Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
MARCH 12 – DECEMBER 4, 2016
Despite its claims, Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains does not trace the evolution of narrative art among Native nations on the Great Plains. There is no solid continuum on display connecting the earliest historic work on display—a male warrior-artist’s deerskin shirt from 1840, covered in painted pictographic scenes of battle victory and prestige—with the contemporary commissions of ledger art from 2012 – 13 that comprise the bulk of the exhibition. Indeed, there is a ninety-year gap between the most recent historic work (from the tail end of the Reservation period at the turn of the 20th century, when Plains narrative art shifted from hide shirts and buffalo robes to trade materials like muslin and ledger paper) and the fifty-odd contemporary works commissioned for the show by its curator, Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). Yet this gap reveals the importance of the show’s structure, for it presents Plains narrative art as a continuity, without strict chronological progression, as resurgence rather than as evolution. This replaces the standard museological linearity of historical progress with a cyclical return, emphasizing the lived connection with tradition and the past that Plains narrative artists embody today.
The show’s opening section, “From Past to Present,” is emblematic of this break and return. Here, historic works are placed alongside contemporary equivalents, demonstrating how the past still appears in and influences works being made today. Long Soldier’s (Lakota/Nakota) 1902 Winter Count (an illustrated calendar history in which an important event is drawn to represent each year, marked from winter to winter) depicts more than a century of history in a spiral of images that moves forward in time as the images circle clockwise across the muslin surface. The adjacent 2004 winter count by Martin E. Red Bear (Oglala/Sicangu Lakota) integrates the traditional method of recording history with contemporary events of Red Bear’s life, including a 1999 visit from Bill Clinton. These juxtapositions demonstrate how contemporary artists are both emulating the historic forms and updating them for contemporary usage (although some avoid stylistic deviations altogether). A 2010 buffalo hide by David Dragonfly (Blackfeet/Assiniboine), for example, looks older than the adjoining 1920 elk-skin robe attributed to James White Calf (Blackfeet), because of the former artist’s use of a smoke tanning process and his adherence to the pictographic style of Blackfeet’s war records. A lack of innovation does not imply any intrinsic lack of originality; rather, it reflects the simultaneous understanding of past tradition and its re-emergence in new forms.
Compared to last year’s Metropolitan Museum exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky (March 9 – May 10, 2015)—which, though immensely popular, was criticized for having no indigenous curators and decontextualizing works as aesthetic rather than activated as living objects—the role of Her Many Horses as a Native curator is keenly felt. While the Met sought a totalizing history of the development of Plains art, Her Many Horses allows indigenous temporality, voice, and experience to organize the display. As an artist himself (when the exhibition opened he had just come back from winning a blue ribbon at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market), Her Many Horses pays close attention to the details and materiality of the works. Wall diagrams explain the stories told by the pictographic figures on historic works, and a “Discovery Room” has samples of deer and buffalo hides available for the public to touch, providing a tactile understanding of works that would have been worn and touched as their stories were told. Unfortunately, for conservation reasons, hides and paintings are pegged on flat surfaces like canvases, still displayed as aesthetic objects.
It is the contemporary ledger art commissions in the “Contemporary Expressions” section that feel the most alive; this is where the exhibition shines. The National Museum of the American Indian commissioned new works from eleven artists representative of communities and tribal nations across the Great Plains with a history of narrative art. While the exhibition prefers to use the term “narrative art” to denote the tradition of figural painting on the Plains, Her Many Horses asked these contemporary artists for ledger drawings, the specific form that developed when warrior artists began depicting their pictorial storytelling on ledger paper in the second half of the 19th century. This interpretive freedom yielded works that are highly distinct in style and content.
Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala/Lakota) injects humor into his bright pencil drawings on antique ledger paper. 4G Better than One-G (2012) depicts two women in pow wow dress, identified as competitive dancers by the numbers pinned to their shawls, texting on cellphones as they wait to compete. “One-G” is a play on cellular signals and the Lakota word for the number one, waŋí (pronounced ONE-gee). Wilcox had a relative in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, and In Studio (2012) shows Buffalo Bill and a Native performer from behind as they sit for a photograph (the primary means by which Native peoples were represented by whites), their heads held still by a stand which is symbolic of the artifice of the “Indian” image. Relatedly, Chris Pappan (Kaw Nation/Osage/Cheyenne River Sioux) takes a drastically different approach to the reduced pictographic style of ledger art by drawing photorealist figures directly from photographs. However Pappan distorts his figures: Culture Crossroads, 21st-Century Ledger Drawing No. 55 (2012) features a seated man with two mirrored sides, or rather a man being pulled apart. The optical distortion suggests the distorted historical lens by which others have viewed and depicted Native Americans, and, Pappan says, “the way which we view our own past.”
Many of the contemporary works are drawn on antique ledger paper, which at first glance is a clever conceptual effect. The call-back to historic ledger drawings is obvious, but further nuances subtly emerge, such as stamped page numbers which recall the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ tribal roll numbers. Some artists chose ledger paper with extant writing that relates to their drawings—in His Buffalo Medicine (2012), Joel Pulliam (Oglala Lakota) depicts a rattle-bearing healer on a sheet of antique ledger paper with “Dr. Wallace” written at the top, contrasting two traditions of medicine. The use of antique ledger paper is not universal among the commissions, but the majority make use of it. Again, rather than a sign of unoriginality, the recurrence of ledger paper as a material should be thought of as emblematic of the return to past forms.
Outsider values present a consistent tension when viewing this work. One major example is the question of gender parity—Her Many Horses describes Plains narrative art as “basically a male art form.” Thankfully there are a growing number of female artists working in the narrative form today; the inclusion of commissions from several women helps to somewhat ease what still remains a massive gender disparity in the show. Lauren Good Day Giago’s (Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree) work tells the stories of the women in her community. Her mother encouraged her to first begin drawing narrative art, and in We Learn From Our Grandmothers (2012), Giago depicts a circle of women teaching crafts, surrounded by floral motifs which echo the designs in bead and quillwork being. The tension between a problematic lack of female representation and a hesitance to impose Euro-American feminist values on an indigenous tradition is worth considering.
Plains narrative art originated in the depiction of successes of battle, which is most visible in those works which present modern military service as the new war society. In Highbird Counting Coup on Enemy Rifle (2012), Chester Medicine Crow (Apsáalooke [Crow]) depicts his recently deceased grandfather “counting coup” on an enemy German during World War II—an act of extreme bravery and a great achievement that consisted of getting close enough to take the enemy’s weapon or to hit them with a riding quirt (held in Highbird’s left hand). Sherman Chaddlesone’s (Kiowa) features the Kiowa Black Leggings Society, or Ton-Kon-Gah, a ceremonial society that now serves as one of the premier veterans organizations of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. In an unfinished work, his last before he died, Chaddlesone is visible in a Black Leggings Society dance in front of their distinctive yellow-and-black striped teepee, appearing as a young man carrying a rifle amidst other members wearing the society’s distinctive costume.
As artist Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) noted at the exhibition’s opening, the warriors of today face the lasting impact of modern warfare when they return home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from mental and physical scars. Narrative art not only gives us a glimpse into personal experiences and histories but also provides a means for warriors to work through such traumas in the comfort of heritage. Maybee’s work Conductors of Our Own Destiny (2013) emphasizes self-assertion through a return to tradition. A bison hide covered in painted and beaded scenes, the work depicts cars and motorcycles (Maybee’s own ’69 Impala is visible) amongst buffalo and teepees, all references to Maybee’s friends and family. A train, typically a symbol of America’s westward imperial expansion, runs along tracks on the beaded spine of a Native man visible in the conductor’s seat. “As destructive and divisive as the steam engine was, it is still part of our history,” Maybee said, “We are now in a position to assert our sovereignty, to be conductors of our history.” The linearity of the train’s forward progress belies the circularity of the return to tradition that is present in the narrative art on display, a continuity visible on paper and hide.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.