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|Art on View|
by Janet Catherine Berlo
|Little Shield, Arapaho, "Pen-na-tak-er Co-manch," before 1868|
|Pencil, ink and colored pencil, 7 1/2 x 12 inches. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Charles Diker.|
|A profound sense of
history has long compelled the Indian peoples of the
Great Plains of North America to chronicle their lives
pictorially. Their paintings on rock walls, buffalo hide
robes and tipis provided records of history, experiences
and visions. A mans exploits in war or success in
the hunt would be painted on his garments and on his
shelter to validate and memorialize his heroic deeds
In the mid-19th century, Plains men broke with the hide and rock painting traditions of the past and adopted a new, smaller-scale medium for their pictorial histories: they began to draw on paper. They obtained pencils, crayons, and watercolors from white explorers and traders who had trickled across the continent early in the century, and later from the military men and Indian agents who swept across the Mississippi in the second half of the century in an unstoppable wave that changed Plains Indian life irrevocably.
Plains Indian Drawings, 1865-1935: Pages from a Visual History, organized by The Drawing Center, New York, and The American Federation of Arts, is the first large-scale exhibition to survey this tradition as it existed among Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa peoples, and to consider these drawings as an artistic genre unto itself. It will travel to three other museums in the United States during 1996-97.
Western-produced paper was used by Indian artists of the Great Plains as early as the 1830s as a new surface on which to draw and record the profound changes that were occurring around them. The large bound ledger book, used for inventory by traders and military officers, became a common canvas for the renderings of Indian artists, although autograph books, sketchbooks, note paper, recycled stationery and other paper materials were also utilized. Sometimes pencils and notebooks were acquired through trade; sometimes they were part of the plunder taken from the bodies of white soldiers on the battlefield. Ironically, drawing books were plundered in turn by soldiers from the bodies of dead Indian warriors, collected as coveted relics of the very culture the soldiers had been sent to destroy. Other books were created by Indian scouts for white soldiers to take home as mementos of their often bloody days in "Indian country."
Plains artists used drawings as a way of making sense of their transition from a migratory existence to a reservation life. Drawings made with these new materials were both a continuation of traditional male representational and historical arts, and a new avenue for exploration. Drawings by Plains warriors were powerful for the indigenous history they evoked. Some, as vivid reminders of victories in past warfare, no doubt helped ensure victory in the next skirmish or pony raid. In other examples, the artists labored as ethnographers of an alien culture, chronicling the large cities, Victorian ladies, and the curious customs they observed. Ultimately, the drawings serve as a vivid and immediate chronicle of the experience of the Plains Indian of the 19th century.
Drawn from more than two dozen sources in the United States, Plains Indian Drawings, 1865-1935 includes seldom-seen works from private holdings and archival collections, and outstanding examples on loan from public institutions. The exhibition displays primarily single-sheet drawings, separated from books by their later owners. Several complete books are also included and will be opened to different pages at each venue. Given the fragility of the material, not all the works will be seen at all venues, but the complete range of types of drawings and drawing books will be exhibited at each venue.
The earliest securely dated works in the exhibition are drawings by the Arapaho artist Little Shield, in which he depicts himself confronting Pawnees, Utes, Comanches, Texans and other enemies. Done prior to 1868, the drawings are remarkable for the elegant simplicity with which a large amount of historical data is conveyed (fig. 7). The latest works include drawings made by Moses Old Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota) in the 1930s in which he recalls battles of the 1870s, evidence that, even at that late date, elderly Indians were still being commissioned by historians, anthropologists and collectors to recount old stories. These artists chose to depict these stories in an archaizing style of a half century before.
The indigenous Plains tradition of pictorial representation dictated a great economy of means in drawing: delicate "stick figures" in a semi-abstract style with limited detail characterize the earlier works. The intercultural influence of European artistic conventions is increasingly evident in drawings from the later decades of the 19th century, especially in the new interest paid by Native artists to finely elaborated line, pattern and landscape. The new medium of photography, brought west by the white man, also exerted an influence on Plains Indian drawing. The Kiowa artist Wohaws 1877 drawing "Kiowa Portraits" (fig. 10), featured in the exhibition, is composed of a series of meticulously detailed portraits pictured on a single sheet, each subject defined by its own frame, as though a row of studio photo portraits.
Wohaw was among six dozen Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho men who, accused of various crimes against white settlers and soldiers, were transported to St. Augustine, Florida, to be jailed in Fort Marion from 1875 to 1878. The exhibition includes a broad range of drawings made at Fort Marion that eloquently testify to the efforts of Native artists to keep their identity alive despite the harsh environment in which they were placed. The prisoners earned money and privileges by making items to sell to tourists, most notably small drawing books filled with vivid autobiographical pictures. Scores of these books were produced and sold for two dollars each. A number of St. Augustine drawings are included in the exhibition. Among them are works by the Cheyenne artist Making Medicine who depicted his life as a prisoner in "Inspection of Indian Prisoners, Ft. Marion, Fla." (fig. 3) and slyly commented on his alien surroundings in "Indian Prisoners and Ladies Archery Club," in which primly dressed Victorian ladies have showered the ground with arrows, having missed the target entirely. Other artists in captivity, such as Squint Eyes, evoked their former lives on the Plains in drawings such as "Buffalo Hunt" (fig. 4).
Native American drawings became important sources of intercultural communicationpictorial means to educate whites about indigenous traditions and histories. Even the act of making drawings for sale held a profound meaning for those who made them: it was an act of resistance to chronicle the old ways and keep them alive. Today, the drawings speak on many levels about Native history, oppression, resistance, autonomy, and the powerful human urge to draw.
Ewers, John C., Helen M. Mangelsdorf, and William W. Wierzbowski. Images of a Vanished Life: Plains Indian Drawings from the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1985.
Greene, Candace S. "Silverhorn." In Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life. Ed. Evan Maurer. Minneapolis and Seattle: Minneapolis Institute of Arts and University of Washington Press, 1992.
Harris, Moira F. Between Two Cultures: Kiowa Art from Fort Marion. St. Paul, MN: Pogo Press, 1989.
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