The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

The current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains 130 objects that reflect the artistic diversity of artists from the tribes of the American central plains. Ranging from the early works collected by foreign visitors federal to works of their present day descendants, this is a sterling show with both historical information and visually tantalizing masterpieces of material culture.

This exhibition began as a cooperative effort among three institutions which held major collections of this material: The Quai Branly Museum in France where French Explorers and their descendants have gifted objects purchased before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, The Nelson- Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. More than 30 authors and scholars contributed to the catalog that makes the important point that today we enjoy these works as artistic objects as well as historical remnants of our ancient cultures.


Robe of tanned hide
Quai Branly Museum, Paris, France. c. 1800-1830, Lakota Indian Tribe, USA

The robe pictured above was made by a central plains artist on a tanned buffalo hide with 6o figures telling the stories of the accomplishments of their warriors depicted on foot and horseback in bitter conflict with invading enemies. Such a document tells us the oral and visual history of these tribes that engaged with  French fur trappers to stave off the invasion of their lands by other European acquisitors in the French and Indian Wars of 1754-1763.

otter-skin-bag, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Otter Skin Bag c. 1800
Quai Branly Museum, Paris, France

In addition to the use of every part of the buffalo for food, clothing and shelter, these resourceful people had spiritual leaders who cured disease and promoted good health with herbal healing and shamanistic rituals with many animal species.  This otter skin bag held medicine and charms for such uses. Porcupine quills and beads acquired by trade adorn this unusual memento.

cradleboard, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Cradleboard, c. 1840
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts    Wood, quills, beads on tanned leather

More practical needs such as carrying young infants were addressed with decorative masterpieces, for example this cradleboard, which was worn with shoulder straps so that the parent could continue his work.  Stitched with beads and quills, this was purchased by an American painter, George Catlin, in 1832 during his own exploration of the Plains culture. Noted art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that “portability ruled,” as we see the mix of practicality of function and the artistic mastery of this culture.

bear-claw-necklace, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Bear Claw Necklace, 1830
Quai Branly Museum, Paris France

The most prestigious and powerful of men’s ornaments in traditional Plains culture was the bear claw necklace, assembled from the 4 large claws of the forward paws.  Collected by an Indian agent in about 1860, we know that this kind of ornament was only worn by members of the Bear Society whose members were endowed with sacred remedies for healing.  Upon a recent request from the Iowa tribe, this necklace was returned by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to the tribal leaders for safekeeping and ceremonial use under our 1990 federal statute, The Native American Protection and Repatriation Act.

horse-mask, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Horse Mask, 2008
Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty
Quills and beads on tanned hide, Smithsonian Institution

The reverence for the horse, which was introduced to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, was magnified by the Plains Indians whose settlements and migratory patterns shifted with this new mobility.  Their warriors became skilled fighters who would command their men to face the continuous incursion into their territories by both settlers and American troops.  They decorated their horses with facemasks such as this one.

Eagle feathers adorned the most decorous of these headdresses worn like crowns of leadership. The one pictured below was the feather bonnet of Red Cloud who was present in the encounter with General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry in 1868.

feather-headdress, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Feather Headdress c. 1865
Quai Branly Museum – Horsehair, ermine, leather hide, glass beads.

A living descendant of someone killed in the Massacre of Wounded Knee which took place on December 29, 1890 when the US Cavalry slaughtered multitudes of unarmed women and children on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Arthur Amiotte has made a canvas and ink depiction of the reporting of these events in local newspapers at that time.  Combining photographs with the written text, you can see the Ghost Dancers performing at Wounded Knee Creek, the sacred ground of the Lakota tribe.    Arthur stated at a museum symposium in Kansas City that his work was made to keep this memory alive for the new generation so that the deaths would not be forgotten.

arthur-amiotte, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

Arthur Amiotte, 2001
Canvas and Ink, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

Kevin Gover, the current director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC noted in a talk at a recent conference that there is a unique opportunity with this exhibition to introduce the visual culture and historic messages of these works to the broader audience of a major museum like the Metropolitan in New York.[1] Its director, Thomas Campbell, is willing to add this kind of material culture to the menu of his institution that has previously exhibited a more refined artistic product.

Additionally, since museum attendance for families is on a meteoric rise, the message of our complicated history with our indigenous tribes has been told in this show in a frank and honest manner for the new generation to consider.  In seeing this exhibition, we can reflect on the role of artists who embellish and illustrate our human history in each successive era.  Indeed in this cooperative effort, we see international museum lending and scholarship in its finest hour.

Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC: March 3 to May 10, 2015



[1] Kevin Gover, video posted,, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, 2015.