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Oscar Howe's Truth to Power

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If Oscar Howe’s Wounded Knee Massacre (1960) is rarely seen these days, it’s because Dwight David Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum is seldom visited. The place is undergoing a major renovation right now, so having a look at Howe’s memorable work is likely impossible. But even if that masterpiece wasn’t presently under wraps, Abilene, Kansas, hasn’t seen much traffic since the Chisholm Trail Days, more than a century ago.

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Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. U.S. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota.

The painting itself is not one bit understated. Bluecoats kill Lakota warriors like fish in a barrel. Behind them, the bare grass landscape is littered with horror as soldiers kill Indians in cold blood. A soldier fires the Hotchkiss gun (the Sioux called them the gun that fires in the morning and kills the next day) at a band already decimated.

White folks screamed when Howe finished the work, still claiming what the government claimed for decades after the massacre—that it wasn’t a massacre but a battle, that those savages were to fault for hiding their hardware, that had those bucks behaved the way the Seventh Cavalry wanted them to, there’d have been no trouble, despite the fact that the military force arrayed all around them was the largest such gathering since the Civil War, fifteen years previous.

On the other hand, Oscar Howe’s stunning vision of things is no battle. That’s very clear. It’s simply a slaughter.

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