In Plains Indians Exhibition, Met Museum Favors Beauty Over Context

Ghost Dance Dress, Detail, Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, ca. 1890, Native tanned leather, pigment, metal cones, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Detail of “Ghost Dance Dress,” Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma (ca. 1890), native tanned leather, pigment, metal cones, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (all images courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum has mounted a show of 137 rare pieces of art of the Plains Indians, on loan from 58 different international collections. The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was organized by the Musee du quai Branly in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was well-received in Paris; it then went to Kansas City before its current run at the Met. Gaylord Torrence of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art curated the exhibition, and Judith Ostrowitz organized the show for the Met. It includes items from the Osage, Quapaw, Omaha, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche, and Meskwai nations, and roughly spans the Mississippi River basin to the Rocky Mountains in the west, the Rio Grande in southern Texas to the upper Saskatchewan River in Central Alberta, Canada. The pieces are fascinating; the display cases well-constructed, allowing good views of the objects; and the exhibition halls facilitate an easy movement and flow of the crowds. Yet the specter of deracination hangs like an ancestral ghost, one hushed by a frenzy of appreciation for the cult of the aesthetic object.

The sins of Western culture in regards to its Indian policy scarcely rear their ugly head. They are alluded to through asides in secondary material and discrete videos on the Met’s website, like an excerpt from Most Serene Republics (2009), a documentary film shown at the 53rd Venice Biennial about Native Americans who went to Europe to participate in Wild West shows and died there in the 1800s and early 1900s. An argument can be made that these issues have nothing to do with the objects’ importance as art, which is like saying the Sistine Chapel has nothing to do with Christianity.

Human Effigy Pipe, Adena or Hopewell, 100 B.C.–A.D. 100, courtesy Ohio History Connection
Human Effigy Pipe, Adena or Hopewell (100 B.C.–A.D. 100) (courtesy Ohio History Connection)

In terms of the caliber of the pieces, the stories they tell, and the history of the Plains Indians over the four centuries they trace, the show delivers. The oldest one, a human effigy pipe from approximately 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. shows both how ancient the sacred ritual of smoking tobacco was, and how sculpture was already stylistically developed. The Indians did not have a word for “art” so animal skins, objects, and everyday functional items served as ceremonial, spiritual, historical, and mythic items. As trade increased, European objects like beads, metal bells, guns, and fancy cloth made their way into the pieces on view, including those collected by French traders Lewis and Clark on their 1804-1806 expedition, traditionally thought of as “ethnographic” or more derogatorily, “primitive.”

"Three Villages Robe", Quapaw, 1740, Native-tanned leather, pigment,  Musée du quai Branly, Paris, made available by the EDF Foundation and Martine and Bruno Roger
“Three Villages Robe,” Quapaw (1740), native-tanned leather, pigment, Musée du quai Branly, Paris (courtesy the EDF Foundation and Martine and Bruno Roger)

Native peoples first came in contact with Europeans in the 1500s through traders who imported horses, weapons, and ultimately diseases like smallpox and later cholera, measles, and scarlet fever, decimating a number of the Plains tribes in the 1800s. The horse enabled native peoples to efficiently hunt their main source of food, buffalo. A piece like the “Three Villages Robe” shows how the relationship and history of tribes were painted onto natural canvas robes, as the tribes did not possess a written language, serving as repositories of a tribes’ history.

Initially interactions with white traders and settlers seem benign enough — there is a cultural exchange of items like in a man’s coat from around 1840 with native tanned leather, intricately woven porcupine quills, and metal hook-and-eyes, with a European cut. The artist was a Sioux-Metis woman of mixed European and Native American (usually a union between a trader/trapper man and native woman) who used Native geometric patterns as well as ornate European floral motifs. Blue beads, symbolic of the sky, were especially treasured.

"Man's Coat" , Sioux-Metis,  1840, Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, metal hook-and-eyes,  Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec
“Man’s Coat,” Sioux-Metis (1840), native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, metal hook-and-eyes (courtesy Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec)

The introduction of European-style drawing on paper makes an appearance with the Maffet Ledger from 1874–81, an entire ledger or book of drawings with watercolor, pencil, and crayon on paper. The example below shows Indian warriors remaining behind to save women and children during a battle, as shooting guns can be seen discharging along the border as warriors bleed from their wounds. Woha’s drawing of “A Man Receiving Power From Two Spirit Animals” was made while he was in prison, caught between two cultures, the native culture on the left and the more domestic settler culture on the right.

"Maffet Ledger",  Southern and Northern Cheyenne, 1874–1881, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968
“Maffet Ledger,” Southern and Northern Cheyenne (1874–1881) (courtesy the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968)
"A Man Receiving Power From Two Spirit Animals", Woha (Kiowa), 1877,  Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis
“A Man Receiving Power From Two Spirit Animals,” Wohaw (Kiowa) (1877) (courtesy Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis)

While viewing the sacred objects on display, I compared the show’s organizers’ visual presentation to the 2010 exhibition I saw at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada, “Kaahsinnooniksi Ao’toksisawooyawa Our ancestors have come to visit: Reconnections with historic Blackfoot shirts.”  The warrior shirts were on loan from the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, England, a situation similar to the vast cache of loans that comprise the show at the Met. Members from the Blackfoot, a tribe local to Alberta, brought their entire families, from grandparents to toddlers, to sit on benches surrounding the five tanned and beaded shirts on display at the Glenbow, keeping the tribe’s ancestral family members’ company in shifts throughout the tenure of the exhibition. The family’s continuous presence, shared with museumgoers, radically changed the tone of the viewing experience for non-native viewers like myself.

"Cradleboard with Thunderbirds," Dakota (Eastern Sioux), 1840, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase
“Cradleboard with Thunderbirds,” Dakota (Eastern Sioux) (1840) (courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase) (click to enlarge)

I spoke with a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, who asked not to be identified, about the Met show. All of them remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America), since some of the pieces had been collected as early as the 1700s. One issue raised was the enormous price of the pieces on the open market, which goes against their intrinsic non-materialistic value, and how that money almost never made its way back to help those on the “res,” or reservations. “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them,” noted one artist.

The Cheyenne shield festooned with feathers of turkey, hawk, owl, and eagle was mentioned as one of the pieces with the most “power,” and it was suggested it had been blessed and protected by elders and medicine men before going on display. The general consensus was that it was a good thing to see all these items on view, as many, especially those containing light sensitive and delicate quill work, would probably never be shown again, such as the intricately stitched “Cradleboard With Thunderbirds.”

I found the most disturbing piece in the show to be a woman’s flame red Ghost Dance dress, painted with bird spirits. It was set off in a separate viewing area, and its significance pinpoints the deracination and decline of the Plains Indians. The Ghost Dance or five-day “round” dance was an amalgamation of Native American beliefs developed by Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, who had a prophetic vision during the solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, when he saw Paiute dead come back to life and better times arriving. This happened right when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was breaking up tribal relationships, forcing nomadic families to settle on reservations, take up farming, and send their children to English-language boarding schools, a time when wild Buffalo, once numbering in the millions, were facing extinction from overhunting with barely 1,000 left by 1895. The Ghost Dances, turned to in the face of these Bureau edicts and dwindling food supply, were embraced by Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota spiritual leader or holy man. On December 15, 1890, soldiers believed Sitting Bull was going to flee his reservation with a troupe of Ghost Dancers. They came to arrest him, and in the ensuring fracas he was shot and killed. Though a Ghost Dance dress is on prominent display, as well as a drawing of the arrest and death of Sitting Bull, no connection is made between them, and the implications of both the dance and the murder are nonexistent, dampened in favor of the appreciation of the utter beauty of the objects which depict the events, a very odd and deliberate curatorial thrust.

"The Arrest and Death of Sitting Bull", Thomas Stone Man (Thunkán Wicˆáša) (American, active early 20th century, North or South Dakota), 1920, Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, Omaha
Thomas Stone Man (Thunkán Wicˆáša), “The Arrest and Death of Sitting Bull” (1920) (courtesy Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, Omaha)

A brief, final section on contemporary native artists ends the show and is titled “Contemporary Artistic Revival, 1965–2015.” It includes an entire room devoted to Dana Claxton’s “Rattle,” a four-channel video, placed precariously close to and vying for attention with the gift shop. Wendy Red Star’s “Four Season Series” has the same wry wit as Cree artist Kent Monkman (not included in the show) does about depictions of the Native American noble savage by popular culture.

"Four Season (Fall)",  Wendy Red Star, Crow, (2006)
Wendy Red Star (Crow) “Four Season (Fall)” (2006)

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 10.

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