May 4, 2015

At the Met: The Plains Indians: Beauty, Glory, and Tragedy

George Beaver (Pawnee), Ghost Dance Drum, 1891-92; wood rawhide pigment, 23 in. diameter

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an incredibly powerful and moving exhibit, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky (until May 10). The show contains many masterful works, but it is the narrative arc––from pre-contact to the height of plains culture to contemporary––that makes for such an emotional viewing experience. It is especially emotional for me: I lived for a year, 1975-76, in the small town of Wagner, South Dakota, where I was an artist-in-schools for K-12. Wagner is on the Yankton Indian Reservation, an "open" reservation, so I had many Native American children in my classes and met several plains indian artists, including Arthur Amiotte, who did the last work I show in this post. It was a time of great activism in the American Indian Movement; I was in South Dakota not long after the 1973 Wounded Knee protests and they were on everyone's mind, especially since it was the bicentennial of the founding of the United States.

I am beginning this post with two beautiful late nineteenth century works, both associated with the Ghost Dance spiritual movement. The drum has a dramatic image of Thunderer, ruler of the Sky World, and swallows as elegant flying shapes below it.

Ghost Dance Dress, Southern Arapaho artists, Oklahoma, ca.1890; native-tanned leather, pigment, metal cones. 

This dress was made by a participant in the Ghost Dance. It exhibits, as do so many of the works in this show, a strong and clear design sense, with a vivid use of pattern. This spiritual movement, so full of hope for a return to a world before Whites invaded their lands, was a desperate effort by Plains Indians that was doomed to fail. It began with one man in 1889, the Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, who preached that dancing the Ghost Dance would banish evil and reunite the living and the dead in peace and prosperity. He urged non-violence and getting along with the Whites, but when the practice reached the Lakota Sioux, they changed its meaning; the Ghost Dance I knew about was one in which its performance would eliminate Whites from their lands, and would return the world to what it had been before contact. The US Army's fear of the Ghost Dance and the Lakota resistance led to the killing of Sitting Bull, and then the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. This tragic story, too familiar for all native peoples, underlies my responses to this show, heightening the aesthetic value of the works.  

The Hero Redhorn or Morningstar, Mississippian artist, Spiro Mound, Le Flore County, Oklahoma; 1100-1200; bauxite, 8 7/8 in. 

This small sculpture is simple and strong. It depicts a mythical warrior whose story has been told for centuries. His forward-bending pose and shadowed gaze gives him the air of a seer. Some of the plains indians, such as the Lakota Sioux, were originally from the Mississippi region. 

Shell Mask Gorget, late Mississippian artist, South Dakota, 1500-1700; marine shell, 5 5/8 x 4 1/2 in.

This piece, found in South Dakota, the land of the Lakota, may be a link between the early Mississippian culture and the plains nations. It has a startling simplicity, and for me relates to the human face. It was an adornment worn at the throat and may have had religious meaning. 

Horned Headdress, Eastern Plains, ca. 1780; split bison horns, sinew, deer hair, horsehair, porcupine quills, glass beads, wood, metal cones, cotton cloth, rawhide, birch back, silk ribbon, pigment; 
16 1/2 x 12 x 10 in. 

The complexity of materials in this glorious headdress becomes unified by the clear repetition of triangles over horizontal bands of porcupine quills. Native American peoples had a great sensitivity to the use of pattern in their work. I wrote about this three years ago––"Pattern in Native American Art"––after seeing an exhibit at the Hood Museum of Art. The glass beads used for the blue and white triangular elements, and the metal, are a clear indication of trading with Whites.

Buffalo Effigy, possibly Crow, Wind River Basin, Freemont County, Wyoming; 1600-1800; limestone, L. 8 3/8 in. 

 This small sculpture give an impression of massive strength and power. Possibly used in hunting rituals, it demonstrates the importance of bison to the native peoples. They were used for food and their hides for clothing and shelter, their hair for rope, and their hoofs for rattles; nothing was wasted. They were hunted on foot before horses were introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century; once horses became part of the plains culture, hunting buffalo became easier. They were an essential animal. John Williams terrific novel, Butcher's Crossing, describes, in clear and graceful prose, the wasteful slaughter of these once-numerous creatures.

Robe with Mythic Bird, Eastern Plains artist, probably Illinois Confederacy, ca.1700-1740; native-tanned leather, pigment, 42 3/8 x 47 7/8 in.

There were several painted robes on view, including this early piece, probably collected at a trading post near what is now Saint Louis. The repeated rhythm of the sharp points is enhanced by cross-hatching on the unpainted surfaces; inscribed circles add a counterpoint to the linear elements. 

Robe with Box-and-Border Design, Northern Arapaho, ca. 1865; native-tanned leather, pigment; 69 x 96 in. 

The design of this robe was traditional for Plains women, and was painted by women. The central yellow area contains a patterned box with three descending arrow shapes; it is surrounded by linear patterns that follow the shape of the hide, emphasizing its origins. It is interesting to me that the hides were not evened out, cut into a regular rectangle, but left in the shape in which they came off the animal, acknowledging, even honoring, their origins.

Parfleche Envelope, Cheyenne, ca. 1850; buffalo rawhide, pigment, native-tanned leather, 25 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. 

Plains Indians used parfleche envelopes as containers, sometimes draped over a packhorse in pairs. All the ones I've seen over the years are painted with marvelous geometric patterns. The painting on this envelope is somewhat fanciful, with the black protuberances coming from green and red forms, and with the curving, outflowing green shapes.

Woman's Side Fold Dress, 1800-1825; Lakota or Cheyenne; native-tanned leather, porcupine and bird quills, brass buttons, cowrie shells, glass beads, metal cones, horsehair, plant fiber, woven cotton tape, wool cloth; 49 1/4 x 29 1/2 in.

This was one of the most dramatic garments in the show. The large plain fold, topped with a double line of brass buttons, shining on a dark ground, makes a beautiful contrast with the horizontal lines of colored quills.

Woman's Side Fold Dress detail

The pattern has single bands of quills and thicker bands, all punctuated by red dots (not sure of their material).

Wedding Robe, ca. 1895, detail, native-tanned leather, glass beads, wool felt.

A similar pattern can be seen on this detail of a wedding robe, even with the red dots, this time of felt. The big difference is the use of glass beads here, an item gotten in trade with Whites, as opposed to the traditional quills above.

Woman's Dress, Lakota artist, probably South Dakota, ca. 1865; native tanned leather, glass beads, tin cones; 61 1/2 x 53 3/4 in. 

The flow of lines across the sleeves and bodice of this dress is arresting; as the eye moves across the surface there's almost a feeling of musical tones, with the curves contrasted by small geometric shapes above and below.

Black Prairie Chicken, Yanktonai, Fort Peck, Montana, Hand Drum, ca. 1880-85; wood, native-tanned leather, pigment.

This drum was one of my favorite objects in the show: made by a healer, whose Indian name was Sheo Sappa, it was used in ceremonies. The simple drama of black shapes on a light ground, of the central figure––probably Thunderer, ruler of the Sky World––with its red body and eyes and horn headdress, gives this painting a quality of the elemental and magical.

Feast Bowl, Dakota or Yankton artist, Minnesota or South Dakota, ca. 1850; wood (maple), 
brass tacks. 

For all of you who love to eat, here is Eya, the Eating Monster. Actually, though, he is a malevolent being, wanting to devour all around him. I love this small head with its shiny brass eyes at the end of a large wood bowl. It's amusing that such a monster would be part of traditional feast sculpture.

Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Lakota), Wounded Knee #111, 2001; ink and paper on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

In his complex collage, Arthur Amiotte commemorates the world of the Ghost Dance and the massacre of 1890 at Wounded Knee, showing the people, their land and spirituality. Although Plains Indian culture is not now what it was at the height of its power in the nineteenth century, it is still vibrant, even with all the difficulties of contemporary life. Thanks to the Met for presenting the art of these great peoples.


  1. How beautiful these are - and how interesting is your explanation. I so wish I lived close enough to visit!

    1. The work is very beautiful, and much more that I didn't share. I'm glad you liked the post, Charlton.

  2. Really enjoyed these images which are fantastic on their own, and thanks also for the mediating text, with its combination of formal design concerns, history, and emotion.

    1. Thank you, Stuart, for your great response to this post.