Amos Bad Heart Bull

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Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull (1869-1913) was an Oglala Lakota Sioux tribal historian and artist known for his pictographs.

Amos Bad Heart Bull was called "the Herodotus of his people" by Helen Blish, who rescued his 400 pictographs by having had them photographed before their interment. Through her intervention A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux was published to relate the transition of these proud Plains warriors into reservation Indians. The illustrations from this book have been featured in every television documentary about the Ghost Dance, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the deaths of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The artist's pictures of Crazy Horse, his cousin, are the only surviving likenesses of him since Crazy Horse never allowed himself to be photographed. Fortunately, Blish was able to interview two of the artist's uncles, He Dog (Sunka Bloka) and Short Bull (Tatanka Ptecela), on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, to learn a little about his life. Short Bull and He Dog told her that Amos Bad Heart Bull the Elder had been a band historian, a keeper of the winter count, and had created a hide chronicle on which the outstanding single event of each year was recorded. Since he died young, the task of bringing up his son fell to them, and to their brothers, Little Shield and Only Man. They told him stories of the battles they had fought in, and observed his interest in collecting treaties and documents about Indian-white encounters.

Self-Taught Artistry

Without any formal instruction, Bad Heart Bull began creating annotated drawings. Although he had been given no education, he taught himself to write using a system devised by the missionaries for the transcription of Lakota. He also learned English from the soldiers at Fort Robinson, where he had enlisted as a scout for the United States Army in 1890. From a clothing dealer in Crawford, Nebraska, he bought a used ledger in which he began his 415 drawings using black pen, indelible pencil, and blue, yellow, green, and brown crayons, and red ink. In some instances he painted with a brush so fine that the strokes can be seen only under magnification. In addition, some of the pictures are touched with a gray or brown wash in places. He worked at this project for about two decades recording the civic, religious, social, economic, and military life of the Oglala.

His technical innovations permitted multiple perspectives of an event. He portrayed masses of people engaged in dramatic actions by assuming a panoramic view. Depicting hundreds of men and horses in battle, or in religious ceremonies, or in processionals to a buffalo hunt from above, he captured tribal activities in long-shots or topographic views. Then, he would render close-ups of some aspect on the same page, framed and set-off to one side, so that one could study the psychological impact of the sweeping event upon an individual participant by means of a near-view insert. He experimented with other than stylized profile renditions, using full-face depictions, rear-views, rendering wounded horses from below, or showing dancers in three-quarter view. Another innovation was his use of foreshortening. These techniques added drama and realism to his pictures.

Each set of drawings tells part of a heroic epic. The first group shows tribal events before 1856. The councilmen (wakicunza) and their marshals (akicita) are shown deliberating in the camp council, a buffalo hunt, a sun dance, and the eight warrior societies in their regalia are shown. The next set of pictures tells the story of the conflicts with the Crow, their hereditary enemies on the Plains in sporadic skirmishes from 1856 to 1875. The third set narrates the defeat of U.S. General George A. Custer on the Little Big Horn River in Montana. The next group of pictures shows the reorganization of Oglala society as it was forced to accept reservation existence. It opens with the ceremonies: the Sacred Bow, the Victory Dance, the Dance of the Black Tailed Deer, the Horse Dance, and the Vision Quest. These are followed by eight depictions of courting scenes, and ten of games. This section closes with the transition to agriculture. The next to last set depicts the Ghost Dance and the Battle of Wounded Knee. And the final set shows the fourth of July being celebrated in 1898 and in 1903 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. By grouping his pictures in these narrative sequences, the artist has conveyed the history of his band over 60 years. Because he preserved the most minute details of daily life, this constitutes an unparalleled historical record.

Rescued for Posterity

In 1926, Helen Blish was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska searching for examples of Plains art. From W. O. Roberts of the Pine Ridge Agency, she learned about Bad Heart Bull's drawings, which had been given, after the artist's death in 1913, to his sister, Dolly Pretty Cloud. Speaking through an interpreter, Blish spent her summer vacations from teaching in a Detroit high school, studying the art of Pretty Cloud's brother, kept in a trunk on the dirt floor of the one-room cabin on the reservation. It was only after much persuasion that she was permitted to rent it for a modest annual fee and to analyze the renderings for her master's thesis under the noted art historian Hartley Burr Alexander.

Following Lakota custom, the prized ledger book was buried with Pretty Cloud upon her death in 1947. Fortunately, though, Blish's work had been given to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City before her death in 1941. In 1959, the University of Nebraska Press decided to publish Bad Heart Bull's pictorial history and attempted to get permission to disinter the ledger, to no avail. However, it was found that Alexander had photographed the priceless document page-by-page in 1927; therefore, these illustrations were collated with Blish's manuscript and published in book form. Mari Sandoz, the biographer of Bad Heart Bull's cousin, Crazy Horse, encouraged the project from its inception, and wrote its introduction in the last year of her life. She said, "Without doubt, the Amos Bad Heart Bull picture history is the most comprehensive, the finest statement as art and as report of the North American Indian so far discovered anywhere."

Further Reading

Blish, Helen H., A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

The Indians' Book, edited by Natalie Cirtis Burlin, New York, Harper, 1923.

Sandoz, Mari, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1942. □