Horse effigy

The horse memorial or effigy carved by a warrior on what is now the Standing Rock Reservation. That effigy or dance stick has just returned to South Dakota after an international exhibit.

He was born 10 years before the Homestead Act of 1862 opened up his homeland to settlers, and in 1928 that old Hunkpapa warrior, He Nupa Wanica — No Two Horns — gave an oral account of his life.

A cousin of Sitting Bull, No Two Horns told how he was born at the mouth of the Grand River in what is now South Dakota; that he first saw a white man at age 11; first went to war against the Assiniboine at age 14; first hunted the buffalo at age 17, in winter, when his hands froze to the bow. He first saw a rifle at age 19. A bear was the first animal he ever killed with a rifle of his own; before that he had shot them with a bow and arrow from horseback. He told that during his warrior years, he fought in nearly 40 battles against the Assiniboine, Chippewa, Crow and finally against the U.S. Army, including the biggest battle of them all in Plains history – Little Bighorn. He used a rifle at the Little Bighorn that he had taken from the Crows in battle two years before, in 1874.

“I have had two ponies killed by Crow Indians in battle, and one horse was killed by the white man,” No Two Horns said.

Historians believe the horse killed by the whites was one shot out from under him at Little Bighorn because of drawings No Two Horns made to commemorate that fight.

One of No Two Horns’ drawings shows a gray or blue roan pony that he lost in battle. The drawing by No Two Horns was made about 1915 and collected by Aaron McGaffey Beede of Fort Yates, Standing Rock Agency.  No Two Horns would have been about 63 years of age.

No Two Horns died in 1942 at about age 90.

Exploits as an artist

What No Two Horns leaves out of his 1928 account, though, and what the interviewer doesn’t ask – the interview was done by Henry Murphy, who was a nephew of  No Two Horns – is about his exploits as an artist. He made both drawings and carvings that are now invaluable as windows into the Plains Indian culture. But what exactly did he make?

For South Dakota it’s a tantalizing question once again this week because the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society is welcoming back one of the most revered pieces of Plains Indian art – a horse memorial or effigy that celebrates the valor of a horse wounded and probably dying in battle. Some leading scholars and artists believe it is the work of No Two Horns.

It is a rendering of that sculpture that is now used as the logo of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

That horse effigy has been gone for two years as part of an exhibit called “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.”

And this weekend that sculpture returns to South Dakota, where for the next two years, visitors to the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center will have the chance to compare it to two other horse effigies known to have been made by No Two Horns. One is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. The other is on loan from the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Events all this weekend will celebrate the return of the horse effigy, probably the most famous item in the South Dakota collection.


Whoever made it, there’s no question of the quality of the work.

“I think ‘masterpiece’ is a word that gets thrown around too much these days, but I believe that this horse is truly a masterpiece of Plains Indian sculpture. There is nothing else quite like it. It’s a magnificent carving,” says Gaylord Torrence, the curator of the “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” exhibit. Torrence, one of the leading scholars of Plains Indian art, is with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

“It’s a famous sculptural work and it was made so when it appeared in ‘Sacred Circles’ in 1976 and 1977, first in Great Britain, in London, and then in Kansas City when the exhibition came here. The horse was chosen as one of the two images for posters. It became known throughout the world, really, and highly revered as a piece of Plains sculpture,” Torrence told the Capital Journal in a telephone interview.

“It’s large in scale for most Plains sculptural works. It’s beautifully carved. I believe there are 10 horse memorials that are attributed to No Two Horns, the artist, but this is the only one that is, I would say, fully realized as a three-dimensional form. And the expression of the horse, the expression conveyed by the horse, is really quite amazing. It’s animated, it’s deeply expressive. It’s filled with pathos. It’s a lunging, falling, dying animal in the last moments of life after being struck with multiple bullets. The form almost flies through space. If you look at the sculpture from end to end you’ll see that the head twists to the right and the legs, the rear legs, to the left. It’s a beautiful representation. It’s also elongated in shape, very similar to the two-dimensional representations seen in ledger drawings, but here it’s transformed into three-dimensional form. The color is beautiful.”

Torrence said he spent a lot of time in the three venues of the exhibition and noted that in each location, the horse effigy from South Dakota was a kind of centerpiece.

“It drew people. People marveled at the work in Paris and then later in Kansas City and New York,” Torrence said. “It’s one of those works that is extremely compelling. There’s an emotional resonance that that piece conveys that makes it quite remarkable.”

Part of what people feel is that it is a depiction of a beloved animal that has been a companion in war for a Plains Indian warrior and artist.

“There are numbers of narratives that were recorded from 19th century warriors telling about the times they were saved by their horses who pulled them out of danger, who took them into dangerous places and got them out again. An extraordinary bond must have existed between them and their prize horses that they rode into battle.”

The carver?

“I believe that the horse in the South Dakota museum was carved by No Two Horns,” Torrence said. “There is at least one scholar who questions the horse because of some of the details in the carving of the hooves and the underside of the jaw. But in my view that kind of variation is very much in keeping with an artist who repeats a form. These things were not manufactured on a machine. There are variances in all of the memorials that I know were carved by No Two Horns. I think the overriding quality is the depiction of the head, which is so unique and so present in all of No Two Horns’ carvings. In my view this horse was definitely carved by No Two Horns.”

Torrence believes it was carved fairly early, perhaps about 1880. That would have put No Two Horns at about age 28 at the time.

“It’s my own personal opinion that this is one of the first carvings created by No Two Horns,” he said. “There is a second carving that is full-bodied as well, but it is straighter and more stylized and simply does not have the character of this carving. Simply as a carving, this work in South Dakota is more complicated than the others. Most of the other memorials are in the form of a club, with the head of the horse at one end and the body represented by the single shaft and then a handle that terminates in the hoof of the horse. So it’s highly abstracted and stylized. But the heads are extremely similar stylistically to the South Dakota horse. I think the complexity of this carving, the ambition of the carving, suggests to me that it was made earlier rather than later in No Two Horns’ life.”

Torrence also believes the carving is about what No Two Horns experienced at Little Bighorn.

“He was there. That is where this horse was killed. There are a number of paintings on muslin and drawings on paper that were done by No Two Horns that show him in the Battle of Little Bighorn and show this horse being killed. And he was wounded at the same time,” Torrence said.

Artists’ view

University of South Dakota Professor Emeritus Martin Wanserski, who taught sculpture at USD from 1975 through 2008, said what’s remarkable about the South Dakota horse effigy is the way it celebrates in spare detail the essence of what a horse is.

“In my mind the most exciting aspect of The Horse Effigy Dance Stick is the life and energy it emits without being an accurate photo representation of a horse,” Wanserski told the Capital Journal in an email. “It has no decorative add-ons yet lacks nothing, is detracted by nothing.”

Arthur Amiotte  — a contemporary Oglala Lakota artist whose work “Wounded Knee #III” is also featured in the “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” exhibit – said the horse effigy is one of the best pieces ever carved on the Plains.

“I, too, along with many others, consider it one of the great masterpieces of Lakota sculpture. It’s dynamic in its form and in its content, also – the content, that is, being a horse in the throes of being wounded. Now we don’t know if the horse died or if the horse lived.”

The point of the carving is to commemorate what happened and the horse’s valor, Amiotte said.

“There was a gathering afterward at which time the warriors would get up and speak about their role in the battle and what they underwent, and to some degree, how their horses assisted them in surviving these great battles. They were referred to as ‘kill talks,’” Amiotte said. “They talked about the event afterward and valorized their age mates – their fellow warriors – and themselves in terms of what they had done during the battle, and also the role that the horse played in the success of the event.”

But the way this horse’s carver does that is different, Amiotte said.

“It’s the personification, almost a monumentalizing of the horse, like many equestrian pieces – the whole way the horse is configured speaks to us of the actions of the horse and the owner during the encounter. And this particular piece captures the movement.

“It’s abstracted, of course, but just the way it’s kind of leaping into space, almost as if it’s making one last very great effort to propel itself forward to bring its owner into either direct contact or possibly to escape from an event. It speaks to us of the dynamics of the movement. If you have studied ledger art or hide painting, there are equivalent drawings of horses in such action, two-dimensional renderings of horses in this dynamic pose of action.”

Amiotte – an art professor as well as artist – also believes it is the work of No Two Horns.

“If you examine all the pieces together, they all have similar traits or the same traits as the South Dakota horse. I think it’s undoubtedly done by a gentleman by the name of No Two Horns,” Amiotte said.

“As to whether this was a horse that he rode or used during the Battle of Little Bighorn, that is conjectural – it could be from the Battle of Little Bighorn, or it could be from another encounter with, say, the Crows or the U.S. military. I don’t know if we can say succinctly that it was from the Battle of Little Bighorn without documentation and a narrative by the maker.”


But differences in form have led to differences of opinion about whether the South Dakota horse memorial is truly the work of No Two Horns.

“I don’t think it is,” said Mark J. Halvorson, a previous curator of collections for the South Dakota State Historical Society and currently the curator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Halvorson said the jaw line is different from the horse memorials that are definitely known to be the work of No Two Horns – some in the North Dakota collection and one that is in the Smithsonian collection.  In addition there is a major stylistic difference in that the South Dakota horse is a fully finished sculpture of a horse; most other effigies known to be carved by No Two Horns end in a handle in the shape of a single hoof.

Some people think No Two Horns may have been involved but that he wasn’t the carver, Smith noted. There is even the possibility that No Two Horns learned from an older master carver how to make such carvings.

“He may have learned to do it from the person who carved the horse effigy in Pierre,” Halvorson said.

The late George Horse Capture, an anthropologist and museum curator who was an enrolled member of the Gros Ventre tribe, also thought the South Dakota horse was carved by someone else, not by No Two Horns.

The historians’ view

Jay Smith, museum director for the South Dakota State Historical Society, said the society’s historians don’t disagree with art critics who see the South Dakota horse effigy as bearing the marks of No Two Horns’ workmanship – they just note that there is no definitive historical evidence to say so.

There are, however, circumstances suggesting it. The collector, missionary Mary Collins, collected the piece on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where No Two Horns lived; she was a friend of Sitting Bull; and No Two Horns was a cousin to Sitting Bull, making it quite likely that she would have come in contact with him.

“It’s very strong circumstantial evidence. The thing is, as the Historical Society, we’re still hoping to find that one piece of historical evidence that confirms it beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Smith said. “When Mary Collins made the donation to us, there was no written or oral evidence saying, ‘No Two Horns made this.’”

Smith adds that he has sometimes wondered if the very quality of the sculpture itself suggests it must be about a major event such as Little Bighorn.

“I’m not sure that level of work would have gone into a piece about a minor skirmish,” Smith says. “You have to think, that’s a seminal moment in Native American history.”

But, Smith added, the remarkable thing about the sculpture is that the observer doesn’t need to know if the piece is about Little Bighorn in order for the piece to do what great art does.

 “A 2-year-old can grasp the significance of it,” Smith said. “And that is amazing to me.”

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