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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)

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 (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 (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) (courtesy the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968)

“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) (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.

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.

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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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

4 replies on “In Plains Indians Exhibition, Met Museum Favors Beauty Over Context”

  1. Is it too much to get names of sources with quotes? If you can’t get someone to say it on the record, then it’s not said. It sounds invented or spoken by an artist that wasn’t included in the exhibit.
    Why say Wendy Red Star’s work is the same as Kent Monkman when his genre is painting and film? Does this writer think there is no difference between film/painting and photography?Can the writer not see the different context of a female making this work versus a male? Not only that, Red Star came up at the same time, if not before. And nice job pitting one native contemporary artist against another that’s not so well known. Is this writer a good friend of Monkman or just partial because of the Canadian connection? This is lame at best. Get over yourself Ellen.

    1. Gently.
      Firstly. Indigenous cultures the world over, for thousands and thousands of years did without the written word because the spoken word was considered truthful enough, Lying is useless and pointless if your life depends on speaking truth in order to preserve your cultural strength and connection to the land. When white man’s written treaties and bibles came along as the first examples of ‘white man’s sacredness of the written word’ they revealed first and foremost the total disconnect of white man from the sacredness of the land and the importance of speaking the truth and acting on it.

      As for treaties, the indigenous spoken words turned out to be even more truthful and what was written down starkly contrasted with what was said would be written down and what was actually done. If it’s written down it’s even less likely to have been said and that’s a fundamental premise in all white cultures that lied and murdered there way through the Indian nations and hundreds of other indigenous cultures around the world over the last 400 years or so. It’s naive to think that it’s not a standard practice still of modern ‘western’ style governments with the Nazi’s absolutely perfecting the technique built on by everyone from Columbus to Clive of India to the Belgian Monarchy in the Congo.

      Secondly. Indigenous culture expresses meaning whatever the medium. If the same thing is said in different medium then it is the same thing regardless of that medium. That is a fundamental premise of indigenous communication. White culture introduced the idea of hierarchical symbolism in mediums and it’s still getting over it today with many valid and powerful artists, ignored because of gender and preferred medium.

      That hierarchical diminishment in white cultures is something that doesn’t affect indigenous artists unless they’re in a white man’s context as at the Met and as pointed out by this journalist, affected by the Met’s curatorial decisions. Amongst their own company they may well be the ‘same’ in so far as their message, because they belong to the message far more than it belongs to them. If they belong to a particular cultural story then they most certainly are the same no matter the medium because that is the weight indigenous cultures choose to give art. That has nothing to do with the hierarchical and prejudicial weight that white observers give to it.

      Thirdly. Re-read your comments re prejudice in light of the above two points.

      1. Can you be more to the point? Pompous purple prose is always a challenge for me to read and understand. I don’t need a history lesson or your take on that history. I am well aware of what happened and where. I’m half white but I’m not going to give you the history lesson my grandfather gave me. After all, this is the comment section of an art review.
        So are you saying then, that even though the art world is a white man’s world, it’s not necessary to name a person in a quote? Are you saying also white people aren’t capable of understanding native work? And are you saying that native contemporary artists who are operating and responding to a white man’s world as well to each other, that all of them are not nor should their work respond to the white man’s world, even though now the two (like it or not )are intertwined? Their pieces are more complex because of this duality. Because they must have a foot in each world. This is the last response you will get from me because you are too afraid to use your name.

        1. That is my name. I find your anger a challenge to read too but it’s not about who’s clearer headed or more articulate, I think you’re too afraid to be whatever you think the other half of you is and that is something all indigenous cultures have to deal with and overcome to get back identity. The critique was that curatorial decisions of this exhibition didn’t recognise that as much as they could have because they favoured the white man’s perspective on the meaning of art.
          Careful to listen to your own soul because it speaks for you. In your own words is a white mans tool of divide and rule by hierarchical diminishment. Note you said of yourself “I’m half white”, not “I’m half …… (fill in your identity, your national heritage, who you are when you’re not being white)” That’s because in white man’s culture you are expected to choose ‘the superior culture’ and forget that you have two world views to account for in your blood. That’s how white culture presents, misrepresents, misappropriates all other cultures. That’s how white culture manipulates all other cultures into capitulation. By diminishing and disappearing them, and you, with well trained lies and distortions that get spoken almost unconsciously by ‘us’ but very consciously by white political structures, as has happened at the Met apparently.
          ps. You can’t be half this or half that. You can move or live within different spaces where one behaves differently, but your cultural core being and how you live your cultural modesty is indivisible and either waiting and calling for you, claimed and lived, or forgotten but not totally lost and subsumed and so swirls under your soul.

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