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A Tale of Woe and Glory

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

an exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, April 8–July 20, 2014; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, September 19, 2014–January 11, 2015; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 9–May 10, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Gaylord Torrence
Skira Rizzoli/Musée du quai Branly, 317 pp., $65.00
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Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
Mató Topé: Battle with a Cheyenne Chief, 1833

A kind of twilight invites silence in a show of Plains Indian art and material culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that records their long moment of glory before the United States Army whipped them, as whites liked to say at the time, and confined them to reservations in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The twilight is easily explained. Much of the art in the show is painted on tanned hides using natural dyes subject to fading in strong light—blanket-like robes, men’s shirts worn as a badge of office or status, shields and shield covers, the rawhide cases called parfleches that women painted with geometric designs. But the twilight also seems right for what remains of a culture so utterly confounded by the invasion of richer, better-armed people with robust immune systems and an obsession with building fences.

What remains includes many very early items from European collections, especially the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, an organizer of the show along with the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Painted robes and feathered headdresses collected by European explorers, traders, and missionaries beginning around 1700 reflect the world before the arrival of the horse on the Plains. Just when that happened is still hotly argued by scholars. The Sicangu Lakota chief Spotted Tail (circa 1823–1881) told an army officer that when his father was a boy the Sicangu still traveled from place to place with only dogs to pull their belongings.

Scholars say the first horses arrived on the Plains a good deal earlier than that, perhaps as early as the middle of the seventeenth century, but the important fact is what followed—a dramatic expansion of the Indians’ ability to kill buffalo. Their meat fed an exploding Indian population, and tanned buffalo robes, sold to white traders, financed the purchase of guns, powder and ball, glass beads, new dyes, trade cloth, iron pots and steel knives, and a wide range of other items of Euro-American manufacture.

The breadth and suddenness of the change would be hard to exaggerate. In the winter of 1787–1788 an old Cree Indian named Saukamappee told a young fur trader of a big fight with another tribe in which he took part as a youth in about 1720. His band had few guns and less ammunition; most of the men, including Saukamappee’s father, were armed with bows, and of the fifty arrows in his father’s quiver only ten had iron points. “The others were headed with stone.”

With this detail we can date almost the minute of the Crees’ introduction to the modern world. Within a few years at most all the arrows in every quiver on the plains would have iron points. Saukamappee’s tale is included in Our Hearts Fell to the Ground,1 a collection of Plains Indian testimony and reminiscence collected by Colin Calloway, a Dartmouth professor who has also written an impressively lively and comprehensive essay in the catalog of the Met show, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.

The horse is the first great fact in the lives of the Plains Indians during their glory years, Calloway tells us; the next is disease, especially smallpox, pneumonia, cholera, and measles, which decimated the Plains tribes in a wave of epidemics beginning pretty much at the moment Spanish explorers arrived looking for rumored cities of gold. Some tribes were lucky, some not. The population of the Caddo, who lived in Texas and along the lower Mississippi River, was cut down in successive epidemics from perhaps 200,000 to as few as 10,000. Half the Pawnees died in the early 1830s. The Blackfeet, once lords of the northern Plains, were reduced by two thirds in the great smallpox epidemic of 1837, brought up the Missouri River by traders.

But none suffered a loss more catastrophic than the Mandan. Once a great tribe, they were reduced by smallpox in the 1780s. When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804 to spend the winter, the Mandan were living in two remaining villages, Matootonha and Rooptahee, home to about two thousand people. Later the Mandan were hosts to the traveling painter George Catlin in 1832 and the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer a year later. Both painted the portrait of Mató Tópe—Four Bears—a leading man in the Mandan villages and an artist much influenced, it has been argued, by watching Catlin and Bodmer at work. The smallpox epidemic of 1837 pretty well “rubbed them out,” a phrase that entered English from Plains Indian sign language. In July of that year Mató Tópe died of smallpox on the very day he delivered a bitter deathbed speech to his people:

My friends one and all, Listen to what I have to say—Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Whites…. But to day, I do Pronounce them to be a set of Black harted dogs, they have deceived Me, them that I always considered as Brothers…. I do not fear Death my friends. You Know it, but to die with my face rotten, that even the Wolves will shrink with horror at seeing me, and say to themselves, that is the 4 Bears the Friend of the Whites….

When the smallpox ran its course that fall the Mandan had been reduced to 138 survivors.

In his prime Mató Tópe painted many leather robes with images from his life as a warrior. One of them was collected by a Swiss trader on the Upper Missouri in the year the artist died; it is on loan to the Met exhibition from its current home in the Bern Historical Museum in Switzerland. Depicted are a series of war exploits including a hand-to-hand fight between Mató Tópe and a Cheyenne wielding a knife that the Mandan has grabbed by the blade, cutting himself severely—a copious spray of blood falls from the wound.

That Mató Tópe turned the tables and killed the Cheyenne is impressive, but the really startling thing is the way he has drawn the two figures—a radical change in style from another robe in the show, now in Harvard’s Peabody Museum, by an artist near the Missouri River. Dating of the Peabody robe is difficult. It was long believed to have been collected by Lewis and Clark but doubts have crept in; it might have been painted as early as 1780, in the opinion of Castle McLaughlin, a curator at the Peabody who published a book about artifacts collected (maybe) by Lewis and Clark, Arts of Diplomacy,2 and who has written several entries in the Met exhibition’s catalog. But the date could be as late as 1825.

No matter. The point is the style. Like Mató Tópe’s robe, the Peabody robe records incidents of battle but the figures are presented very simply and convey less information. They are not primitive, just different. They have round heads without facial features. Their arms and legs are tapering sticks. Their torsos are all represented by boxes in trapezoidal shape, wide at the shoulder, narrower at the waist. There are a number of robes decorated with trapezoid men in the Met exhibition, all early, all executed before the arrival on the Upper Missouri of Catlin and Bodmer, who clearly dazzled Mató Tópe and his friends. The new drawing style spread quickly and eventually generated a large body of work by Plains artists, generally called ledger drawings because so much of it was drawn on paper torn from ledger books found at military and trading posts. Several outstanding examples of this later work are included in the show, including drawings by the Southern Cheyenne Howling Wolf, the Kiowa Wohaw, the Teton Sioux Black Hawk, and others whose names are not known.

But the most dazzling of the new-style drawings, in my view, is a large (twenty-four by sixty-six inches) drawing of a sun dance by an unnamed artist created near the end of the nineteenth century, when the sun dance, like many other rituals and ceremonies, had been forbidden by the authorities. An authoritative account of the Lakota sun dance was published by James R. Walker in 1917; the sun dance drawing in the Met exhibition conveys a rich feel for the place of the ceremony in tribal life and confirms many details of Walker’s observations. Dangling from the top of the sun dance pole in the center of the drawing, for example, are two small rawhide cutouts of a man and a buffalo, hard to identify unless you know what they are.

Most Plains Indian drawing, whether on robes, shirts, or paper, was a bold artistic assertion of the self. To draw, sing, act out, or simply tell of personal experience, almost all of it triumphal, was a vital expression of male ego on the Plains—like Mató Tópe’s visual account of his fight with the Cheyenne, a signal achievement he also recorded with a twelve-by-fifteen-inch watercolor on paper now in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, which is reproduced in the Met exhibition’s catalog. The watercolor is almost obsessive in its attention to detail. Mató Tópe’s upper body is painted red, his moccasins have yellow stripes, his leggings are decorated with multicolored fringe, and drawn superimposed across his waist is a pipe, sign that he was leader of a war party. No Mandan of the time, or scholar of today, could fail to know who this is—Mató Tópe!

The Cheyenne is also meticulously portrayed. He has painted himself green, he is wearing an otterskin bonnet, a powder horn hangs from his shoulder, and his leggings are elaborately painted and decorated with beads or porcupine quills. Mató Tópe wants to be sure we know he killed a formidable Cheyenne warrior in his prime. Both figures are drawn in the round in the Catlin-Bodmer style, which soon banished the trapezoid men entirely from Plains art.

By the time the sun dance artist went to work fifty or sixty years after the death of Mató Tópe, immense changes were apparent in the conventions of drawing and painting by Plains Indians. Personal exploits were still the main subject matter but some artists, like the sun dance master, had a broader subject in mind, not too different from that of Italian painters of religious scenes during the Renaissance, which might be defined as the depiction of social life sustained by a sacred sacrifice of blood.

The midsummer sun dance ceremony is as bloody as a crucifixion, and makes a similar promise. In the drawing the men who have painted themselves yellow, as Janet Berlo writes in the catalog, “have elected to perform the most sacred and painful act of piercing their pectoral muscles and attaching themselves to the central pole, finally ripping their bodies away in an act of blood sacrifice that aligns them with the potent powers of the sun.” The men who “sacrificed their flesh” before the ban in the 1880s, and have resumed doing so in recent decades, were carrying out personal vows, begging pity from the Wakan Tanka (Lakota for Great Spirit) or expressing thanks by the shedding of blood for some gift like the recovery from illness of a loved one.

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Joshua Ferdinand/Ken and Judy Siebel Collection
‘Ghost Dance Dress’; Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, circa 1890

While the dancers each had his own reason for dancing, the annual ceremony was also considered vital to the welfare of the whole people. There is no way of knowing if the sun dance artist included himself among the dancers he depicted; if so, he has done it quietly, while his painting celebrates the entire social experience, not just the dancers but all those watching, women wrapped in robes and carrying umbrellas, children, drummers, and singers, everybody dressed in their best, the community at large that is thus sustained for another year. The assertion has shifted from me, Mató Tópe! to us, the People!

Everything in the Met exhibition could be described at similar length, and most of the objects are in the show’s catalog. But the show tells us something the catalog does not, or at least not as clearly. It is implicit in the arrangement or layout of the displays, which begin with two sculptures, both pipes for smoking, both in the form of a human figure. The older of the two, dated to roughly the beginning of the Christian Era, was found in the Adena Mound near Chillicothe, Ohio. It is carved from Catlinite or pipestone, which is still quarried in Minnesota for the making of traditional T-shaped “peace” pipes. The younger of the two was found in the 1930s by amateurs excavating the Spiro mound in Oklahoma. It is carved from bauxite and is dated to about the year 1100, a few hundred years before the arrival of Columbus in the New World, an event that was promptly followed by numerous Spaniards carrying viruses to which Native Americans had no resistance.

Some scholars believe that the new diseases may have killed as much as 90 percent of an Indian population estimated to be as large as 50 million, roughly the size of Europe’s in 1492. What happened to the makers of these two human-figure pipes is impossible to say, but one thing seems clear—they along with their culture and art disappeared utterly from what became the United States. Their fate was the one all cultures seem to fear and dread—a rubbing out to the very last person. The message of those pipes, a whisper of ultimate twilight, is what opens the Met show.

At the other end of the exhibition, around the corner in a hall more brightly lit, is a sampling of some really fine modern things—beaded dance outfits like one worn by the Hunkpapa Lakota Jodi Gillette, a traditional dancer; old crafts put to new uses like a beaded suitcase made by Nellie Two Bear Gates for the 1909 graduation of her daughter from the Carlisle Indian School; paintings that dramatically merge old and new styles; a war shirt made of photographs created by the Northern Cheyenne Bently Spang; a Kiowa fan from the 1940s made of eagle feathers, something now permitted only to Native Americans for sacred purposes; a Sicangu star quilt in a style the Lakota have taken for their own.

All are beautiful and bold and represent a clear statement of a perennial Native American protest that might be dated to 1908 or 1910 when the photographer Edward S. Curtis published a photograph of Navajo on horseback disappearing into the desert dusk that he titled The Vanishing Race. At every opportunity since, Indians have proclaimed, “We are still here!” The Met exhibition is arranged to end on a note clearly affirming that.

But this vigorous modern work cannot alter certain facts, there for anyone who cares to see. A map on the wall at the opening of the show identifies about thirty separate tribes from six different language families that peopled the Plains when the very first traders arrived to buy furs on the Upper Missouri. Three of those languages are extinct—Tonkawa, Quapaw, and Kitsai. A dozen others are spoken only by a relative handful of elderly people, from roughly two hundred in the case of the Assiniboine-Stoney, down to ten or twenty in the case of the Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, and Osage. Even the Cree speakers in Canada number only 70,000.

What happened to the Plains languages happened in the same way over the same period to the animal and plant life of the Plains encountered by Lewis and Clark, most conspicuously and dramatically to the buffalo, reduced from perhaps 30 million in the early 1800s to fewer than a thousand in 1900. In recent months climatologists have darkened the picture still further with predictions of a coming period of megadroughts threatening hard times for everything that walks, creeps, or draws moisture up through root filaments on the Great Plains.

Something of that judgment is captured in a 2001 collage created by the Oglala Lakota artist Arthur Amiotte, which strikes a note about as far from celebration as it is possible to get. The work may be modern but the feeling has been fermenting for a century or more. Amiotte is a great-grandson of Henry Standing Bear, who survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 when he was a young man of sixteen or seventeen; he was lucky to be touring in Europe with Buffalo Bill at the time of the massacre of more than two hundred Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890, when he had just turned thirty.

Even to whisper the words “Wounded Knee” invites this dark event to take over, but the Met exhibition does not shrink back, beginning with Amiotte’s collage. His work is framed with press clippings of the Little Bighorn fight, photos of the dead at Wounded Knee and the nearby church where many of the wounded spent their last hours. In the center are portraits of Kicking Bear, the Brule Arnold Short Bull, the Paiute ghost dance messiah Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa chief whose killing led to the massacre. Those who want to know more about this painful event should read Jerome Greene’s recent and authoritative account, American Carnage.3

Also included in the exhibition is a remarkable ink drawing on muslin of the last moments of Sitting Bull, when about forty Indian police from the Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota approached the chief’s cabin to place him under arrest. The drawing was made in about 1920 by one of the Indian police who had been there, Thomas Stone Man, who left little additional impression on history. This drawing is richly detailed with the names of the dead, both Indian police and supporters of Sitting Bull, and a kind of chronology of the unfolding of events. No deposition in court could have conveyed what Thomas Stone Man saw more meticulously.

But it is the stunning item at the very center of the show that serves to capture what the curators want to say about the Plains Indians during their glory years ending in social trauma. Displayed by itself between two curving walls in a kind of mini-chapel is a striking woman’s dress identified as a Southern Arapaho ghost dance dress of 1890. The dress, which belongs to the California investment manager and art collector Kenneth Siebel, is similar to others found in the collections of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. In the notes on the Siebel dress written for the catalog by Emma Hansen, a senior curator of the Buffalo Bill Center, we are told nothing about the history of the dress and it is my guess that Siebel and Hansen alike have very little idea of where it has been for the last 120 years.

The dress is made of hide colored brick red with rubbed-in pigment. The sleeve ends, side seams, and skirt are decorated with abundant fine green fringes. A bottom border is blue with many four-pointed stars. The body of the dress is decorated with drawings front and back including a left hand in yellow, a turtle, thunderbirds, a magpie, a buffalo, a large four-pointed star, and other symbols and images with powerful traditional meanings. Was this dress ever worn by a ghost dancer? Without a solid provenance it is impossible to say, but the images on the dress are eloquent evidence of the whole-souled yearning that was expressed in the ghost dance movement of 1890.

It was Wovoka, a Northern Paiute living in Nevada, who had the vision that inspired the dancers. They believed that dancing in a new sacred way, singing special songs while wearing special shirts and dresses, would restore their old life on the Plains, bringing back the buffalo that had disappeared so completely it was widely believed they had gone back into the earth, and restoring to life all the people who had died in war and massacre.

The dancing spread across the Plains, north and south, and whites grew frightened, with predictable result. The Southern Arapaho ghost dance dress expresses the impossible dream of a people who have lost everything but memory. The Arthur Amiotte collage tells us how the dream died, leaving a couple of hundred bodies frozen in the snow along Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. So for all its beauty the Met exhibition is a tale of glory and woe ending not with a song but a wail, something like the cry of Mató Tópe on his deathbed, ruing the day he saw the whites coming up the Missouri River.

  1. 1

    Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). 

  2. 2

    Arts of Diplomacy: Lewis and Clark’s Indian Collection (University of Washington Press, 2003). 

  3. 3

    American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).