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
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…

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