Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art

February 10, 2009 - January 3, 2010



 

Audio scripts

 

Bandolier Bag
Plains, Delaware
ca. 1860
 
Bernadette Brown
 
Native American clothing usually did not have pockets, so they would have to tie on things. So you would have a belt, women would have a belt where they would have their awl, their awl case, their needle cases. They would carry these on a belt. But then there were other things that you might want to put in. Men might put in shells, other things that they picked up. Tools. So they were like we would have a handbag or a briefcase to carry things in. The Eastern Woodlands type of beadwork and embroidery tends to be more floral, more curvilinear, more organic, whereas the Plains beadwork tends to be more geometric and linear.
 
Emma Hansen
 
When we were talking about the tribes coming in from the Woodlands, the Woodland tribes such as the Delaware, they brought with them a distinctive floral design and it's kind of a combination of that with a Plains design, then this evolves into what is known now as a Prairie Style. There are also alternative explanations for how the floral designs came in. In the later part of the 1800's, as so many people began going to schools and boarding schools, they were introduced to floral fabrics. And they also saw floral fabrics that would have been available through traders, and perhaps the idea of the floral beadwork ca me from that as well.
 
Bernadette Brown
 
So I think that what we're doing with this exhibit is trying to bring together the two approaches. They are cultural objects, and they have so much value, so much beauty in being that. But they're also works of art that you can look at and maybe you don't need to know a lot about them, but you just look at the colors and the way they're applied and how they're put together, and the way the design compliments whatever it is on. A design on a teepee bag is not what you would see on a shirt or a dress.
 
 
Cradle
Plains, Kiowa
ca. 1860
 
Emma Hansen
 
Cradles were made by all tribes as a way of taking care of and providing a safe place for babies. Cradleboards such as this could be used for the baby to be in when people traveled. The cradleboard could be tied on to a travois, or it could be tied onto a horse. When people were in camp and the women were busy working, maybe tanning hides or cooking or doing some other sort of activity, the cradle could be propped against another object and the baby could be up watching what was going on and being kind of a part of the activity but also be very safe and not be out somewhere where it could roll into a fire and get hurt. The people who made these cradles usually were the elderly grandmothers or the aunts and they did it as an act of love for their family. This is a distinctive style, the beadwork style of the Kiowas. They always used the basic framework of the cradle board was similar to that of some other southern Plains people such as the Camanche with the two upright boards. But the beadwork design itself is distinctive in that you see kind of a, it has a floral design to it but it also has a little bit of an abstraction to it as well. And the designs that would have been used in the cradleboard would have been owned by a particular cradleboard maker or a family and would have been exclusive to that family or individual. Well the asymmetrical design, you see that very often on Kiowa cradles. If you look at them that way we know that there's usually a different color on each side, a different color on one side than on the other. And you have to look at the object as a whole in order to understand how the whole design works.
 
Moccasins: Sioux and Huron
Plains, Sioux (ca. 1890)
Northeast, Huron (ca. 1835)
 
Emma Hansen
 
These moccasins would be a pair of men's moccasins. They would have been made by a woman though, and would have been heavily decorated for particular ceremonial occasions, not so much an everyday pair of moccasins because there was an awful lot of work involved in doing the porcupine quillwork, dying the porcupines, and developing the design. An individual probably would go to a female family member whether it be his wife or another female family member and describe the design that he wanted. And perhaps a part of that description would include not only the characteristics of the buffalo, the characteristics of the bear paw, but also the colors. And they're a particularly nice pair because of the porcupine quillwork that's all over the top of the moccasins and then it's edged with beadwork as well. But the design, the central design, is a buffalo and on each side there are bear paws showing the claws. And both of these animals are very significant in terms of Lakota and other Plains traditions. The buffalo of course because of the significance of the animal as a source of food and other materials, and also as a source of spiritual power. And the bear in much the same way is a source of spiritual power. Many of these designs come from dreams or visions in which a man goes out and spends time alone on a vision quest and perhaps an animal, an image of an animal, will come to him that will provide guidance to his life and also bring him power and a bear is capable of doing that as well.
 
Bernadette Brown
 
The Eastern Woodlands type of beadwork and embroidery tends to be more floral, more curvilinear, more organic, whereas the Plains beadwork tends to be more geometric and linear. When you look back at artworks even in our own galleries you look at things that we have, portraits of Madonnas. That was not painted to be beautiful or to hang on a wall, it had a really important function. It was spirituality, it was a focus for worship. So in most of our art history art was not made simply to be beautiful, it was made to serve a function. And I think the artwork of the Native Americans is the same thing, it serves a function, but its not really just utilitarian. It's spiritual. The designs connect you to your spirituality. They were made to be beautiful. I mean, thinking of a woman sitting there choosing her colors . . .this is not just something she wanted to decorate she wanted to make something beautiful, something special. So I think what we're trying to do is bring together lots of different viewpoints and try to make it very rich instead of just saying oh that's a shirt and it was worn for this. Or look at just that color. Let's bring both approaches it's a shirt and it was worn, but lets bring in the art aspect of how beautiful it is as well.
 
 
Why is there a materials change in American Indian artwork?
 
Bernadette Brown
 
Well, if you go to the Eastern Woodlands in the 1700's you have the influx of colonists from Europe, so you have a lot of conflict. You have a lot of diseases. Measles and smallpox were just deadly; they were like the Plague was to Europe to Native Americans. They had no kind of reserve, they couldn't fight it. And whole populations, whole groups of Indians were actually eliminated. They were decimated. So that's what's happening in the 1700's and then in the1800's of course you have the expansion out into the West, so you have all these pressures being put on Plains Indians who basically are nomadic. They're used to being free, they're used to having their buffalo and hunting, and all of a sudden they have all of this competition. In the exhibition there's a ghost dance shirt that's made out of flour sacking because they no longer had the ability to go and hunt and get dear and buffalo and elk. So they used what was at hand. One of the things that happened is the men no longer had access to buffalo hides to keep their winter counts on and to do their drawings. So now you find them using left over paper. One of the most famous, although we don't have one in our exhibit, are called ledger books. These are the account books that the merchants would keep and at the end of the year they would throw out. And the men would pick up these books and begin to do their drawings on them. So you have underneath a beautiful drawing of a full head, chief in full dress, you have the account numbers. The easiest one to spot is you go from porcupine quill to bead. That was actually a benefit because . . .well you know how porcupines are, you don't want to get too near them. And the women who were using porcupine quills you actually . . .porcupine quill is a little bit like your nail. And you know if you're working with colors you get all that color under your nail and it stays there for quite some while because your nail picks it up. So what the women would do was put the porcupine quills in dye and the dye would go on the inside of the quill. And that's one reason why even though some of these objects are like 200 years old the colors are still very very vibrant because they're protected as your nail protects your, the part of your nail.
 
Emma Hansen
 
Initially porcupine quills were dyed with natural dyes. Women could collect various types of plants and minerals from the environment and use those to dye the porcupine quills. But later on commercial dyes became available through trading posts, and when you see the vivid red design and the vivid purple, those probably did come from a trading post.
 
Bernadette Brown
 
I think that if I had a choice between holding a handful of beads and holding a handful of porcupine quills, I might opt for the beads. I don't have to look for the dyes, I don't have to prepare the dyes, I don't have to hold the porcupine quill under my mouth. All I have to do is reach into a bag of beads and use the colors. So I think that was a change that was welcome by the women and that's just my, being a woman myself, I think I would go for something that would make my job a little bit easier. In terms of the design patterns they're still the old, traditional designs, and that was something that women would pass onto their daughters and their granddaughters their great granddaughters
 
Winter Count
 
Emma Hansen
 
The Winter Count in this collection is a very nice example, and it was collected by a doctor named Doctor Hardin, so it's sometimes known as the Hardin Winter Count because we actually don't know who did the drawings for the Winter Count. But a winter count is a way of keeping a calendar and keeping and recording history for Plains tribal peoples. This particular winter count dates from the winter of 1776-1777 until 1878-1879, so you're looking at almost a hundred year period. And a year was considered to be from snow fall to snow fall, from the first snow fall to the next first snow fall, that indicated a year and that's why you have the designation of winter involved with that. And the winter count keeper would be a designated person who would work with a council of elders to talk about what had happened in the year past, what were the important things that took place, what would be one important thing that could be used to designate that year, and then develop a drawing that they would then put on this ongoing count. In the early days the counts were done on hide, usually buffalo hide. And they are read all kinds of different ways. There are particular ways of looking at them. Some of them start in the very center and go out. This particular count starts in the upper left hand corner and it goes right and then it goes down to the second row and it goes from right to left and then so on. The ending date of 1878 and 1879 relates to Dull Knife's escape from Indian territory. Dull Knife was an important northern Cheyenne leader who was sent down to a reservation in Indian territory. He and his band escaped and were heading north and were killed, and the designation of that shows a white man wearing a hat and a rifle actually shooting and killing some people. Winter Counts have had a considerable amount of research by scholars. And basically the way that they have been able to understand the dates that go with each drawing is they look at one common occurrence that seems to appear in almost all winter counts, and that was a meteor shower that occurred on November 12th 1833. And almost all winter counts show those one way or the other. In this winter count there is a teepee with a whole group of stars around the top of the teepee, and the year is designated as the storm of stars. You will also see this on other winter counts.
 
Lance Case
Plains, Crow
ca. 1890
 
Emma Hansen
 
Well a lance case would have been made by a Crow woman to carry her husband's weapon. When the tribes moved their camps quite frequently when they would get up and decide that they were going to move, the women were responsible for taking down the teepees and packing everything and making sure that everything was packed and secure and ready to move. And it really would be an exciting time for women, and for everybody as a whole because they're getting to go to a new place. And one of the things that they did, it was almost like a parade in those days in that they would actually when the women would get up on their horses they would carry a number of different things and they carried often their husbands weapons including a shield, including a lance case and those types of things. It's made out of raw hide, made out of painted raw hide, and working with raw hides was a woman's responsibility. After about 1880 and 1890, as the tribes were placed on reservations, they were also restricted from participating in a lot of their own ceremonies. But they found that if they could do a ceremonial type of a thing and tie it to an American holiday, such as the 4th of July or other types of holidays, they would be able to then maybe go back and practice some of their old traditions. And so this whole parade tradition started that actually came out of the idea of moving from camp to camp. Once again the women would dress up, everybody would dress up but the women in particular would dress up, and they would have their horses fitted with the finest saddlery and bridals and gear, and they would include perhaps a beaded cradle board that would be tied onto their horse, and a lance case and other types of materials. And then they would do a parade. The Crow people still parade. Now a days, if you go and you watch the parade you also see women who are dressed up in much the same way as they would have done in the late 1800's, and they will have the lance case tied on, they will have the cradle board, they will have a number of different things tied onto their horses. Of course now a days the lance case doesn't include a lance. It's something that has been made to show the idea of the lance.
 
Sioux
Sioux "War Shirt"
(ca. 1860)
 
Emma Hansen
 
The shirt is a man's shirt. It's a Lakota shirt. Sometimes these shirts are called "war shirts" or sometimes they're called "ceremonial shirts." But these are particular types of clothing that an individual warrior had to earn the right to wear, and he would earn that right through his exploits as a warrior, as a fighter, and as a hunter, and maybe later on as a leader of men. And this was a particular type of tribal designation, and sometimes the people that wore these shirts were called "shirt wearers." It meant that they had particular responsibilities.
 
Bernadette Brown
 
We're not looking at the everyday wear. Its what would be worn when you have a special occasion to do so. when there's a gathering of groups and men want to show off. They're demonstrating not only their own prowess but their wife's ability to do beadwork. And they're made of leather. Usually made of elk or dear hide which is a little bit softer. And the women will skin the animal and prepare it, tan it, and then cut the shirt and they're very simple, they're sort of like a big T.
 
Emma Hansen
 
This type of shirt would have been made again by a woman, or a group of women, for a male relative and is characterized by the strips of porcupine quillwork that are on the shoulders and on the sleeves. In this case the quillwork is in a bright yellow and it has the bear paw designs and, again, showing the significance of the bear, the power of the bear. Usually when you see images of bears on any sort of Plains materials you always see the claws because you're seeing the power of this animal. Additionally there's fringe, there's badges or bunches of hair that decorate this shirt. Usually on these types of war shirts you have human hair, not scalps but human hairs, and often horse hair as well. But the idea is, there are a couple of different ideas that go along with the significance of the hair. The hair could represent the coups that the man has counted, how many enemies he has conquered would have been his exploits so that's representative of that. Sometimes it's said that the hair is representative of the people for which the man has responsibility, whether it be his relatives and other extended family members that he might lead.
 
Bernadette Brown
 
They are utility objects in that they were meant to be worn and carried and have a function. But again, as I said, with the shirt you wouldn't wear that shirt everyday. You would wear a plain leather one. So they are in a sense artworks because they're decorated. And I think as well that this idea that art is only something that sits there or hangs on a wall, has absolutely no purpose but to look beautiful, is a very straightened kind of way of looking at art. And I think in the last 50 years we've come away from that.
 
It serves a function, but its not really just utilitarian. It's spiritual. The designs connect you to your spirituality. They were made to be beautiful. I mean, thinking of a woman sitting there choosing her colors . . .this is not just something she wanted to decorate. She wanted to make something beautiful. Something special.
Sioux Ghost Dance Dress
 
Emma Hansen
 
The Ghost Dance Dress is from the Lakota people. And it's interesting because it was made out of a flour sack, a hundred pound flour sack that had been issued as part of the rations on the reservation. But the dress is representative of a spiritual movement that took place across the Plains in 1889 and 1890. The dress itself relates to a religious ceremony that, in the case of the Lakota in particular, the Ghost Dance ended in 1890. It began in 1889 and ended in 1890 with Wounded Knee. So this dress would have been made at this time period, probably 1890, a time when the Lakota were very involved with the Ghost Dance. The Lakota tended to make their dresses and shirts that they created specifically for Ghost Dance ceremonies out of a muslin or out of a cotton, so the flour bag probably came in very handy. Some of the other tribes, the tribes particularly of the southern Plains, used hide and they painted them in very beautiful designs. The Lakota also painted their Ghost Dance clothing in very beautiful designs. They used the red as a trim for the fringes along the edging of the dress. The red paint was considered to be sacred and it was also used on their faces when they performed the Ghost Dance. This particular dress, the predominant drawing is a thunderbird and the thunderbird has a long history within Native American traditions throughout the country but specifically among the Plains. The thunderbird was considered to be this large bird that lived up in the mountains, lived in high elevations, and the bird created actually created thunder through the flapping of its wings. And it created lightning through the blinking of its eyes. And so the thunderbird was a very powerful bird and that is featured in a very large design on the dress. On other types of Ghost Dance clothing you see other images of birds. You see ravens and crows and eagles, and these birds were considered to be messengers to the heavens as well. In addition, the dress also has I think one or two, I think two green stars, 4-pointed stars. And most of Ghost Dance clothing also included elements of the sky, including stars, constellations, crescent moon and full moons as well, and that's another part of the dress.
 
 
Courting Fan
Plains, Sioux
ca. 1840
 
Bernadette Brown
 
We also have a wonderful courting fan. It's wood, and its circular, and it has a handle, and it was used by the men in courting dances because Plains Indians were verycareful about young people getting together.
 
Emma Hansen
 
Probably the outstanding thing about the fan is just the fine workmanship in terms of wood carving. Men would have been responsible for carving wooden items. But this particular one is really, has a very complex design with the central focus on the bull elk and indicating that the bull elk is actually whistling. And with the female elk also gathered around him. Probably the fan itself represents just the power of the elk that would have been observed by the people who would be witnessing more or less the courting rituals of elk as they take place each year. And that they do whistle and they do attract females to them as well.
 
Emma Hansen
 
I think it is really almost a one of a kind object.
 

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