Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on October 6, 2014 with permission of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



The Plains Indians-Artists of Earth and Sky

by Gaylord Torrence


From earliest contact, Plains Indians captured the wonder and imagination of the Western world, and they remain embedded in its consciousness. Plains peoples hold a significant place in European history, and the culture is fundamental to the heritage of North America. Indeed, for many people throughout the world, historical Plains Indians, both real and stereotypical, form the iconic image of all North American Indians.

Artists from the Plains cultures have long produced works of beauty, mystery, and emotional power. The Plains Indians-Artists of Earth and Sky features some of their finest creations gathered from 58 institutional and private collections in both Europe and North America. The 137 works span more than four centuries, and together, they reveal a continuum of artistic tradition and innovation that extends to the present day.

The exhibited works reflect the monumental changes in the lives of Plains people over their long history. They illuminate and provide a visual context for traditional Plains culture: worldview and guiding philosophical principles, subsistence and economic patterns and religious beliefs. Manifested, as well, are profound and dynamic connections to earth and sky -- the natural and spirit worlds. Through these works, one sees the total integration of art and daily life, the relationship of tradition and innovation, the respective roles of men and women in artistic production and a sense of the association of the visual arts with dance, song, narrative and ritual in the creation of multi-sensory aesthetic experience. Transcending cultural boundaries, they communicate directly as expressions of the human spirit.

The Great Plains of North America is a land of earth and sky-a vast area extending from the Mississippi River basin to the Rocky Mountains in the west, and from the Rio Grande in southern Texas to the upper Saskatchewan River in Central Alberta. This land has supported Native American peoples for thousands of years. Small bands of pedestrian nomadic hunter- followed by semi-sedentary and sedentary tribes that settled in permanent villages in the major river valleys; after European colonization and the introduction of the horse by the Spanish in the 1600s, the legendary Plains Indian horse culture followed. And it is here on the Great Plains of North America that numerous Plains Indian communities are found on reservations and in rural and urban settings today.

For Plains Indian of the historical period, as well as all North American Native peoples, art was inseparable from the natural world. Plains artists recognized materials from the natural environment and its inhabitants for their inherent beauty and expressive potential, and these materials, as well as the techniques developed for their use, provided the basis for a distinctive artistic vocabulary of form and design. The aesthetic systems of the Plains peoples also encompassed histories, mythologies and religious belief, all conceptually embedded in the land and its abundance of life forms and natural phenomena. The natural world was central to Plains Indian artistic expression, not only as material substance but also as content. With the introduction of Euro-American materials, forms and techniques, Plains aesthetic vocabularies changed and evolved. Still, through oral narratives and continuing traditions, as well as newly adopted media and technology, Plains artists committed to working within the continuum have maintained the connection between art and the natural world to the present day.

Featured in the exhibition are a number of the earliest post-contact Plains Indian masterworks collected by European travelers and taken back to the Continent and to England-many never before returned to North America. The exhibition is grounded in a group of extraordinary objects dating from the eighteenth century and now in the collection of Musée du quai Branly: magnificent painted robes, headdresses, quill-embroidered clothing, bags and other items from the Woodlands, Mississippi River region and Eastern Plains. Joining these works are other rare, early objects, acquired by collectors including Duke Paul, Prince Maximilian and Lorenz A. Schoch following the French colonial period and now also residing in European institutions.

In contrast to the European holdings of early Plains works, most historical Plains Indian objects in North American collections date from 1860 to 1910 and were acquired largely at the close of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth. Although works produced during the first half of the nineteenth century exist in North American collections -- famous objects associated with Lewis and Clark are among the earliest of these -- most date from this later period. Native American tribes were thought to be on the verge of extinction or total assimilation and a monumental effort was made to save their material culture. At that time a profusion of objects -- including numbers regarded today as masterworks -- were collected and are now preserved in the vast ethnographic collections formed by the great natural history museums, the result of field collecting and anthropological studies. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, founded in 1990 and built upon the unparalleled collection formed by George Gustav Heye, contribute greatly to this multitude of holdings. Academic institutions and art museums have been the repositories of other important collections. Great masterpieces are also found in smaller historical and city museums throughout the country, and remarkable works remain today in private hands. The North American loans to the exhibition come from all these collections, and most are traveling to Europe for the first time.

The first sections of the exhibition contain works reflecting Woodlands cultural and artistic antecedents; these works include pre-contact objects and the many eighteenth century pieces from Musée du quai Branly that may have originated in the Western Great Lakes, Mississippi River valley or Eastern Plains regions. The following section is the largest, with objects dating roughly from 1800 to 1910 -- essentially the great body of works representing the flowering of Plains art and culture. Here one sees the full array of historical forms and media: painting and drawing; sculptural works in stone, wood, antler and shell; porcupine quill and glass bead embroidery; and feather work. Various composite objects -- the elaborate assemblages of materials and techniques distinguishing many types of Plains art -- are visible as a part of the distinct Plains aesthetic. Figurative and geometrical painted robes, richly ornamented and symbolically charged clothing and sculptural and ceremonial objects are prominent among the featured works.

From the foundation of early works -- reflecting Woodlands influence, the trajectory of Plains culture, and the evolution of a broad regional style of artistic expression-later works feature the emergence of distinct tribal styles and the increasing effects of Euro-American trade and cultural interaction. These also chronicle the end of nomadic life. Additional forces throughout the tumultuous period of the late nineteenth century shaped Plains culture and artistic production, and these are embodied in new forms -- objects expressing the doctrines of the Ghost Dance and other revivalist movements, adoption of 4th of July celebrations and emergence and spread of the Native American Church. Artistic expression from this period also reflects the efforts of missionaries, forced educational policies, effects of Wild West shows and perceptions of popular American culture. Also visible is the emergence of the Plains-based pan-Indian Powwow.

The creations of twentieth-century Plains artists reflect both the persistence and renewal of artistic traditions. They reveal lasting forms along with evolving concepts -- the ways Plains peoples have adapted and maintained connection with their history, as well as individual artists' reflections on a range of issues including Native individual and tribal identity; gender; family, community, urban and reservation life; and politics, society and the human condition. Beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing through the 1960s, works were produced that resonated with both ongoing Plains traditions and pan-Indianism; these more traditional expressions coexisted with the emergence of easel painting by Plains artists now widely acknowledged as masters. From the final decades of the 1900s to the present some artists have followed the trajectory of classical Plains art, often with contemporary innovations. Others find themselves connected to tradition in less direct ways -- expanding beyond ancestral forms to modes of self-expression that resonate within the mainstream world of international art. And there are also Native artists not of Plains decent who have appropriated Plains traditions as their own.

Thirty authors contributed to the accompanying publication. Represented are numbers of the most distinguished scholars, along with others new to the field. Plains Indian artists joined these art historians, anthropologists, archeologists and independent scholars. This endeavor called upon a range of voices -- European and North American, Indian and non-Indian -- and the collective expertise of all the contributors. One revered member of the group was the renowned curator George P. Horse Capture, who passed on in the course of the project; his leadership during the initial stages was an inspiration.

This exhibition and accompanying publication present a view of Plains Indian aesthetic traditions over the long history, and particularly as defined by continuous and monumental change during the first three centuries of Euro-American contact and as they are being redefined today. Although the majority of works date from the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the earliest works, along with those from the twentieth century and contemporary life, form major components as well. Together, this continuum reveals the vision and accomplishment of Plains Indian artists over a span of many generations, not only as the makers of objects that sustain tradition and embody change, but also as the bearers of individual creative expression and innovation.


About the author

Gaylord Torrence, Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, curated The Plains Indians-Artists of Earth and Sky. He served as editor for the 320 page accompanying publication.


About the exhibition

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky is being presented at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City from September 19, 2014 through January 11, 2015. The three-venue traveling exhibition was organized by Musée du quai Branly in Paris in partnership with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is curated by Gaylord Torrence, one of the nation's leading scholars of Plains Indian art and the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins. "This exhibition captures the beauty and spiritual resonance of Plains Indian art," said Torrence. "The objects embody both the creative brilliance of their individual makers and the meanings and power of profound cultural traditions." (right: Gauntlets, Sioux-Métis artist, North or South Dakota, ca. 1890. Native tanned leather, glass and brass beads, cotton cloth, 14 _ x 8 inches each. The Hirschfield Family Collection, Courtesy of Berte and Alan Hirschfield.)

Visitors to the Paris display, April through July 2014, numbered more than 180,000, ranking the show among the top three in attendance at Musée du quai Branly since the museum's inception in 2006. On September 21, Kansas City -- located on the Eastern Great Plains of North America -- welcomed the exhibition. The 137 works are installed in galleries in the Nelson-Atkins 2006 addition, designed by leading American architect Steven Holl.

Panels throughout the Nelson-Atkins galleries chronicle the heroic story of Plains peoples. The voices of historian Colin G. Calloway, two scholars of Plains heritage Arthur Amiotte and Emma I. Hansen, and the exhibition curator Gaylord Torrence appear in dialogue. They invite visitors to view the works of art through the lens of history, memory and experience.

More than 130 works of art from 57 European, Canadian, and American institutions and private collections are being displayed in an unprecedented continuum from pre-contact to the present-day. Featured works include numbers of the great early Plains Indian robes, and other masterworks collected in the eighteenth century by European explorers and taken back to the continent never to return to America until now.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated 320-page catalogue published by Skira Group, with essays by leading experts, under the direction of Torrence.

"This exhibition is a defining moment in the understanding of Native American art," said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO of the Nelson-Atkins. "The works on view convey the continuum of hundreds of years of artistic tradition, and we are very proud of the role the Nelson-Atkins has played in this exhibition."

On January 11, 2015, the exhibition closes in Kansas City and travels to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It opens there on March 2, 2015 and runs through May 10, 2015.

To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here and to view selected text panels for the exhibition please click here.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on October 6, 2014 with permission of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, granted to TFAO on October 2, 2014.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kathleen Leighton, Manager, Media Relations and Video Production, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, for her help concerning permission for publishing the above essay..

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