The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | MARCH 9 – MAY 10, 2015

Anishinaabe cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor coined the term “survivance,” a combination of survival and endurance, to suggest for Native Americans an active sense of presence and continuation and to renounce discourses of dominance and victimization. The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s greatest and most ambitious exhibition of indigenous art from North America in recent history, makes a strong argument for just that—the survivance of vibrant visual traditions, despite their creators having endured the bitter history of westward colonial expansion and domination. Many voices are present to retell the experience of these people, among them Arthur Amiotte, a renowned Oglala Lakota artist. Amiotte tells us that wicohan, the Lakota term for living in accord with the ideals and beliefs of their society, is alive and well. The 150-odd artworks by Plains Indian artists on display confirm this, telling a story of exchange, painful loss, and inspiring renewal. These objects speak for themselves not only to challenge stereotypes and romanticizations, but to claim their rightful place next to the great art of the world.

Eastern Plains artist, probably Illinois, Mid-Mississippi River Basin. “Robe with Mythic Bird” (c. 1700-1740). Native tanned leather, pigment. 42 3/8 × 47 7/8". Photo: Musée du Quai Branly/ Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado.

Despite the well-intentioned but misguided assertion by New York Times critic Holland Cotter, none of these objects have truly “come home,” as many Plains Indian nations would tell you. Repatriation is a topic avoided, unsurprising given that much of the show is on loan from museums filled by the history of colonial conquest (such as one prior venue, the Musée du Quai Branly). The museum’s audience requires some translation of the stories of these artworks, done primarily by curator Gaylord Torrence of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. In addition, Judith Ostrowitz, the organizer of the exhibition in New York, has thoughtfully included indigenous voices wherever possible. A photographic panorama of the landscape of Montana, taken by a Blackfeet Nation high school student, covers the exhibition’s walls for a native perspective on the Plains, even as a wall map of the region juxtaposes traditional territories with today’s demarcated reservations and treaty lands. The audio guide program literally makes native voices heard, including several of the artists on display and Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), current president of the American Indian College Fund. These insider voices are essential for ensuring the objects on display are conceived of as more than relics of a culture and people lost to history. Instead, through the telling or oral histories, memories, and experiences, the artworks and their artists come alive.

Black Hawk, Sans Arc Lakota (Teton Sioux), South Dakota. “Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle” (1880-1881). Paper, ink, graphite. 10 × 16". Photo: New York Historical Association, Fenimore Art Museum/John Bigelow Taylor.

The pictorial narrative tradition of the Plains is one of such storytelling; figures on hide shirts, buffalo robes, and paper tell us of great exploits and act as visual sources and cues for oral histories. Encounters with other tribes or newly arrived Europeans played a prominent role in these histories. The “Three Villages Robe,” a 1740 buffalo robe by a Quapaw artist, tells the story of an alliance between the Quapaw and French colonists against the neighboring Chickasaw Nation. Some of the Quapaw warriors carry muskets from the French, and a drawn line traces the path of the narrative, passing through the Quapaw, their village, and a French settlement. The great buffalo robes (seven in total) are undoubtedly the stars of the show, and in this instance the “Three Villages Robe” embodies a cross-cultural exchange between the European settlers and Plains peoples. While the robes look magnificent on display, they beg to be worn, to have the oral record they visually signify be spoken and to have a hand trace the figures along the soft tanned leather.

Lakota (Teton sioux) artist, North or South Dakota. “Horse Mask” (ca. 1900). Native tanned leather, glass beads. 28 1/2 × 35". Photo: New York Historical Association, Fenimore Art Museum, The Thaw Collection.

The presence of the artist is felt keenly throughout the exhibition, a change from the ethnographic model of cultural display. Every label lists an artist, even if unknown, and wherever possible, a photograph or image of an artist or owner contributes to the history of that object. For example, “Robe with box-and-border design” (1830) is displayed with a Karl Bodmer watercolor on the label. The watercolor, circa 1833, depicts a Lakota woman named Chan-Cha-Uia-Te-Uin, from whom the robe was collected. Bodmer was present at the transaction and depicted Chan-Cha-Uia-Te-Uin wearing the very same robe, suggesting that she may have been the artist. Other times the attribution is more explicit: the ledger drawings by artists such as Little Shield and Black Hawk adopted commercial materials brought by Euro-American colonists and are continuations of the biographical narratives painted on hide shirts and robes as well as images of particular world views. In “Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle” (1880 – 81) Black Hawk depicts himself as a supernatural being connected to his mount by jagged power lines, an example of an epistemology that encourages interconnectedness with the material and spiritual worlds.

Edgar Heap of Birds, Hock E Aye Vi, “Ma-ka’tal-na’-zin (One Who Stands on the Earth)” (1990). Enamel on aluminum, 18 × 36.25 × 0.0625". 1 of 38 signs from Building Minnesota (site-specific public work). Courtesy of Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds.

Ostrowitz’s contributions to the exhibition in New York are exemplary, and her time at the Met has been a moment of increased attention for Native American art and artists as the museum’s collection of Native American art has received a long overdue update and rotation. In the last half of the exhibition she included some important modern and contemporary work that emphasizes the continuation of tradition and confronts the present with the history of the Plains peoples. Despite the colonial war against and the attempted destruction of indigenous ways of life and culture, artists like the Kiowa Six members Spencer Asah and Stephen Mopope endured. While the flat forms and decorative colors of Asah’s “Kiowa sun Dancer” (1930) are typical of the Kiowa group, Mopope’s “Seated Figure with Bow and Arrow” of 1931 brings Euro-American conventions of three-dimensional form into the tradition of Plains narrative. Both link earlier drawings on hide and paper to the easel painting of the 20th century. The photography of Horace Poolaw (Kiowa) and Richard Throssel (Cree) captures a subtle resistance of Native peoples to the fate of a “disappearing” people. Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’s (Cheyenne/Arapaho) work “Ma-ka’tal-na’-zin (One Who Stands on the Earth)” is from his 1990 Building Minnesota series, for which he placed large metal, billboard-like signs along Minneapolis’s downtown riverfront. The signs recognized by name the 40 Dakota men hanged after the 1862 Dakota War, the largest mass execution in American history. “Gifts for Trading Land with White People” (1992) by Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) combines images by colonial painters like George Catlin with suspended sports memorabilia to call attention to the still prevalent use of derogatory racist epithets as sports team mascots. Wendy Red Star’s Four Season Series (2006) pokes fun at romantic idealizations of Native Americans by placing herself in dioramas made up of blow-up animals and cheap nature-landscape backdrops.

Closing out the exhibition is the video installation “Rattle” (2003) by Dana Claxton (Hunkpapa Lakota), the sounds of which haunt the gallery. In it Claxton rhythmically plays homemade rattles, tools of healing with spiritual value. The installation washes the viewer in blue, a healing color in Lakota belief, and a traditional Peyote song is transformed by synthesizers to engage the contemporary with a Lakota cosmology. It is the perfect capstone to an exhibition that inspires an appreciation of the history, culture, and tradition of the Plains Indians. By showing how present that tradition is today, works like Claxton’s triumph over the stereotypes of American sports teams and popular culture which place the Native American in a distant, irrelevant past. I was watching the four-channel video when a white middle-aged couple sat next to me. At the end of Claxton’s meditative work, one turned to the other and simply said, “I had no idea.” Such is the healing potential on display at the Met.

Contributor

Christopher Green

CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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