• Notes From The Frontier

In Honor of a Magnificent Warhorse

In the history of human warfare, horses have paid nearly as great a price as men on the battlefield. Horses, for example, played a crucial role in Plains Indian warfare. In the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one mysterious horse has become an icon: the mighty blue roan warhorse of Hunkpapa Lakota No Two Horns, the cousin of Sitting Bull. His courageous stallion was shot and badly wounded SEVEN times but carried his wounded rider to safety off the battlefield before dying. His beloved stallion’s death haunted him for the rest of his life. No Two Horns was 24 at the time.





















How do we know about this extraordinary blue roan stallion? No Two Horns began to record his battlefield experiences on “ledgers” and other artwork after he was relegated to the Standing Rock Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. (Ledgers are a Native American artform that flourished from the 1860s to the 1920s, mostly on reservations. Indians recounted their memories on rawhide, stone, wood, cloth, and paper. Ledgers became a valued legacy among Native Americans and historical scholars to reveal details of historical events. WATCH FOR A FUTURE POST ABOUT INDIAN LEDGERS!) 


Joseph No Two Horns—his Lakota name was He Nupa Wanica—was a Hunkpapa warrior and cousin of Sitting Bull. He later became a prolific artist. Today, his ledgers, horse effigies, walking sticks, drums, tipi covers, and wood sculptures are exhibited by the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the South Dakota and North Dakota State Historical Societies, Denver Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and others. His chief subject was his mighty blue roan stallion. 


The coloring of war horses in Lakota warrior culture was crucial and could mean the difference between life and death, victory and defeat. Wild colored horses were highly valued as embodying powerful medicine and protection in battle. Blue roans—horses with an extraordinary mix of black, grey and white hairs that had a strange blue hue—were especially valued. These were the colors of war (black), blue grey (storms), and white (light) and provided a powerful shield for horse and rider. (Blue roans were a favored color for Lakota warhorses. Sitting Bull’s favorite horse was a blue roan, too.) No Two Horns’ blue roan had striking white coloring too: a white blaze over most of his face and four white socks up to his hocks. He was swift, smart and, most of all, intrepid in battle. His heart was strong. We know this by No Two Horns’ powerful depictions of his horse. 


One of his ledgers shows his horse, shot seven times under him but still running across the Greasy Grass of the Little Bighorn battlefield, his head and tail held high even in the throes of death. No Two Horns grasps his mount desperately around his neck, holding a short rifle and his shield. His warhorse is bleeding from its nostrils, a sign he is bleeding internally. 


Another ledger shows horse and rider prostrate on the ground, the horse covered in blood, bleeding profusely from his nostrils and many wounds. No Two Horns lies beside him, bleeding from a leg wound, holding his short rifle, wearing a knife and belt of ammunition, his shield on the ground at his side. (Later, his.58-caliber Model 1861 U.S. percussion rifled musket would end up as part of the collection at the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck, as would many of his ledgers and pictographs. His original shields fashioned after the one he used at the Battle of Little Bighorn are at the North Dakota museum as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.) 


Another piece that has generated tremendous excitement among Native Americans, the art world, and historical scholars is a horse effigy carving depicting a warhorse stretched to full effort, bearing marks of the same wounds as No Two Horns’ warhorse. Scholars believe the carving to be by No Two Horns. The three-foot-long wooden sculpture shows a full horse stretched in a full run, riddled with bullets, red paint streaming from the wounds, and remnants of once-blue pigment remaining in crevices and holes of the carving. It has a real horsehair mane and tail, as well as carefully fashioned leather reins and a bridle. Red horsehair dangling from the horse’s mouth indicates blood. The carving was part of world-famous exhibition called “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sculpture attracted throngs and fascinated audiences. 


Torrence Gaylord, the curator of the exhibit, says of the piece: “Every aspect of that carving is focused on the death and heroism of this animal...The carver’s feeling for the animal survives in the piece...Love is not too strong a word. These men and their horses were companions in battle. They went to war together. They knew each other intimately. There are narratives of Plains warriors who talk about a horse who pulled them out of danger when they were wounded, the horse took them to safety. If you were going into battle in those days on horseback, you had to rely on the stamina, the bravery, the intelligence, the intuitive powers of the horse you were riding.” What war horses did in charging into battle is unnatural for horses, Torrence noted. They did it out of loyalty. 


Mark Halvorson, curator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, said the North Dakota collection has three “dance staffs” or dance sticks carved by No Two Horns in its collection, including a piece called Ta Sunka Kan Opi Wokiksuye, “Sacred-Memorial-of-His-Horse-Killed.” The carver’s devotion to his horse is striking, he says. “The only thing I can compare it to is modern-day Iraqi war vets. Ask them about the dogs they used on the front sniffing out bombs. These guys would go to great lengths to make sure that dog would get back OK and they would take care of it until the day that it dies,” Halvorson said.


New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote of the evocative sculpture: “Streaked with blood and stretched out as if strained beyond endurance, it has the pathos of a crucified Christ. In a history of great sculpture, past and present, from the North American continent, it has a place in the highest pantheon.” High praise for an artist and Hunkpapa Lakota warrior who wanted only to memorialize his gallant warhorse. And we are richer knowing there was such a horse.


There is possibly living evidence, too, of No Two Horn’s horse today on the high plains of the American West. Some scholars believe that the blue roan mustangs that roam in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota are descended from Sitting Bull’s and No Two Horn’s band of horses. Both warriors escaped to Canada but later surrendered at Fort Buford in North Dakota. As part of that surrender, they had to give up 350 of their war horses. Sitting Bull’s favorite warhorse was also a blue roan. Many of the horses that roam there today have such coloring, including an alpha stallion with the same coloring of No Two Horns’ horse: a striking blue roan with a broad white blaze and four white stockings! But that is a story for another day...



PHOTOS: The artwork of Lakota warrior, No Two Horns, who fought at the Little Bighorn Battle, honors his brave warhorse who died there. (1) No Two Horns’ fascinating ledger depicts his blue roan warhorse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. Collection of the North Dakota Historical Society. Bismarck (2) A photograph of No Two Horns, circa July 1924 taken in Bismarck, North Dakota. From Col. A.B. Welch papers. (3) A blue roan mustang with a coat of mixed, black, white and gray hairs that casts a blue hue. Such coloring was horses regarded as powerful medicine for Lakota war horses. (4) An original shield made by No Two Horns, representative of the shield he carried in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (5) A remarkable 3-foot-long horse effigy carving believed to be by No Two Horns of his blue roan warhorse. The carving was part of world-famous exhibition called “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Permanent collection at North Dakota Historical Society, Bismarck. (6) Another famous ledger of No Two Horns showing his dead war horse and himself wounded after the battle of the Little Bighorn. North Dakota Historical Society, Bismarck. (7 & 8 ) Wood-carved effigies by No Two Horns of his blue roan war horse. North Dakota Historical Society, Bismarck.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted November 2, 2019

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  • Notes From the Frontier