David Paul Bradley’s Greasy Grass Premonition #2 (1995) poignantly acknowledges the underlying recurring struggle for American Indians to attain liberty and justice, leading us to hope that activists—and artists—will persevere in highlighting these issues. Flipping the conventional narrative of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn on its head, the painting emphasizes the victory of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho over the US Army, in what is known to the Lakota and other Plains Indians as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
The painting juxtaposes the pop art iconography of General George Custer against the thought bubble imagery in the style of ledger art. Through these artistic means, Bradley emphasizes the oft-repeated clash of cultures between the US government and many American Indian nations. As such, this painting forces us to question how these conflicts arise, why they recur, and how they are understood by the public. It raises questions like: if Custer lost the Battle of the Greasy Grass, why do we mythologize him as its hero? How do we teach historical events? Whose accounts are told, and who is memorialized?
We can see some historical parallels in the current Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Like the Battle of the Greasy Grass, Standing Rock protesters won their battle in 2016 after President Obama blocked the pipeline, but now face defeat after its revitalization.
However, despite the widespread support for #NoDAPL, one wonders: will modern-day American Indian battles be recognized in works like Bradley’s? Or will other narratives dominate, like in Edgar S. Paxson’s Custer’s Last Stand (1899)? Casting Custer’s shadow within the ledger art, Greasy Grass Premonition #2 symbolizes how Custer’s narrative has overshadowed the American Indians’ narrative.
Above: David Paul Bradley, Greasy Grass Premonition #2, 1995. Mixed media on canvas. Gift of James and Margie Krebs. 2009.2799
Jacqueline Gertner is an intern in the Department of Contemporary Art