19th Century Plains Indian Art
(Online Exhibition ->)
The Native American artist in the 19th century encountered a transformation of living conditions as well as increased access to a wide variety of art materials. This combination triggered an explosion of creativity. Artistic high points were reached throughout North America by Native artists that, in turn, were absorbed by the dominant culture and re-interpreted in the last quarter of the 20th century. Great 20th century artists and theorists such as Andre Breton, Hans Hoffman and Andy Warhol, among others, were ardent collectors of American Indian art.
What matters, though, is not who collected this indigenous art but why - these artists viscerally responded to the immediacy of this timeless art which brings a worldview that is both universal and specific. In other words, when a Woodlands burl bowl invokes the Manitou spirit by suggesting a benevolent presence that surrounds the bowl, this echoes the prayer before meals that was standard in the settler’s family home.
We are all singing to the same God, just in different keys.
Actually the god of the settlers had instructed them to seek dominion over all the animals and birds of prey and to bring the gospel to all peoples while the god of, for example, the Lakotas emerged from a wind cave in the Black Hills, without any particular directive other than to keep holy this sacred place. Herein lies the dichotomy of Father Sky and Mother Earth as well as the seeds of the Battle of Little Big Horn when gold was found in this sacred land of the Lakota. This story continues today with our government handing over to an Australian mining company the sacred lands of the Apache known as Oak Flat. This was done via an amendment to the current 2015 national budget! In our time and in our name! But now we talk about the art...
As the Plains Indians engaged in initial contacts with European-Americans, the connection was more about commerce than conflict. An important part of this commerce was the trade for art supplies, i.e. beads. The remains of Bent’s Fort which is located in what is now southeastern Colorado but was then the border with Mexico, bears testimony to this fact. The fort burned to the ground in 1849 and that ground was saturated with trade beads in its ruins. Interestingly, many of those beads were what we call seed beads (smaller beads) even though this is reportedly the era of the larger pony beads, suggesting that the seed bead era began earlier than is generally believed.
This commerce led to a flowering of individual artistic tribal styles that had previously been an austere aesthetic. Early pipebags, i.e. pre-1850, generally show alternating color lines of beadwork, i.e. blue & white or red & white. In later examples, we attribute this ‘bar design’ to the Cheyenne but at this stage, tribal styles are not yet developed. The bar design, curiously, reflects the overall pattern of a Chief’s blanket. Some scholars believe that early Chief’s blankets were made for trade to the Plains Indians - there are many photographs of Plains Indians wearing them but none of which I am aware of Navajo wearing them. The Navajo seemed to favor the classic serape among themselves. They, too, would experience an explosion of color and design in their textile art with the disruption by the dominant culture concurrent with the advent of new materials and culture. As always, the artists reflected the changes in society. The straight lines of the First Phase blanket were augmented by the addition of red yarns unravelled from Spanish blankets and woven into Chief’s blankets and serapes in the classic period before aniline dyes arrived in the Southwest. When aniline dye arrived along with commercial yarns from Germantown, Pennsylvania, the Navajo artists created the eye-dazzler, about as far removed from the First Phase of a generation or two earlier that one can get. Instead of trading this blanket to another tribal group, the weavers sold it to the trading post which acted as a middleman for sales to the dominant culture. An artistic tradition evolved, changed yet, in other ways, remained the same.
For the native people, engaging in commerce for objects to be used in ritual and artistic adornment was nothing new. For example, copper and shells as well as catlinite, which all have limited and specific sources, have been found in pre-historic sites throughout North America. As the traditional life was replaced by a life centered around the trading post, furs were traded for art supplies as well as more mundane necessities. Similar to what we see in the evolution of Navajo art, the Lakota artist went from simple geometric patterns in quillwork decoration before Euro-American contact to bead decoration that initially was restricted to the primary colors of blue and white or red and white in the pony bead era (pre-1860) to more complex and colorful designs that by the twentieth century approached the baroque in style
Artistically, it is generally thought that a high point was reached as these individual cultures
approached the transition from traditional simplicity of earlier styles to more complex styles of the later trading post era. For the Navajo, this would be in the 1850’s and 60’s, before their re-settlement on their traditional lands and after their internment in Bosque Redondo. For the Lakota, the favored time period for the art would be before the cow replaced the buffalo as primary source of food and hides. There are, of course, great art objects made in all of these eras. The brilliance of the artist is not limited by availability of materials and that so much of this art, from all of these eras, endures and is treasured by generations of collectors bears testimony to that fact.
Online Exhibition ->