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Bullhead Remembers the Doughboy

Dec 5, 2018

South Dakota's only Spirit of the American Doughboy sculpture, in honor of America's World War I infantrymen, is found in Bullhead on the Standing Rock Reservation.


Though they often go unnoticed, "doughboys" are a staple in America's small town squares. Not the Pillsbury creation but the ubiquitous, if barely noticed, monuments to American soldiers who fought in the so-called, "war to end all wars." 
The term "doughboy" originated as in-group military slang, working its way out into popular culture. It's a strangely jolly sounding word for the people to which it referred, given where they'd been, but it stuck.
After the war, as millions of veterans returned to their communities, there was a drive to memorialize the doughboys. Doughboy statues popped up in hundreds of towns. Artists competed to capitalize on the trend. Many were made of cast bronze. Then an artist named Ernest Viquesney, of Spencer, Indiana, developed a mass-produceable number he titled The Spirit of the American Doughboy that became the most widely proliferated.
"The original model was made out of pressed copper, so it was cheaper than ordinary bronze," says Les Kopel, who has compiled decades worth of Viquesney doughboy research on his Doughboy Searcher website. "A lot of towns that couldn't afford a monument could afford one from Viquesney."   
Viquesney's doughboy is no Michelangelo's David. For a work that's supposed to portray a soldier stepping into the hellfire of No Man's Land, his visage is more like that of a man about to walk the dog. His pose is rigid, a grenade held aloft in an unnaturally stiff right arm.
"If you view the statue from the side and you view the Statue of Liberty from the side, the pose is exactly the same," says Kopel. "I'm not sure he got his idea from that, but that's my idea anyway."
For all the doughboy's lack of realism though, like his name, he radiates a sense of calm in the face of adversity. The art establishment panned Viquesney, but people didn't seem to care. There are still 140 of Viquesney's Doughboys around the country, not including copies. 

The only one in South Dakota is in the tiny town of Bullhead, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Wilma Tiger was born and raised in Bullhead and says the town's annual Doughboy pow wow has long held an important place on the local cultural calendar. "It started with a pow wow by one lady that had it every year, Agnes Long Elk," Tiger says. "She kept it going and of course I had grandmothers that were also on that. Now, it stopped for a while but then it was picked back up. And it's been happening ever since." 

Among the names of Word War I veterans listed on the base of the memorial are Tiger's grandfathers. 

"A lot of the veterans in this community started way back in World War I," says local American Legion post commander Joe Montana. "A lot them volunteered to go. It kind of went down the line from then, from families. Like my father was in Korea, and I kind of wanted to serve too because he served."

Why such a strong tradition of service in Bullhead?  

"I think it's because a lot of them consider themselves warriors and braves," says Montana. "They want to defend the country and they know they're defending their people. Their people also live in this country. This country was established way back, way back before anybody came here. There was Native Americans, millions and millions of Native Americans that used to live here and everything else. So, just to defend the country and keep that mentality of being a warrior or brave that carried down from generation to generation."

Though Bullhead was smaller, perhaps poorer, than most of the towns in the market for a doughboy, Montana says people pooled their money to get one. "They were like five hundred dollars short for the doughboy," he says, "so a [rancher] out of McIntosh donated the last five hundred."

As the Legion post commander, Montana is the doughboy’s caretaker. He recently painted the memorial to match the colors of uniforms in old photos.

Though the real doughboys of Bullhead are all long gone, the annual pow wow is still a draw. "We do turnip soup," Montana says, "papa soup, tripe soup buffalo, beef, fry bread. A lot of the people living in Standing Rock too, they kind of know when the Doughboy is going to happen, because they start calling right away, start calling the district office here and asking about the pow wow."
Veteran's Day of 2018 marked 100 years since the armistice that ended the "war to end all wars." But war is still with us. Maybe it always will be. After World War I, people wondered what it all was for. Now as then, people still remember their doughboys. Or at least they do in Bullhead.

Michael Zimny is the social media engagement specialist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion. He blogs for SDPB and contributes arts columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.


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