Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art

February 10, 2009 - January 3, 2010


Additional images page 1


(above: Parfleche Case, ca. 1885, Plains, Sioux, cow rawhide (domesticated cattle), paint. WC8708920)

Plains Indian women created a variety of rawhide cases, painted in vibrant geometric designs, to accommodate the shapes and sizes of the objects they held. Parfleche cases -- large, flat, envelope-shaped containers -- were made to hold and transport food, clothing, and other belongings. The word parfleche comes from the French and literally means "to parry or turn aside arrows."

Domestic cow provided the rawhide for this parfleche, indicating that it dates from the late nineteenth century after the destruction of the great buffalo herds. The case is an excellent example of the use of symmetry that is typical of Sioux design. It also demonstrates the creative use of the original background as negative space. The repetitive pattern of triangles creates an inventive circular motion within the square design.


(above: Dance Stick, ca. 1885, Joseph No Two Horns (1852-1942), Plains, Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux), Standing Rock Reservation, wood, commercial tanned leather, iron, pewter, paint. WC8805005)

Objects in the Warnock collection express the ceremonial life of Plains Indian people and the significant values placed upon respect and honor for one's accomplishments. Plains Indian men carried dance sticks in ceremonies and dances sponsored by military societies and lodges to prepare for battle and celebrate their victories. In the late nineteenth century, such societies evolved into the Grass Dance through which men continued to celebrate their past victories and achievements through the early reservation period.

The renowned Hunkpapa Lakota artist Joseph No Two Horns (1852-1943) created this horse dance stick in commemoration of his horse's sacrifices in battle. No Two Horns had participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn and later fled to Canada with Sitting Bull's band. The dance stick possibly memorializes an incident of the battle during which his horse suffered several wounds (indicated by the red marks on the stick). No Two Horns reportedly wore horsetails of several colors, often decorated with an eagle feather as a part of his Grass Dance regalia in commemoration of his battle experience.


(above: Pipe Bowl, ca. 1840, Northeast, Micmac, black stone. WC8708104)

The ritual use of tobacco was a widespread means of spiritual expression among American Indians. Native people believed tobacco to be a gift from the supernatural powers and the act of smoking to be a message or prayer to the heavens. Pipe ceremonies took place during times of both war and peace as a means of giving thanks, beginning new relationships, sealing agreements, launching expeditions, and marking significant passages in life.

A pipe is made up of two separate components: the stem, which was made from ash or sumac, and the bowl, which was most commonly made from pipestone or catlinite. Both the pipe bowl and the stem were a canvas for the artistry of men and women. Native men carved wooden pipe stems, while women dressed the stems with quillwork, beadwork, feathers, horsehair, and hide or cloth wrappings. Women also made soft hide bags used to store pipes and tobacco that were painted and decorated with beads and quills. When stored in a bag or exhibited in a museum, the pipe bowl and stem of a ceremonial pipe must be separated since it is the joining together of the two pieces that signals their ritual use.

Pipe bowls like this one were produced by the Micmac during the nineteenth century as items for trade. The images on this pipe bowl combine traditional and imported motifs. The beavers and otters that appear to support the bowl were animals central to Micmac life. Circles decorating the bowl echo the curved forms of the animals, while the floral designs just beneath the bowl are more consistent with wood carvings made by early Dutch, German and Swedish immigrants.


(above: Courting Fan, ca. 1840, Plains, Sioux, pine wood, pigment. WC8401020)

This fan, used in courting rituals, illustrates the talent of Plains Indian artists in creating innovative compositions that accommodated unusual shapes. Different designs adorn each side of the fan, using the sacred number four as a central motif. On one side, the image of a sunburst radiates to the edges, drawing attention to the circle of figures. The central motif features sixteen rays-multiples of four. The fan is remarkable for its perfect alignment of images, bilateral symmetry and the combination of various design motifs.

The central design on the other side of the fan comprises a complex composition of geometric forms. Four sets of motifs depict thunderbirds in the upper, lower, left and right registers, representing either the four winds or directions. An elk design forms a border, a motif that may indicate that the fan was related to the Elk Dreamers' Society. In Plains Indian culture, those who dreamed of elk, long-tailed deer, or black-tailed deer became members of the society and were known for their mysterious powers to win women's hearts. During ceremonies, the bodies of Society members were painted in red, blue, and black, the same colors that were used to paint the figures on this fan.


Please click here to view more images of objects in the exhibition.


Return to Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.