident, because the drawings were found near the battlefield in a funerary lodge a few days after the fight. The details of the discovery are interesting enough, but it is the drawings themselves—what they represent and who made them—that give us a rich and startling view of life on the Northern Plains in the last years before the Indians who thought they owned them were confined to reservations… What’s interesting about McLaughlin’s book, in the way that only an exhaustive inquiry can be truly interesting, is the quantity of fundamental information she manages to wring from these drawings—when they were made, who made them, and what they depicted. McLaughlin makes no broad claims for what she is up to, but A Lakota War Book ought to be in the collection of any serious student of the Northern Plains or the Little Bighorn.

    —Thomas Powers, New York Review of Books

Author

  • Castle McLaughlin is Associate Curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 7 x 10 inches
  • Peabody Museum Press

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