Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of Hutchison - "ARTIFACTS OF THE BATTLE OF LITTLE BIG HORN: Custer, the 7th Cavalry & the Lakota and Cheyenne Warriors"

[Artifacts of the Battle of Little Big Horn: Custer, the 7th Cavalry & the Lakota and Cheyenne Warriors by Will Hutchison (Schiffer, 2016). 9"x12" hardcover, 355 color images. 224 pp. ISBN:9780764351471. $49.95]

Artifacts of the Battle of Little Big Horn is an engrossing photographic study of personal items owned and used by battle participants from both sides. Some objects were present during the actual battle, and others are associated either with the earlier military lives of slain men or the later service of survivors. These artifacts and the stories behind their possession and use before, during, and after the famous 1876 campaign valuably inform our understanding of the material cultures of post-Civil War U.S. frontier cavalrymen, as well as their Lakota and Cheyenne opponents.

Accompanying the photographic images in the book are a trio of brief narratives from author Will Hutchison. The first is a general overview of the Little Big Horn campaign and battle. The other two introduce the book's remaining pair of chapters, which are separately devoted to the 7th Cavalry and Lakota-Cheyenne artifacts. Among other themes, the chapter introductions briefly discuss contrasting U.S. and Northern Plains Indian military cultures and the uniforms/clothing, weapons, and accoutrements typically used by the troopers and braves.

What becomes immediately apparent to the reader is the book's rather significant imbalance in artifact distribution. While it probably goes without saying that cavalry-related objects would have a higher likelihood of surviving the passage of time, other factors were involved in creating the wide disparity. According to Hutchison, while collectors of historical trooper and Indian items both could be quite guarded about access, tribal owners were especially reticent when it came to divulging information and were much less willing to grant permission to photograph artifacts from their heritage. Also, objects disputed under the nebulous umbrella of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, of which there are many, apparently cannot be photographed for publication until claims upon them are fully resolved. It should also be mentioned that 60% of the images in the book were photographed by Hutchison (who concentrated his own efforts on the major collections) in person, and the rest were obtained from other sources.

The artifact photographs, 355 by official count, are marvelously crisp, high-resolution color images. These are reproduced in the book on heavy, high-gloss paper in an oversize 9"x12" format, exposing all the fine details of each object. For the cavalry, we see photos of coats, uniforms, headgear, buttons, shirts, guns, ammunition, swords, knives, military accoutrements, flags, medals, and personal items of all kinds. For the Lakota and Cheyenne, we also find images of bows and arrows, headdresses, moccasins, tomahawks, war clubs, battle art, beaded clothing and objects, vests, shields, lances, and coup sticks. When applicable, a photograph (if one exists) and capsule biography of the item owner is included at the top left corner of the page.

The photo captions are informative. Varying in length between a few sentences and several long paragraphs, they generally describe the artifact's physical properties, history, provenance (including points of dispute), and current location. They also frequently contain interesting personal anecdotes related to the item.

A significant number of Little Big Horn books of assorted merit are published each year, but Hutchison's impressive photographic compendium of artifacts directly related to the men that fought in the battle possesses one-of-a-kind qualities that should greatly appeal to scholars and enthusiasts alike. Readers with a more general interest in the material culture of the Northern Plains Indian Wars should also find Artifacts of the Battle of Little Big Horn to be a more than worthwhile addition to their own collections.

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