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Bullhead Remembers the Doughboy

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the spirit of the american doughboy

Though they often go unnoticed, "Doughboys" are a staple in America's small town squares. Not the Pillsbury creation or Ice Cube's character in "Boyz n the Hood," but the ubiquitous, if barely noticed, monuments to the 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 it referred to 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 then 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 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 here 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," says Tiger. "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 WWI veterans listed on the base of the memorial are Tiger's grandfathers.

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"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."

Viquesney, who designed his Doughboy to be affordable for small towns, was perhaps as much a salesman as an artist.

"He came up with his own so-called foolproof method of financing," says Kopel. "He'd provide all these materials for prizes, there'd be little miniature doughboys. He was a canny marketeer."

Though Bullhead was smaller, perhaps poorer, then most of the towns in the market for a Doughboy, Montana says people pooled their dough to bring home their Doughboy.

"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 caretaker to the Doughboy. 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, though the food has something to do with that.

"We do turnip soup," says Montana, "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, cause they start calling right away, start calling the district office here and asking about the pow wow."

This Veteran's Day marks one hundred years since the armistice that ended the "war to end all wars." War is still with us. Maybe it always will be. After World War I, people wondered why? What was it all for, like they do today. Now as then, people still remember their Doughboys. Or at least they do in Bullhead.