The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Met

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The 16th century mask gorget pictured here, made by a South Dakota Native American of the Hopewell culture, measures only 5½” tall. Its barely incised nose, with piercings for the eyes, are all that reveal it as manmade — a work of art. One wonders at the mind that could see a human face in this inert marine shell. Such a simple object doesn’t readily suggest the artistic subtlety that most contemporary viewers anticipate when they look at Plains Indian art.

Promotional copy for The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition of nearly 150 objects made by Native American artists, describes the work of the United States’ indigenous people like this:

The distinct Plains aesthetic — singular, ephemeral and materially rich — is revealed through an array of forms and media: painting and drawing; sculptural works in stone, wood, antler and shell; porcupine-quill and glass-bead embroidery; feather work; painted robes depicting figures and geometric shapes; richly ornamented clothing; composite works; and ceremonial objects.

For us lovers of American Indian art who aren't in scholarly or critical camps, this curatorial jargon, coming from our country’s premiere art institution, may be amusing; it is language usually used to discuss Eurocentric art. As explanatory text for an exhibition whose items are more often relegated to Western “cowboy art" museums, or to specialized ethnographic collections like Philadelphia’s Penn Museum, Tulsa’s Philbrook, or even the Quai Branly museum in Paris (where this show originated), it is even a bit shocking. Judith Ostrowitz, the research associate at the Met who organized the exhibit, has acknowledged this:

“This is the first time that we’re doing an in-depth, ambitious exhibition of a particular region of Native American art that spans 2,000 years. I think it’s an extraordinary moment in our field.”


It is an extraordinary moment. On any day, a visitor to the Met can wander the galleries and see hundreds of vitrines that display three-dimensional utilitarian objects from around the world that are universally regarded as “art.” But when they are made by “indigenous” or “primitive” people, the same types of objects tend to be excluded from the category of “fine art,” and instead relegated to ethnographic study and display venues. At the Met, for example, the smattering of Native American art that is on permanent display is tucked into a corner off the Michael Rockefeller Wing — easy to miss unless you’re headed to the nearby restrooms. It is all the more exciting, then, that the Met has partnered with the Quai Branly in Paris and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on this landmark exhibition, which runs through May 10.


French fur trappers, traders, missionaries along with adventurous European travelers and artists like Karl Bodmer, collected and brought back to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France many of the most important early pieces on display in the Met exhibition, objects pre-dating Euro-American influences. They were made well before forced settlement on reservations transformed most Plains art into tourist collectibles. Lewis and Clark, in their 1804-1806 expedition up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, acquired “pre-influence” pieces now in the Smithsonian (and featured prominently in the exhibition), as are important paintings of Plains Indians by the Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin.

However, much of the oldest Plains Indian art comes to the United States today on loan from abroad. The Nelson-Atkins Museum, partly because of its strategic location smack dab in the heart of Plains Indian culture, has made significant contributions to Artists of Earth and Sky, which also features items from more than 80 institutions and collectors in France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the U.S. and Canada. European museums and enlightened collectors have long recognized the deep spirituality embedded in the works of these Plains people, and avidly sought their early works even as the U.S. Army was decimating the Indian population in Congress-mandated range wars. We are fortunate that despite these depravations, institutions like the Nelson-Atkins, the Denver Art Museum and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West have amassed stunning collections, shaped in part by enlightened Americans like George Heye and Paul Dyke. After the Quai Branly opened Artists of Earth and Sky on April 7, 2014, more than 200,000 visitors attended. It will be revealing to see the Met’s final head count.

Art historian and curator Gaylord Torrence edited the Met’s beautiful, 320-page catalog, which features single-page illustrations of every object. The catalog, like the exhibition, reveals the art in chronological rather than tribal order — apt for nomadic people who ranged far and wide as they followed the buffalo herds. Their art was portable and utilitarian with scant opportunity to accommodate large, purely ceremonial art. The earliest piece in the exhibition is a fully rendered human effigy, a carefully chosen, variegated work made of pipestone, colored lighter in front, darker in back, from about the time of Christ.

The most recent object is a pair of beaded shoes made in 2008 by Jaime Okuma, a Luiseno and Shoshone-Bannock artist who is a multiple Best of Show winner at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.

4. JamieOkumaShoes 2011
5. jamie-okuma1
Jamie Okuma

The name “Plains Indians” evokes for many an image from Western movies: a monolithic, equestrian, violent culture fighting against inevitable defeat at the hands of soldiers and settlers convinced of America’s Manifest Destiny. The reality, of course, was a multifaceted, complex society of diverse peoples who were loosely united only in their fight to survive the relentless chicaneries of invaders. Given the ferocity of the war between the two cultures, it’s a wonder not only that the Plains tribes survived (though they were horribly decimated and eventually warehoused in reservations), but also that their social and religious rites endured, and that their vulnerable arts and crafts today enjoy a remarkable efflorescence.

The mounted warrior astride “the pony of the Plains” stands as the single strongest image of this nomadic people, whose range expanded multi-fold after they acquired horses from Spanish soldiers in the American Southwest in the 16th century. The symbolic as well as practical importance of the horse to Plains culture is demonstrated in the exhibition’s elaborately beaded horse accoutrements, objects that afforded protection and helped to intimidate enemies. Three examples illustrate the key significance of horse masks, and are described this way by Torrence:

“It was to sort of ornament the horse, [and] it was to protect the horse,” exhibit curator and art historian Gaylord Torrence told Indian Country Today Media Network. “But this horse mask is transformative. It has transformed a horse into the power of a buffalo — that kind of speed, that kind of endurance, that kind of energy. There’s a whole other layer of meaning associated with this — for the maker, for the owner and for the community.”

Here is a Crow horse mask from the pre-reservation period; it features threatening horns.

Horse Mask

And here is one created several decades later, reflecting the newly dominant American culture. The flag could be a decorative motif, but its use also suggests co-opting the power of the enemy. Use of the flag motif became common around the time of the U.S. centennial, and especially after the end of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement.

The continuity of the tradition is exemplified by this horse mask from 2008:


A warrior’s artifact that is even more important than the horse mask is the feathered headdress. There are three examples in the exhibition that illustrate the evolution in style and usage over almost two centuries. A powerful, almost chthonic example is from the Branly and was collected around 1750, half a century before Lewis and Clark’s journey; its headband is made of dyed porcupine quills, which was used exclusively before the era of trade beads. Quillwork is so strongly a part of the culture that it is still in use today.

Created more than a century later is another headdress, also from the Branly, that speaks volumes about the apogee of Plains Indian culture, its cascade of eagle feathers and red cloth a proud clarion of tribal power:

The third headdress, made in 1925, is of floor length and is richly adorned with light breath feathers that suggest a purely ceremonial purpose.

Even more extreme contrasts are visible in three examples of men’s shirts. From the Upper Missouri, circa 1810, comes a well-worn hide shirt with quill shoulders and line-drawn figures of a warrior’s achievements; it’s a piece that suggests little outside contact.

Man's Shirt

Half a century later came a richly beaded and dyed Oglala shirt with elaborate fringing and locks of hair:

Man's Shirt

Then, an early 20th century perforated shirt, very unusual, simple in its Blackfeet design but conceived with great balance and symmetry:

Man's Shirt

And finally, a 1998 Northern Cheyenne riff on the man’s “warshirt,” made by Bently Spang, an artist born in southern Montana on the Crow reservation in 1960. Described as a work of “mixed media,” the shirt incorporates personal photographs rather than traditional quill or beaded decoration. It’s fair to call it an “art piece,” though it imbues all the traditional elements of a powerful family history:

War Shirt #1 (from Modern War series)

The most elaborately crafted contemporary evocation of traditional wear is a woman’s dress from 2005, made by Hunkpapa Lakota artist Jodi Archambault-Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux who is also the first Native American to serve as deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. As an artist of Plains culture, she continues to work in the rich, eclectic mix of materials that long distinguished the art of her ancestors, who were able to use every natural native material, as well as anything traded from trappers, boatmen and, even later, from Chinese railway laborers. (Many objects, such as bone breastplates and ear ornaments, incorporate Chinese coins and even U.S. military medals and medallions.) The materials in Archambault-Gillette’s dress include:

Native tanned and commercial leather, glass and metal beads, cotton cloth, silk, dentalium shell, metal cones, horsehair, plastic, hair pipes, brass bells, porcupine quills, brass tacks, brass and metal studs and silver cones.

Woman?s Dress and Accessories

The Plains Indian “parfleche” is a folded rawhide bag used to store pemmican and dried food. The term comes from the French, alluding to the toughness of the dried hide’s ability to deflect arrows. The traditional parfleche decoration employed painted designs, often abstracted maps. Here is a Lakota grouping of traditional bags (not featured in the exhibition):

And here is a matched pair of beaded and quilled parfleches, also Lakota, from about 1900, with dyed horsehair and metal cone tassels. Its sophistication is indicative of the artistic singularity of every piece in this exhibition:

ARI_27-5012_Chinese-Scepter_Front 010

Raw and tanned buffalo hide was also used to make war shields. Their practical purpose on the battlefield precluded elaborate ornamentation, but their designs evoked powerful forces, as in this Crow shield from 1800:

19.shield w:buffalo bull

An Arikara shield from 50 years later has a more realistic design …


… while a Crow shield from the same time remains abstract, as much Crow art tended to be:

By 1890, the Plains tribes had been nearly subjugated by the U.S. Army. A desperate movement of salvation, a last-ditch attempt to maintain freedom, emerged in the Dakotas and quickly swept through the Plains. It was called “Ghost Dance.” Here is a Cheyenne shield from 1890 in colors that evoke the animism of earlier Plains spirituality. It is made of wood, covered in muslin and painted, with feathers of turkey, hawk, owl and eagle hanging from a single point in the center. Its ability to protect the owner (despite the flimsy materials) was believed to be total.

22. shield w supernatural being

The final hope for salvation resided in dance and song, and this Ghost Dance drum, made in 1890 by George Beaver and shaped like a war shield, is an Oklahoma Pawnee painting of the spirit of release:

23. ghost dance drum

Each piece in Artists of Earth and Sky, including the paintings and installations in the final galleries, tells the story of Native American people whose image in the conqueror’s narrative of the “Winning of the West” has been bold, but resides mostly as myth in movies and dimestore novels, and whose powerful art has seldom received the attention from art critics that it merits. Even in the precincts of “Indian Art,” Plains art and artists have been discussed as somehow second cousins to the highly collectible and shamanistic art of the Northwest tribes of Oregon and Washington, or to the intricate and highly decorative pottery of the Pueblo people of New Mexico, the katsinas of the Hopi of the Arizona mesas, or the intricate designs of Navajo weavings. Thanks to this monumental exhibition, the diversity of the “Artists of Earth and Sky” can be seen in its full glory in America’s premiere art museum; it is art every bit the equal of art by other indigenous Americans.

Here is an 8-minute video slideshow of the installation at the Quai Branly. (The banal guitar music ends at 3:30.)

After seeing Artists of Earth and Sky, it will no longer be possible for lovers of classic movie Westerns that depict the Plains people as marauding savages (politically incorrect today, but such cliches persist) to think the same way. Significant art works of this dynamic culture have survived and can be seen today. These earth-wrought works  can inspire contemporary Plains Indian artists who employ new techniques and modes of expression to continue its  proud traditions.

This stunning exhibition also offers the rest of us a window into the sense of deep connectedness to nature and to the spirituality of nomadic cultures that were so attuned to the land they we now are so quickly destroying.

Horse Effigy
Horse Effigy by Joseph No Two Horns (He Nupa Wanica) ca. 1880


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