Amos Bad Heart Bull (1869-1913) was a tribal historian and artist Oglala Lakota Sioux known for his pictograms.
Without any formal instruction, Bad Heart Bull began to create annotated drawings. Although he received no instruction, he was taught to write using a system designed by the missionaries to transcribe Lakota. He also learned English from soldiers at Fort Robinson, where he enlisted as an explorer for the United States Army in 1890. From a clothing merchant in Crawford, Nebraska, he bought a used ledger in which he began his 415 drawings using black pen, indelible pencil, blue, yellow, green and brown crayons and red ink. In some cases he painted with a brush so fine that the strokes can only be seen
under magnification. In addition, some of the images are touched with a grey or brown wash in some places. He worked on this project for about two decades recording the civil, religious, social, economic and military life of the Oglala.
Her technical innovations have allowed multiple perspectives of an event. It portrayed masses of people engaged in dramatic actions taking a panoramic view. By portraying hundreds of men and horses in battle, or in religious ceremonies, or in processions for buffalo hunting from above, he captured tribal activities in long shots or topographical views. Then, he made close-ups of some aspect on the same page, framed and set aside, so that the psychological impact of the overwhelming event on a single participant could be studied by means of a close-up insert. He experimented with other types of renderings other than stylized profile renderings, using all-round representations, retrovisions, making the horses hurt from below, or showing the dancers in a three-quarter view. Another innovation was his use of foreshortening. These techniques added drama and realism to his images.
Every series of drawings tells a part of a heroic epic. The first group shows tribal events before 1856. The counselors (wakicunza) and their marshals (akicita) are shown as they deliberate in the camp council, a buffalo hunt, a sun dance and the eight warrior societies in their regalia. The following series 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 tells the
defeat of American General George A. Custer on the Little Big Horn River in Montana. The next group of images shows the reorganization of the Oglala company, which was forced to accept the existence of the reserve. It opens with ceremonies: the Sacred Arch, the Victory Dance, the Black Tailed Deer Dance, the Horse Dance and the Vision Quest. This is followed by eight courtship scenes and ten games. This section closes with the transition to agriculture. The last subsequent set depicts the Ghost Dance and the Battle of the Wounded Knee. And the last set shows the 4th of July which is celebrated in 1898 and 1903 in the Pine Ridge Reservation. By grouping his images into these narrative sequences, the artist has been conveying the history of his band for over 60 years. Because he has preserved the smallest details of everyday life, this is an unprecedented historical record.
Reserved for Posterity
In 1926, Helen Blish was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska looking for examples of the art of the plains. From W. O. Roberts of the Pine Ridge Agency, learned of Bad Heart Bull’s drawings, which had been given, after the artist’s death in 1913, to her sister, Dolly Pretty Cloud. Speaking through an interpreter, Blish spent his summer vacation from teaching at a high school in Detroit, studying the art of Pretty Cloud’s brother, kept in a trunk on the dirty floor of the studio apartment in the booking. Only after much persuasion was she allowed to rent it for a modest annual fee and analyze the renderings for her graduation thesis under the guidance of renowned art historian Hartley Burr Alexander.
Following the Lakota custom, the precious ledger was buried with Pretty Cloud at his death in 1947. Fortunately, however, Blish’s work had been donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City before his death in 1941. In 1959, the University of Nebraska Press decided to publish the pictorial history of Bad Heart Bull and sought permission to disintegrate the ledger, without success. However, it was discovered that Alexander had photographed the priceless document page by page in 1927; therefore, these illustrations were collected 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 the beginning and wrote the introduction in the last year of her life. She said: “Without a doubt, the story of Amos Bad Heart Bull’s painting is the most complete, the most beautiful statement as art and as an account of the North American Indian discovered so far everywhere.
More readings on Amos Bad Heart Bull
Briga, Helen H., A pictorial story by Oglala Sioux, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians,New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.
The Book of Indians, 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.