Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady are renowned for their photographic record of the Civil War. Gardner’s images from the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg poignantly brought the horrors of war home to the American people in unprecedented fashion. Gardner also extensively photographed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty Council and, in 1872, became the official photographer for the Office of Indian Affairs.
From an artistic standpoint, many of their finest works are delegation portraits of the Plains tribes, particularly those of Lakota luminaries, produced between 1868 and 1877. These images are nothing less than masterpieces by masters of portraiture; their subjects were clothed in the flamboyant finery that has historically captured the interest of the general public.
The earliest of these photographs was taken by Gardner at Fort Laramie, most probably after the conclusion of formal negotiations on May 28-29, 1868. The Brule leader, Spotted Tail, and Man Afraid of His Horse (Oglala) were the best-known delegates represented in this portrait. Spotted Tail (far left) wore a classic Lakota ornament, one draped over his left shoulder and around his waist. Discs of brass, silver or German silver were attached, often in graduated size, to a strip of cloth or leather. Such ornaments frequently reached the ground, even when the wearer was mounted on horseback.
Documentary and pictorial evidence confirm an extensive history of their use. An exhaustive review of published references, conducted by Norman Feder, indicates that this decorative device was utilized by the Lakota from 1808 to 1858. In his analysis of material culture illustrated in Gardner’s 1868 photographs, Allen Chronister states that these images reflect “the height of popularity of hairplates among young Sioux men.” Indeed, eight Gardner photographs document their use by Oglala and Brule men.
At least two members of this delegation wore Crow regalia. Viewed under extreme magnification, the filament-like construction of double-bundle, quill-wrapped horsehair, a rare embroidery technique commonly associated with the Mountain Crow, is faintly visible on the shoulder strip of the shirt worn by Whistling Elk (third from right), a Miniconjou leader. The shape of, and striped-style beadwork on, the neck flap of Lone Horn’s ermine-fringed shirt (seated, center) suggest that it also was of Crow origin. Furthermore, the shirt and leggings worn by Slow Bull (far right) are both adorned with early block-style Crow beaded strips.
Studio photographs of Spotted Tail’s wife and Running Antelope, a Hunkpapa headman, were taken by Gardner in Washington, D.C., during 1872. Running Antelope was splendidly dressed in a magnificent quilled shirt, peace medal, dentalia-shell ear pendants, otter-fur hair wraps, and three eagle feathers, one of which bears specific war-exploit markings. Garrick Mallery, author of Picture-Writing of the American Indians, learned that various divisions of the Sioux employed a red spot on the broad side of a feather to indicate wounds suffered in battle or that its wearer had killed an enemy. One of Mallery’s sources informed him that, for each enemy slain, a Sioux warrior carried “another eagle feather painted with an additional red spot about the size of a silver quarter.”
As an historical figure, Running Antelope was perhaps best known as one of the four Hunkpapas selected as Shirt Wearers in 1851. Among the Lakota, this honorary position conferred great respect, in recognition of military prowess and demonstrated leadership. However, it also came with the expectation of “nearly impossibly high standards of conduct,” according to Raymond DeMallie, an ethnohistorian and Lakota specialist.
The portrait of Spotted Tail’s wife illustrates a dress type that soon became the centerpiece of Lakota female formal attire. As its characteristic features crystallized during the late pre-reservation and early reservation periods, the upper portion of such dresses was covered with lane-stitch beadwork, embroidered against a monochromatic background, typically light to medium blue, with a multi-colored border. A U-shaped motif covered the area where the tail was previously attached to bighorn or elk hides used for these garments.
Lakota women paid a significant price in terms of personal comfort for wearing the apex expression of style. Barbara Hail, curator emerita at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, noted that a heavily beaded Lakota dress in their collections weighs 13 pounds, which “must have made it cumbersome to wear.” This comment is consistent with observations by Carrie Lyford, author of Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux, who previously stated that Lakota dresses with solidly beaded yokes “might weigh from 12 to 16 pounds.”
In late September 1877, tribal leaders, including Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, traveled to Washington. Their visit, barely three weeks after Crazy Horse was killed at Fort Robinson, was overshadowed by political intrigue and a cloud of controversy.
Nevertheless, photographs of this delegation established a high-water mark for the artistic quality of Plains Indian portraiture and provide a treasure trove of information pertaining to Lakota material culture. Most of these photographs are attributed to Mathew Brady; the image selected for analysis here depicts a veritable who’s who of Oglalas that were prominent during this turbulent and transitional period in their history. American Horse (standing, third from the left) and Young Man Afraid of His Horse (back row, second from the right) were two members of the last cohort of Oglala Shirt Wearers. They were so honored during a ceremony held at Old Man Afraid of His Horse’s village in the summer of 1868, shortly after conclusion of the Fort Laramie Treaty Council. Fellow honorees, Crazy Horse and Sword, died before this delegation’s departure. He Dog (standing, far left) was the lifelong brother-friend of Crazy Horse, and George Sword (standing, extreme right) was the younger brother of the Shirt Wearer Sword.
Little Big Man (standing, third from right) was a firebrand who accompanied Crazy Horse on many war parties during the 1860s and 1870s but became a political rival following their surrender at Fort Robinson in May 1877. Indeed, he informed Captain John G. Bourke at the Sun Dance in 1881 that he had “unintentionally killed Crazy Horse with the latter’s own weapon, which was shaped at the end like a bayonet (stiletto) and made the very same kind of a wound.” Two years earlier, Bourke acquired a painted and hair-fringed shirt from Little Big Man, which allegedly belonged to Crazy Horse and may have been the shirt bestowed upon him in 1868. This garment is housed in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Several objects in this photograph were worn or displayed by multiple delegates, so it is impossible to definitively establish personal ownership. For example, American Horse’s heavily beaded and hair-fringed shirt appears in at least eight different photographs of the 1877 and 1880 Lakota delegations, where it was also worn by Red Cloud, Little Wound, and William Garnett, a mixed-blood interpreter. Similarly, American Horse’s pipe bag, with its four-cross beaded composition, appears in association with Touch the Clouds, Little Wound, and Billy Garnett in various individual and group portraits. Finally, an eagle-feather bonnet, with full-length trailer, was worn by Red Cloud, He Dog (in this image), and Touch the Clouds, respectively, in at least three Brady photographs.
On the other hand, He Dog wields a wicked and classic Lakota weapon, one that would have given him a fighting chance in hand-to-hand combat with a grizzly. Possibly a post-Civil War development, knife clubs were apparently used only by the Sioux. Most examples with known collection histories are specifically attributed to the Lakota. Typically armed with three blades, knife clubs were usually more than three feet in length and commonly decorated with brass tacks. As this photograph indicates, two-row hairpipe breastplates and large German-silver crosses had, by the mid-1870s, become fashionable accessories among Lakota men.
The shirt worn by American Horse is often identified as the “Red Cloud shirt;” its exquisite craftsmanship is more clearly illustrated in a half-length, individual portrait of American Horse, which is credited to Daniel S. Mitchell, a frontier photographer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Unquestionably one of the finest examples of 19th-century Plains Indian art in existence, few pieces from this era have been studied more thoroughly than this shirt, thanks to the dissertation research of Colin Taylor, who eloquently describes it, as well as the shirt attributed to Crazy Horse, as “classic silent memorials to the Lakota people who produced them.” Indeed, the Brady photographs of the 1877 Lakota delegation provide spectacular glimpses of a people at their artistic zenith, just before the tide of assimilationist forces swept over them.