You could imagine finding any number of things in an old storage barn at the Jackson Hole Winery: a wine press, maybe some old riding gear, certainly cobwebs.
What you probably wouldn’t expect to find is over 100 plywood figures of men and women who took part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. But they’re there.
The cutouts, which belong to Thom Ross, are some of the original 200 figures he made for “Custer’s Last Stand,” a large-scale installation that stood from June 22 to 26, 2005, along the Medicine Trail Coulee on Crow reservation landed owned by the Real Bird family near the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.
Ross said “Custer’s Last Stand” was the first-ever art installation on the battlefield, put in place on the 129th anniversary of the battle that occurred around June 25, 1876.
“It took a tremendous amount of confidence, arrogance and determination to pull off what he pulled off,” said Frank Londy, a long-time friend who, along with a few others, helped the artist install the figures in 2005.
“I thought when he set that up on Little Bighorn Battlefield, it was the greatest piece of art I ever saw in my life,” Londy added. “It was beyond belief. It just took your breath away.”
A long, winding road
That spectacle was composed of 60 cutouts of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the five companies — not just the Seventh Cavalry — that fought with him, as well as 140 figures of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and the other Lakota, Cheyenne and Crow people that fought in the battle.
Those 200 figures were larger than life. Though the average height of a man in the late 1800s was 5 foot 8 inches, Ross made the average height of the figures in his installation 6 foot 1 inch so they would pop out among the sagebrush on the hillside.
Together, the figures enjoyed a brief sojourn at the battlefield, including a morning where a group of Cheyenne and Lakota people came through on horseback and “counted coup” on them, knocking plywood gun barrels off some.
They were then shipped to Sun Valley, Idaho, before being brought to Jackson, where they were installed at the base of Snow King Mountain Resort in July 2005, and then brought back out for the 2005 Fall Arts Festival.
After that, Ross said, they were stored in South Park and more or less forgotten about until this year, when the owner of the storage unit told him they had to be moved.
Londy, who said he originally paid for the storage units for his friend, coordinated the move, upsetting a moving company that didn’t realize what a task moving the cutouts would be.
But Ross never intended “Custer’s Last Stand” to end up in a barn. For him, the figures are all about starting a conversation about — and experiencing — a small event that became one of the most romanticized events in American History.
“I’m an advocate for saying, ‘Look, let’s talk about something here,’” Ross said. “Let’s talk about myths and history.”
Ross, who grew up in Sausalito, California, was fascinated by the West ever since he was a kid. He’s read every book he could get his hands on about the Battle of the Alamo and Battle of the Little Bighorn, fascinated with the idea of “last stands.”
Whether talking about the Alamo, Rocky Balboa, 300 Spartans defending Greece against the invading Persian Empire or Jews fighting Romans in the Masada fortress in 73 A.D., Ross said last stands are present in the mythology of almost every culture.
Usually they’re intended as a way to give credit to cultural heroes who died heroically.
“You try to give victory to the losers,” the artist said, noting that, oftentimes, that inversion turns relatively minor characters in history into larger-than-life personas.
Custer’s loss and death at Little Bighorn came after he rose the ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War, eventually becoming a general. He was demoted to lieutenant colonel after the war, and sent to fight in the Indian Wars in the American West, which Ross noted “was not a glorious way to make your name.”
Before the Little Bighorn, Custer had only fought one major battle in the West, the Battle of Washita River in 1868. In the Battle of the Little Bighorn he made decisions that led to his own death, as well as about half the men who fought alongside him.
After the fact, Ross said the whole affair — a “relatively small event” — became larger than life, with inaccuracies about the battle present on both sides of the ideological spectrum.
“The whole thing became mythicized,” Ross said, “and once it becomes mythicized, the myth, which is so much more powerful than historical reality, becomes fact.”
Neither right nor wrong
After the battle Ross said the mythicized version of events portrayed Sitting Bull and the other Native Americans who fought Custer as “savages,” while painting Custer and his men as “Christian gentlemen,” the sort of imagery popularized by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association’s now-infamous poster, “Custer’s Last Fight.”
But after Vietnam, Ross said that perception switched. Custer was portrayed as a “genocidal maniac” and the Native people involved in the battle acquired a “Dances with Wolves” persona in American folklore.
Ross, who considers himself a historian of the Little Bighorn, said he didn’t think that either the pre- or post-Vietnam interpretations of Custer’s Last Stand were true.
“You can’t just flip the cards,” he said. “The truth is somewhere in between. The truth has a lot more to deal with who we are as a species.”
Ross said his installation wasn’t made with any notion of “right” or “wrong” in mind.
Instead, its figures were — and still are — intended to give people a chance to experience the battle for themselves, with bits of history dusted throughout. Custer’s hair, for example, is cut short on his figure to show that, in the Little Bighorn, he didn’t wear the long, curly locks mythically attributed to his character.
The figures are also intended as a “celebration of the last stand,” and a reminder that, no matter your feelings on Custer, discarding him is discarding a bit of myth and a lot of history.
If his “Custer’s Last Stand” installation inspires criticism or argument because of Custer’s contentious role in history, Ross welcomes it. That, after all, was his point.
“If it generates argument or debate, at least I’m getting a chance to give a spiel,” Ross said. “You don’t judge the past, you try to understand it.”
And, when you “reject” the past, the artist said, you’re more likely to “go out and do it again.”
Where the fighters go
Now gathering dust in the Jackson Hole Winery’s barn, the piece itself was a financial disaster.
Ross estimated that he lost at least $80,000 or $100,000 on the installation. Building the 200 cutouts, and shipping and storing them was not inexpensive.
But for Ross it was never about the money. It was about the conversation and providing people, whether in Montana, Idaho or Jackson, with some experience of the Little Bighorn.
When, in 2005, the Cheyenne and Lakota riders rode through his installation, knocking gun barrels off his figures, Ross was thrilled.
“The reaction I wanted was exactly what I got,” he said. “Not being mad at me, but reacting to the installation. You don’t get that with a painting of Custer’s Last Stand. You get that with an installation that can’t be ignored.”
Even now, whether sitting in the barn, or hanging on the wall at Londy’s house, the pieces are hard to ignore: a reminder of history, both good and bad. But, first, you have to find them.
Ross said he’d be happy to burn the pieces if nobody wanted to buy them, but people like Londy, who thinks they belong in a museum near Little Bighorn or the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West, perhaps, have kept him from doing so, hoping they find a noble end.
“It should be permanently set up somewhere,” Londy said. “Somebody should save them.”
He evoked a forgotten poet to describe the pieces, then and now.
“Many a desert flower blooms unseen,” Londy said, “and this was one of those things. This was unseen. Had someone taken the right picture at the right time, it [would] be set up somewhere.
“It’s truly spectacular: a spectacular show, a spectacular installation.” ￼