TIPI: Heritage of the Great Plains

BROOKLYN MUSEUM | FEBRUARY 18 – MAY 15, 2011

Old, red Manhattan lies, like an Indian arrowhead under a steam factory, below New York.

—Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains

Harvey Pratt, “Vietnam War Experiences Tipi Liner” (detail), (2008).Photo: Joshua Simpson Photography

Having grown up in the Great Plains and studied some of its history, I was troubled to read, after moving to Brooklyn, E. B. White’s taxonomy (in the 1949 essay Here Is New York) that breaks New Yorkers down into “natives,” “settlers,” and “commuters.” The first two especially had an eerie ring in light of my misgivings about descending from settlers who’d moved onto land stolen from Natives out West. Now settlers were overtaking Brooklyn, and I was part of the manifest destiny of gentrification. It was not hard to see L-train stops as meridians of longitude pushing ever farther into territory where the natives were reputedly dangerous and unwelcoming to white settlers, to see the blocks of housing projects that remained as reservations.

Perhaps colonization’s most complete triumph is its nostalgic tribute to the nobility of the vanquished culture. The day may come when a replica bodega or storefront Pentecostal church is respectfully erected beneath the Brooklyn Museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor gallery rotunda. For now, we have Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, running through May 15th.

This exhibition, thankfully, is not a misty-eyed study of a “vanished race.” It’s a vibrant mix, lighthearted and solemn, that upends many conventional views of Indian-ness. Aside from the New Agey soundtrack in the Cantor gallery, where Lyle J. Heavy Runner (of the Blackfeet Tribe) has raised a 27 foot tipi under the rotunda, and the prairie-dawn-pink walls throughout the galleries, the exhibition is remarkably unsentimental. Albert Bierstadt’s romantic “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” (featuring a few tiny tipis) remains in the adjacent American art gallery, with just a cross reference. The museum also avoids the modern pieties about a vague, universal Indian culture that mar the permanent exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Instead, this show treats the tipi as a living architectural tradition, the “quintessential American architectural form,” and regards contemporary Plains Indians as respectfully as it does their ancestors. Indeed, the tipi structure is probably as vital today as it ever was, having been adopted not only by white hippies but by Native people from tribes distant from the Plains—one of the tipis in the exhibition was constructed from bison hides last year by Ken Woody, a member of the northeastern Mohawk tribe, which before the arrival of whites would have had scant contact with either bison or tipis. Through Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling shows and through western novels and movies, Plains Indians became the archetypal Indian culture, not just for whites but often for Natives themselves. Natives today practice tipi-building and Plains-style beadwork from coast to coast.

The exhibition features three full-size tipis, the two new ones from Heavy Runner and Woody, and a stunning Southern Cheyenne tipi from 1904, a time when buffalo were virtually extinct and reservation Indians kept up the tradition with government-issue canvas. There are also three smaller model tipis. All of them defy the arid, square galleries—rooms drawn like the arbitrary state lines of the Great Plains. There is something strikingly Modernist about the tipi, whose shape has lent itself so readily to 1950s kitsch motels, the Interstate rest stops of my home state, South Dakota, and even Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasília. Heavy Runner’s massive tipi looks much younger than the Cantor rotunda, which of course it is.

If not quite the quintessential American structure, the tipi is certainly the quintessential Great Plains architectural form: life on the Plains, except along rivers, where tribes built more permanent dwellings, was (and is) provisional, and plainsfolk needed a structure that could be folded up and carried by domestic dogs, and later horses, to greener pastures during drought or after a wildfire. The structure’s conical shape is an elegant response to the relentless wind of the grasslands, which flows around without a flat side by which to rip the lodge from the ground. The stark depopulation of the rural Plains in recent decades—except in Indian country, where populations are growing—has shown that permanent farmland settlement of the region was unsustainable; maybe those of us who still care about that vast belt across America’s middle should consider aerodynamic pop-up structures as a model for how to live there. Nomadic living worked for thousands of years, where homesteading mostly failed after a few decades.

Beyond the tipis, the Brooklyn Museum show revels in anachronism, juxtaposing Plains Indian art and artifacts from the 19th and early 20th centuries with related objects from the present (there is a curious lacuna in between). It is organized thematically rather than chronologically, into galleries focused on bison and horses, pre-reservation times, warriors, women, and children. So, in the children’s room, a 1994 colonial-style baby bonnet, with a frill of craft-store lace as well as a crust of beadwork, sits beside a buckskin doll from the early 20th century. And in the women’s room, 100 year-old moccasins appear beside Converse-style high-heels (a mashup in itself) beaded by Santa Fe artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa) in 2008.

One of the most compelling pairings is of two tipi liners facing each other on the east and west walls of the warriors’ gallery. A liner is a sort of curtain to be hung on the tipi’s lower walls to deflect drafts and rainwater and to afford another layer of privacy. When made by women, tipi liner decorations are traditionally geometric; when painted by men, they are narrative and autobiographical. The first of these two liners, painted on government muslin by the Húnkpapa Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face in 1889, depicts a score of battle vignettes, primarily in conflict with Crow tribes. (Though Rain-in-the-Face fought at both the Fetterman Fight in Wyoming and the Little Bighorn in Montana, he doesn’t appear to have depicted any battles against U.S. cavalry.) The liner appears as a stampede of horses moving right to left across the muslin with warriors firing rifles at each other, or a damsel saved by the hero, all illustrations for the lost, ghostly narrative of a proud, retired storyteller.

On the east wall is another tipi liner, from 2008, on which U.S. Marines veteran Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne/Arapaho) illustrates his experience as an Indian warrior in Vietnam. (Natives serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.) In the exhibition catalogue, Pratt supplies the narrative that’s missing for Rain-in-the-Face’s liner, telling of his journey from enlistee to veteran and Cheyenne peace chief (he is an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officer as well as an artist). Many of the Nam vignettes on the tipi liner are paired with Plains ledger-art-style drawings, in which, for example, an eagle parallels a Marines helicopter: It is “a bird that—like a chopper—flies and attacks.” This artwork echoes the pitch of the exhibition as a whole.

There are dozens of revelatory objects here, old and new, but another that stands out is Escher-ish Horn Spoon (2009), by Kevin Pourier (Oglala Lakota). This is a meticulously executed art-historical joke, a traditional, pre-contact utensil carved from a buffalo horn and inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a tessellated pattern of diamonds appearing to be cubes. It does Escher one better as a trippy 2-D illusion of 3-D, on a rounded, 3-D surface. But more than that, it celebrates the fact that bison horns are available again, the species having rebounded from its genetic bottleneck of fewer than 1,000 animals to over 300,000 today. And similarly, it good-humoredly says, “Hey, white man—finally come to the geometric/Op Art party? We’ve been here for centuries.”

Like the tipi in the rotunda, all of these artworks seem to have such power to reverse-colonize the white man’s city, the natives retaking the settlers’ institutions, even as the settlers purchase, curate, and (ahem) write about them. They vibrate there in old, red Brooklyn like the arrowhead under the steam factory.

Contributor

Josh Garrett-Davis

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