Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
This buffalo-hide robe is covered in the exploits of at least two Lakota warriors and includes 60 figures depicted across 14 events. The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky,' runs through May 10. On loan from Musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Full Circle: Plains Indians Exhibit Takes Top Billing at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Theresa Braine

A mournful song echoes through the exhibit hall, similar perhaps to sounds that once drifted across the Great Plains.

But this is not your everyday exhibit hall, and we are not on the prairie. The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is a rare and important showcasing of the art and creativity of some of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.

The song emanates from a four-channel video installation piece by Hunkpapa Lakota artist Dana Claxton, Rattle. It incorporates the rhythms, images and music that infuse artistic and spiritual life on the Plains, within a context of 21st-century media. It quite literally sets the tone for this showcasing of American Indian art defined as art, rather than as artisanship or craftsmanship viewed through an archaeological or anthropological lens. 

A walk around the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall on the museum’s second floor—the space is tucked next to galleries containing early Greek art and ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures—reveals more than 150 works. They range from the 2,000-year-old Human Effigy Pipe, the oldest object in the exhibit and Ohio’s official state artifact, to an array of intricately rendered statues, delicately beaded masks, elaborately designed dresses and robes adorned with detailed paintings. All are heavily endowed with symbolism and meaning, which only adds to their beauty.

It is recognition a long time coming for contemporary American Indian artists such as the late Oscar Howe, also known as Mazuha Hokshina or Trader Boy, a Yanktonani from South Dakota. Back in 1958 his entry in the Indian Annual at Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art was rejected by the non-Indian judges as being “not Indian,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art says in its writeup of the work. This was because Indian art supposedly only came in one flavor, known as “studio style,” which “had become the standard in Native painting in the early 1900s,” the museum said. But today his 1962 painting, Calling on Wakan Tanka (the Dakota Creator spirit) is a highlight of the exhibit.

Calling on Wakan Tanka, 1962 Oscar Howe, Mazuha Hokshina, Trader Boy (1915-1983), Yanktonai, South Dakota (Photo: The University of South Dakota/John Lamberton)

In other words, having first defined indigenous artwork as non-art during colonial times because of its use on functional items, non-Indians then tried to decree what constituted art when indigenous artists created it solely for art’s sake. The misconceptions date back to first contact. When Europeans made contact hundreds of years ago and branded the people they found on Turtle Island as savages, the art of the Indigenous Peoples who lived here was dismissed as purely functional. Thus it did not fall under the rubric of what was commonly considered art at the time.

That did not stop explorers from packing it up and sending it back to Europe in great volume. 

As awareness has grown over the years and hidden history has been uncovered, the pieces have been shipped back across the ocean to reside, albeit temporarily, in the premier art museum of the United States. In this exhibit, which opened on March 9 and runs through May 10, Indians not only make art, but also define their own in a collection that “demonstrates the long history of change and creative adaptation that characterizes Native American art,” said Metropolitan Museum Director and CEO Thomas Campbell in a statement. “It is an important opportunity to highlight the artistic traditions that are indigenous to North America and to present them in the context of the Met’s global collections.”

Take the Blackfeet horse mask. Like its counterparts in Europe, be they made of Spanish leather or metal armor, the mask is designed to protect the horse in battle. But the indigenous version—made in the 19th century from tanned buffalo hide, cotton cloth, ribbon, wood, brass tacks, glass beads and ochre—takes it to a much deeper level.

“It was to sort of ornament the horse, it was to protect the horse,” exhibit curator and art historian Gaylord Torrence told Indian Country Today Media Network. “But this horse mask is transformative. It has transformed a horse into the power of a buffalo—that kind of speed, that kind of endurance, that kind of energy. There’s a whole other layer of meaning associated with this—for the maker, for the owner, and for the community.”

Cradleboard covered in Thunderbirds. (Photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The same holds true throughout the exhibit. A Dakota (Eastern Sioux) cradleboard from 1840, made of Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, metal cones and glass beads, is covered in thunderbirds and spirit beings. Again, the artistic touch was also functional, since the cones would clink together if the child moved.

Another item, a girl’s belt set, is also imbued with both artistry and functionality. The 1884 piece by a Southern Cheyenne artist is strung with tool cases, as well as bags holding fire-sparking capability for both flint and steel. Charms in the form of deer tails, a wooden bead and two shells are just a few of the accouterments on this must-have accessory that can also come in handy for survival.

Girl's Belt Set, 1884 (Union Station/Kansas City Museum, Daniel B. and Ida Dyer Collection, 1940)

Covering an entire wall at the end of the exhibit is the Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith oil and mixed media painting titled “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People),” from 1992, on loan from the Chrysler Museum of Art. Characterized by scarlet, the work is crowned with a row of baseball caps, t-shirts and other sports paraphernalia bearing Indian names.

Torrence was instrumental in selecting the more than 150 items in the exhibit, drawn from collections in Europe and the United States. Many have never before been displayed publicly.

The exhibit was organized by the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, in collaboration with the Met and in partnership with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where Torrence is senior curator of American Indian Art, as well as Professor Emeritus in Fine Arts at Drake University. The works were culled from no fewer than 81 institutions and private collections in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada and the U.S.

More than taking a look back, the exhibit also charts the evolution of “hundreds of years of artistic tradition, maintained against a backdrop of monumental cultural change,” the Met said. The exhibit takes the viewer chronologically through the history of Plains peoples and those who were influenced by them—beginning with pre-contact works, then moving on to 19th century works related to westward colonial expansion, and then to reservation life.

“Basically all of these objects, which are functional in the spiritual or utilitarian way, also contain the values, the beliefs—they are charged with layers of meaning in the same way that a painting or sculpture would be in Euro-American culture,” said Torrence. “It’s taken us a long time to recognize that and accept it. But it’s changing.”

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