Tribal Arts instructor co-curates Harvard exhibit

Bismarck, North Dakota (ICC) 5-09

 Butch Thunderhawk

Butch Thunderhawk is a Boston Red Sox fan. That makes his professional connection with Beantown all the more interesting when he goes there on business. And he had an important appointment there in early April.

Thunderhawk is the co-curator of an exhibit that opened April 3 at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. The title is “Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West.”

The exhibit centers on newly discovered ledger book drawings by several Lakota warriors in the years leading up to the Custer Fight at Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn). Hold that thought; more on the ledger in a moment. 

Working on an exhibit involving Lakota drawings is like a fastball in the middle of the plate for Thunderhawk, 61, (Dakota) a member of the Standing Rock Tribe. His family roots are in the tribe’s Cannonball District. In his 36 years with United Tribes Technical College he has specialized in the interpretation and creation of plains tribal objects and art.             

As the college’s Tribal Arts instructor he is a beloved figure on campus, an accomplished and well-known artist, and one of the most respected members of the faculty.

Blue ledger horses

Those qualities led to a successful association with the Peabody over the past decade, taking him to the Boston and Cambridge, MA, area as a visiting scholar. It began with the Nakota Horse Conservancy project and led to the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial and the Peabody-Monticello Native Arts Project. For this project he was awarded a Hrdy Fellowship to co-curate the ledger exhibit with collaborator and friend Dr. Castle McLaughlin, Associate Curator of North American Ethnology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

“Butch is wonderful to work with and his installation is going to be spectacular,” said McLaughlin. “Wiyohpiyata will be the first-ever major Peabody exhibit to be designed and co-curated by a contemporary artist and the first co-curated by a Native American.”

Half Moon Ledger

That singular, professional honor for Thunderhawk was made possible by the existence of a ledger book containing 77 color drawings by at least five different warrior-artists. Almost all are battle scenes, some of hunting but very little of family life. The artists used colored pencil, ink, crayon and, perhaps even some blood on the pages, according to Thunderhawk.

“They’re showing their accounts of past battles,” he said while thumbing through colored photocopies of the drawings. “It’s a record of their encounters, a visual witness of their exploits.”

On the pages warriors are seen in battle regalia on horseback confronting their foes, riding through a cloud of bullets, or spiriting away horses that have U.S. brands, saddles and horseshoes. Symbols, or glyphs, on the pages are clues to the identity of the artist-warriors.

“These are more than art,” said Thunderhawk. “They’re a pictorial history showing honor in battle, the achievements of warriors, and personal

 Carved horsehead

accounts of deeds that actually took place.”

The book is known as the “Half Moon Ledger,” for one Hunkpapa warrior depicted in many of the scenes. It was originally collected in 1876 when the U.S. Army cleaned up the battleground after the Custer fight. The real-life events shown in the drawings likely took place over a period of about eight years leading up to the famous battle.

The scenes are encounters with U.S. military and civilian trespassers who were punished for illegal incursions into Indian Country. The ledger was lifted from the effects of Half Moon, who had died earlier; his body was lying in state in a tipi in the Lakota encampment along the Little Big Horn River. Research into the rare volume’s journey found that it was taken to Chicago, and later New York and Boston, where, after years of obscurity, it was rediscovered in 2004 in Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Exhibit Preparation

The exhibit that opened on the weekend of April 3-4 in Boston (actually Cambridge, MA) had been four years in the making. Thunderhawk made extended visits there over the past two summers to prepare it. This included research with McLaughlin about the history and meaning of the ledger, and with the exhibits staff to develop a graphic design. In 2008 his visit included mentoring 15 student interns, a trip to museums and the sites in New York City, and, of course, some fan action at Sox games.

When it came to interpreting the content of the drawings, Thunderhawk and the Peabody staff involved experts at the lower Lakota tribes in South Dakota and at Thunderhawk’s own tribe, Standing Rock.

“The exhibit is part of a larger collaborative project between the Peabody Museum and Houghton Library, which owns the ledger, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” said McLaughlin.

 Orange horse thunder

Tim Mentz and Brian Olson of the Standing Rock Historic Preservation Office did preliminary interpretation on the ledger. On several visits to the Dakotas, McLaughlin and other Peabody staffers recorded video interviews, including sessions with Standing Rock historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and Councilman Frank White Bull.

Thunderhawk pointed out that other ledgers were studied to compare styles and interpret similar events. At Standing Rock these were the Red Horse Ledger, No Two Horns Ledger, and White Bull Ledger.

The presence of U.S. military uniforms in the drawings led to research about warrior societies and the practice of adopting the use of claimed military uniforms and military equipment including saddles and blankets.

Still another line of the research focused on identifying the warrior-artists. Apparently there is no record in Standing Rock agency rolls of someone called Half Moon. It could be a misprint or a misinterpretation, said Thunderhawk. Other names from Standing Rock that are suggested by the research are: Big Turtle, Black Moon, Hawk Man, Thunder Hawk, His Fight, Long Soldier and Jaw.

Wiyohpiyata Exhibit

Wiyohpiyata is the Lakota word for the direction “west.” During the time when the ledger drawings were made, Lakota warriors would have sought power from the forces of that cardinal direction to protect their land and people from the encroachment of outsiders.

“It illustrates a time when our people had to fight. Not because they were hostile or savages. It was out of necessity,” said Thunderhawk. “During their spiritual preparation they called upon the forces, animals, plants and objects of the universe to help them – to be safe and be able to come home. We will be trying to get that across. To express the spiritual nature of these events.”

Creating the atmosphere for that will be the scene of a Great Plains thunderstorm on the ceiling of the exhibit. Thunderhawk collaborated on the design with the director of the United Tribes Technical College Art/Art Marketing Program, Wayne Pruse, who completed the overhead view in airbrush.


The foundation for the entire exhibit is Thunderhawk’s graphic design, which features his original artwork, capturing the spirit and style of the ledger drawings.

The central artifact, of course, is the Half Moon Ledger itself. It is prominently positioned in a display case just inside the entrance of the 1,600-square-foot gallery.

Objects from the Standing Rock and Oglala tribes that are in the Peabody collections were used. Thunderhawk has also made several items specifically for the display, including an effigy, or carving, of a horse stick that matches a blue roan horse image in the ledger.

Themes in the interpretation are: Lakota powers; Contested West; Societies; Enemies; Deeds; Sitting Bull; Contemporary Ledger Art; and Horses. The inclusion of video interviews and scenes of the landscape, audio of tribal society songs, and interactive components, all help to present the drawings from the Lakota perspective in the 1860s and 1870s.

Thunderhawk also participated in an artistic and scholarly symposium on Plains pictographic arts over the weekend of the exhibit opening.

The Wiyohpiyata exhibit is scheduled to be on display through August 31, 2011. For more information visit the website of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA:

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