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7.1: Plains Cultures of the West- From Both Sides

  • Page ID
    232310
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    Over three centuries European colonists had fought and negotiated with Indians as allies and adversaries in the East, sometimes creating cultural middle grounds, and sometimes drawing harsh boundaries between cultures. The Native inhabitants of the Plains had only limited contact with outsiders until waves of explorers, military men, and traders opened the way for successive generations of settlers. Though together they reached compromises during the first four decades of the nineteenth century, these proved to be fleeting, as epidemics, alcoholism, and rapacious demands by whites for land and its resources sapped the resilience of Plains people. Nonetheless, Plains cultures maintained their cultural autonomy until the Reservation Era that began in the 1860s, consolidating and extending their older traditions while adapting to the newcomers, their arts, and their trade goods.

    The Myth of the Frontier

    Native peoples of the Plains knew the lands west of the Mississippi as their homelands, and were connected to the landscape by ancestral ties, and by sacred stories about their origins. The lands and wildlife of the West were interwoven with their daily lives and belief systems. For Eastern Americans, on the other hand, the West was a powerful abstraction remote from their everyday experience, a vast region where dreams of a better life of wealth and opportunity might find fulfillment. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the European encounter with the West was shaped by such imaginings.

    John Cawelti has identified four distinct versions of the frontier myth. For some, the new trans-Mississippi frontier West reinvigorated the dreams of gold and newfound wealth that had, since the beginning, drawn Europeans to what they perceived as the New World. For others, the West offered opportunities to renew and reform a corrupt society-motivations similar to those of the seventeenth-century Protestants who migrated to New England. The West also signified escape from the burdens of a restrictive social order: unstructured by family, church, law, and school, "the territories" represented a flight from civilization. A final concept of the West rose to prominence in the period 1840-1900: the "West as America," the idea that the process of western expansion, conquest, and settlement was the most powerful force shaping national character and identity. All four versions of the West have had a long cultural afterlife in film and fiction.

    None of these versions of the mythic West acknowledged the long presence of Native societies, nor that of earlier colonizers. In the mythic West, Anglo-Americans were the main actors. Yet the writer Arthur King Peters evoked a frontier society where a range of peoples met and mingled:

    In 1822, the muddy streets of St. Louis bustled with all the crowded activity of a grand-opera stage, peopled with a variety of races that defined the melting-pot character of the early frontier town. In summer the scene teemed with prowling Indians from various tribes, some with shaven heads, some roached and feathered, and decked out distinctively with jewelry, bone and quill ornaments, and colored blankets; with sauntering Spanish traders up from Chihuahua, Santa Fe, or Taos, in broad sombreros and adorned with silver accoutrements; with French Canadian voyageurs, Mexican mule drivers, and bullwackers. All mingled in the dust and mud with a flood of local teamsters, boatmen, soldiers, farmers, and traders, to the background strains of creaking wagons, cracking whips, bellowing animals, clanking sabers, and curses in several languages-the music of the frontier. 1

    Peters's colorful frontier types-Spanish traders, French voyageurs, and Mexican mule drivers-earn a place in his account by virtue of their exoticism, a prelude to the great pageant of westward expansion that would, according to this older view of western history, replace the unruly variety of the Old West with solid white settler families. This process of domesticating the West was the subject of much western genre painting from the 1840s on. The preceding generation, however, brought the first wave of white artists to the frontier to document the Native societies that stood in the path of expansion-the opening of a long history of nostalgia for the cultures most threatened by colonization.

    Setting Differences Aside on the New Frontier

    Figure 7.2: ALFRED JACOB MILLER, Interior of Fort Laramie, 1858-60. Watercolor on paper, 11⅝ x 14⅛ in (29.7 x 35.8 cm). Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland. (See also p. 208)
    Figure 7.2: ALFRED JACOB MILLER, Interior of Fort Laramie, 1858-60. Watercolor on paper, 11⅝ x 14⅛ in (29.7 x 35.8 cm). Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland. (See also p. 208)

    The period from 1806, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned East bearing specimens, maps, and voluminous records of the new lands, to the 1830s defines the first phase of sustained contact between European Americans and the Native societies of the trans-Mississippi West. In these years the power differential between European and Native was more evenly balanced than it was to become after the Civil War, and this led to open-ended relations less shaped by predetermined goals. Trappers developed extensive contacts with Native peoples, ranging from marital alliances to business cooperation. Images of the fur trade reveal a region in which cultures mixed, whites freely adopted Native ways, and Indians forged ties with other Native groups from all over the West. In Alfred Jacob Miller's (1810-74) Interior of Fort Laramie (fig. 7.2 and p. 208), Indians and whites both relax their vigilance. The fort- the very symbol of frontier hostilities between Indian and white- is transformed into a sheltering refuge, where, according to Miller, Indians from the far West, the Southwest, and the North gather to do business, often with their families in tow. Setting aside the markers of their cultural difference (notice the long rifle on the left opposite the lance and medicine bag on the right), they smoke, gather in conversational groups, and clamber to the lookout, or simply gaze at the spectacle. Over two decades after his trip to the West from his home in Baltimore, the image remained vivid for Miller. On the fur-trading frontier, people interacted with fewer assumptions about the superiority of European Americans. Yet with the decline of the fur trade in the late 1830s, and the growing pressures of settlement, this frontier of peaceful intercultural exchange came to an end. What was the Native Plains culture that French and American trappers and a few intrepid European and American artists and explorers encountered in the 1820s and 1830s?

    Native Plains Culture in the 1820s and 1830s

    The roached and feathered Indians, decked out in bone and quill as they wandered the streets of St. Louis in Peters's description above, represented Plains cultures with rich traditions of bodily ornament, self-display, and storytelling. More than two dozen Native societies inhabited the Plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the Lakota, Crow, Mandan, Pawnee, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and others. Some had arrived from further west and southwest; others, like the Lakota and related Siouan peoples, were pushed westward out of the Great Lakes area by population pressures from other Native and settler groups. Still others migrated north, remnants of the great Mississippian cultures (see Chapter 1). The Mandan and Hidatsa had lived on the northern Plains for at least a thousand years, in semi-permanent villages of spacious earth lodges. The Lakota and Crow, in contrast, were true nomads, whose temporary camps followed the great migrating herds of buffalo across the prairies. Their architecture was portable: painted hide lodges or tipis draped over sturdy poles.

    Figure 7.3: UNKNOWN ARTIST, Crow shield, Northern Plains, c. 1860. Rawhide, buckskin, wool, feather, pigment, 21 in (53.3 cm) diameter. Collection of Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.
    Figure 7.3: UNKNOWN ARTIST, Crow shield, Northern Plains, c. 1860. Rawhide, buckskin, wool, feather, pigment, 21 in (53.3 cm) diameter. Collection of Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.

    THE VISION QUEST. Plains Indian art shares with Native cultures of the East fundamental beliefs about the interdependence of the human, animal, and spiritual worlds. Men painted scenes on tipis and shields recording the spiritual encounters they had while on vision quests-solitary meditations in the wilderness during which they asked the spirits of earth and sky for aid (fig. 7.3). Because shield designs were gifts from spirit helpers, bestowed in vision quests or dreams, the right to use a particular design belonged strictly to the man who received the vision. For example, a Crow warrior named Big Bear owned this unique design of a bear (for which the artist is named). The bear runs bravely toward a hail of bullets, leaving his distinctive paw tracks be~d him. Big Bear painted several versions of the design. Such images were thought to have spiritual power, helping to protect their owners in battle. Yet in addition to this traditional concern with relationships to the spirit world, and the world of animals and ancestors, Plains art of this era introduced a new narrative form: the pictorial chronicle of personal and tribal history. In the following section we examine the interaction of two men, a white artist/ explorer and a Native warrior/ artist. Two intertwined objects created by each of them-a portrait and a painted buffalo robe-encapsulate the meeting points of Plains Indian and European American cultures and representational systems.

    Picturing Prowess

    Figure 7.4: Warrior's shirt, Mandan, Northern Plains, 1800-1830. Animal skin, porcupine quills, beads, pigments, 35½ x 53½ in (90.1 x 135.9 cm). Berne Historical Museum, Berne, Switzerland.
    Figure 7.4: Warrior's shirt, Mandan, Northern Plains, 1800-1830. Animal skin, porcupine quills, beads, pigments, 35½ x 53½ in (90.1 x 135.9 cm). Berne Historical Museum, Berne, Switzerland.

    History painting of military valor had held a place in European art since the Renaissance; among the earliest efforts toward an independent American art were John Trumbull's dramatic series of Revolutionary War battles (see fig. 5.4). Such visual commemorations of historical events were unusual in most areas of indigenous North America, but Plains Indian men developed a pictographic language by which they memorialized their prowess in war and the hunt. Before contact with Europeans, this pictorial system was schematic, consisting of abstract-looking stick figures, usually engaged in battle scenes, with few individuating details. Men painted their exploits on deer or antelope-hide shirts or buffalo-skin robes (fig. 7.4). These pictorial chronicles were intended to have a verbal accompaniment: their wearers amplified this visual record through storytelling. Without knowing or hearing the story, the pictorial details could not easily be deciphered.

    Figure 7.5: GEORGE CATLIN , Portrait of Máh-to-tóh-pa, "Four Bears", Second Chief, in Full Dress, 1832. Oil on canvas, 29 X 24 in (73-6 X 60.9 cm). American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 7.5: GEORGE CATLIN , Portrait of Máh-to-tóh-pa, "Four Bears", Second Chief, in Full Dress, 1832. Oil on canvas, 29 X 24 in (73-6 X 60.9 cm). American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

    CHIEF MÁH-TO-TÓH-PA AS PORTRAYED BY GEORGE CATLIN. In one striking instance from the early years of encounter, we do know the meaning of a buffalo-hide robe-as well as the rest of the ceremonial regalia of one chief-through a translation furnished by the American artist George Catlin (1796-1872). In 1832, he arrived at Fort Clark, on the upper Missouri River, where he painted a full-length portrait of the Mandan chief Máh-to-tóh-pa (c. 1800-37), "Four Bears" in English, and sometimes written as Mato-tope (fig. 7.5). Catlin was intent upon painting portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes as part of a systematic documentation of Plains cultures that were still completely unfamiliar to anyone but the traders and military men who had served at the forts in this region (see George Catlin's Indian Gallery, pages 218- 221). He also recorded Máh-to-tóh-pa's oral history in his journals.

    Catlin recounted with some pride that when Indian people saw his naturalistic portraits, they were in awe of his artistry, commenting that he had made "living beings," for they could see their chiefs alive in two places. While this may be hyperbole on Catlin's part, it reveals the astonishment of a people who, before the days of photography, had never seen such realistic art. In their own art works, personal identity was expressed not through the realistic depiction of facial features, as in European and Euro-American art, but through identifiable emblems of clothing and regalia.

    Catlin described Máh-to-tóh-pa as the second highest chief of the Mandan, but "the first and most popular man in the nation. Free, generous, elegant, and gentlemanly in his deportment-handsome, brave, and valiant; wearing a robe on his back with the history of his battles emblazoned on it which would fill a book themselves, if properly translated." He explained that even the name "Four Bears" was given by his Assiniboine enemies, who admired Máh-to-tóh-pa for rushing into battle "like four bears."

    Catlin provided a full explanation of the meaning of the clothing Máh-to-tóh-pa wore for his formal portrait. His shirt, made of two soft mountain sheepskins, was ornamented with porcupine-quill embroidery medallions on the chest and bands down the seams on the arms and shoulders. Attached to the quilled seams are feathers and locks of hair. Catlin said that these locks were from enemies slain in battle (though on the Northern Plains, this could also be hair willingly given in tribute by a warrior's female relatives). While rather indistinct in Catlin's portrait, this shirt also bears drawings of scenes of bravery in warfare, much like those on the shirt in figure 7.4 above. These episodes are amplified on the buffalo-skin robe discussed below. His leggings and moccasins were adorned with quill work done by his female relatives.

    Catlin described the headdress of eagle feathers and ermine skins as "the most costly part of an Indian's dress in all of this country." While only high-ranking individuals could wear such a headdress, the real sign of Máh-to-tóh-pa's status were the split buffalo horns at the front of his headdress. Catlin remarked that only those "whose exceeding valour, worth, and power is admitted by all the nation" wore such emblems of power.

    When Máh-to-tóh-pa came to Catlin's tipi to pose for his portrait, he was wearing many other accoutrements that Catlin omitted from the portrait for simplicity's sake, but which we know from his written description. These included a bear claw necklace, a painted shield, a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a long pipe and tobacco sack, a belt holding his tomahawk and scalping knife, a beaver-skin medicine bag, and a war club. This would be the Plains equivalent of a four-star general dressed in full military rig, with all his medals, epaulets, ribbons, and stars. Each item is an emblem of the chief's rank and status, and each reveals some aspect of his military history. But to Máh-to-tóh-pa's mind, the most important aspect of his ceremonial dress was the feathered, steel-tipped lance he holds in his left hand in the portrait. It had been the lance of an enemy who killed Máh-to-tóh-pa's brother with it, and left it stuck in his body. Máh-to-tóh-pa took it, swearing to avenge his brother's death. Four years later, he traveled some distance to the Arikara enemy village, entered the tipi of the sleeping chief, and drove the lance through its previous owner's body. The warrior then scalped him, and returned home with both lance and scalp. Since all such stories of military bravery were told and retold around campfires, all who saw Máh-to-tóh-pa in his ceremonial splendor would recall his exploits. In the early nineteenth century, such garments were considered to exemplify the finest artistry of Plains people; the clothing itself was important and admired, whereas in Catlin's culture it was the painted representation of a man wearing such finery that was valued.

    Figure 7.6: MÁH-TO-TÓH-PA (MANDAN), Painted buffalo robe with autobiographical scenes, c. 1835. Native-tanned buffalo hide, red wool cloth, sinew, dyed porcupine quills, horsehair and human hair, pigments, 63 x 82¾ in (160 x 210.1 cm). Berne Historical Museum, Berne, Switzerland.
    Figure 7.6: MÁH-TO-TÓH-PA (MANDAN), Painted buffalo robe with autobiographical scenes, c. 1835. Native-tanned buffalo hide, red wool cloth, sinew, dyed porcupine quills, horsehair and human hair, pigments, 63 x 82¾ in (160 x 210.1 cm). Berne Historical Museum, Berne, Switzerland.

    MÁH-TO-TÓH-PA'S DEPICTIONS OF HIS OWN HEROIC EXPLOITS. In addition to the portrait, the written history, and Catlin's impressions of Máh-to-tóh-pa as an individual, we have the chief's hide robes-his own painted histories of his exploits (fig. 7.6). This hide painting is not the one that he gave to Catlin; it is a version he made as a gift for a European who visited the Mandan several years later. It provides a visual digest of his greatest exploits as a warrior. Arrayed around a central sunburst design are eight different pictorial vignettes, each representing a different historical moment. Such a work of art would not only be worn, but used as a pictorial aid when recounting the exciting events of past battles where Máh-to-tóh-pa had triumphed. On the lower right, he has drawn himself wearing his distinctive striped leggings, standing over the body of a Cheyenne enemy who wears a red British frock coat. Thirty marks above the fallen warrior's head commemorate the thirty Cheyenne adversaries whom Máh-to-tóh-pa fought in this battle. Below and to the left, Máh-to-tóh-pa and a Cheyenne engage in hand-to-hand combat. Moving clockwise, at the bottom of the hide, the hero carries a long feathered lance which he uses to "count coup on" another Cheyenne enemy. (Counting coup is an act of male bravery in warfare in which an enemy, alive or dead, is touched by his opponent with a coup stick. While shooting a man from_ afar requires skill, getting within touching range requires nerves of steel, and so was considered the ultimate act of bravery.) Moving further left along the hide, we see a depiction of a fallen Cheyenne chief in a huge feather headdress, with his feathered shield and his horse. On the upper left, Máh-to-tóh-pa, his horse and shield behind him, points his lance at the bodies of two Ojibwe Indian women. The deaths of two women might not seem to be something worth boasting about, but the killing took place while he was hiding within an Ojibwe enemy village for six days, intent on avenging a death among his people.

    At the very top of the skin, facing left, our hero again holds his lance and shield. In front of him are more than three-dozen small marks, each an indication of an Assiniboine enemy whom he faced down while his own forces retreated. Rather than drawing all three-dozen enemies in a small space, he presents them in this economical way. Similarly, on the upper right, Máh-to-tóh-pa on horseback charges toward a massed group of Assiniboine enemies, depicted as small dashes and horseshoe shapes. Below this, he fires a rifle at a single enemy warrior, whose own weapon has fallen on the ground.

    In style, Máh-to-tóh-pa's hide robe is far more detailed than the painted shirt in figure 7.4. Through contact with white artists in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, indigenous artists of the Great Plains adopted a more realistic style of depiction, elaborating the details of clothing and personal adornment that were so revealing of personal exploits and history. Clearly they were influenced by the works of such artists executed while in their midst. Yet not all Plains artists accepted these innovations. During his trip west, Alfred Jacob Miller encountered Ma-wo-ma, the leader of the Snake Indians, and "a man of high principle." He recorded in his journals that Ma-wo-ma was unimpressed by Miller's paintings, which he found "vulgar and familiar," too closely resembling what he saw when he peered into his looking glass. 2 This suggests that the schematic nature of some pictographic images was a deliberate strategy, and that not all Plains artists sought to emulate the naturalism of Euro-American artists.

    It is important to remember that hides like that in figure 7.6, and the one described by Catlin, were gifts freely exchanged between equals. Later in the nineteenth century, under very different historical circumstances, drawings and other personal items were often taken from battlefields as trophies of war by military men more interested in subduing Native people than documenting or learning from them.

    Figure 7.7: KARL BOOMER, Kiasax, Piegan Blackfeet Man, 1833- 4. Watercolor on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.
    Figure 7.7: KARL BOOMER, Kiasax, Piegan Blackfeet Man, 1833- 4. Watercolor on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.

    "AUTHENTIC" INDIANS". When the German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied (1782- 1867) and the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer (1809-93) traveled up the Missouri River in 1833- 4, they visited a region of the Northern Plains that few non-Indians had seen. Nonetheless, the results of nearly a century of trade with non-Natives (principally fur traders and the small numbers of militia who manned the forts) were already in evidence- much to their dismay, for Maximilian and Bodmer thought of themselves as adventurers into a pristine land. The sedentary Mandan and their neighbors already had many goods of British manufacture, including the red frock coat that Máh-to-tóh-pa depicted his enemy wearing in figure 7.6. In fact, at Fort McKenzie in August 1833, the prince was surely astonished that one of the gifts presented to him by a Blackfeet chief was a British officer's scarlet coat acquired in a previous encounter with traders who came down the rivers from Canada (or New France, as it was then called). In his diary, Maximilian recorded his distress at seeing such European overcoats and top hats worn as finery, and Bodmer omitted any such "tainted" influence in his portraits. After all, he and Maximilian were intrepid explorers, chronicling the uncharted, on behalf of the European scientific community! Bodmer did, however unwittingly, document evidence of long-distance trade: his sensitive portrait of a Piegan Indian man shows him wearing a Navajo trade blanket (fig. 7.7; compare fig. 9.29, Navajo chief's blanket), and a Pueblo silver neck pendant. Prized by Plains Indians, both items were worn hundreds of miles from their place of indigenous manufacture in the southwestern desert.

    Indeed, the vectors of global mercantilism extended into western North America from all directions. French-Canadian traders and fur trappers crossed the prairies to reach the upper Missouri River region and the northwest by the end of the eighteenth century. Goods from the Pacific coast, and even from China, reached the interior through the trading center long established at The Dalles, on the Columbia River in Oregon, which one early-nineteenth century fur trader characterized as "the great emporium or mart of the Columbia." Every trader's inventory book in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lists substantial stocks of beads from Venice and Czechoslovakia, as well as brass buttons, thimbles, needles, awls, and bolts of wool and cotton calico. On the northwest coast, Chinese coins with holes in them (see fig. 7.25, Tlingit mask) were a part of the system of trade that circulated from Boston to the ports of the Pacific Northwest, and on to Canton, China, from the 1780s to the 1840s. Some of

    The red pigment widely used across North America for painting both the human body and hide clothing was Chinese vermilion ( derived from mercury and processed in southwest China). So an essential part of any trader's inventory was at least a few dozen packets of Chinese vermilion, an expensive trade item, costing as much as $2.50 a pound in the mid-nineteenth century. To achieve a look that the explorers admired as "authentic" and "pristine," Native peoples of the West drew upon trade routes that stretched from Czechoslovakia to China.

    Plains Women's Artistry in Quills and Beads

    The warrior of the Plains has been the archetypal Indian in the American imagination. His female counterpart was neglected in these narratives of the West. This ignoring of women did not reflect the worldview of Plains peoples themselves. In the Native view, men and women had, and have, different spheres of activity that provide parallel paths to power, status, and prestige. Plains cultures believed that the world, which must stay in balance, is not whole without both of these contributions. Their roles and realms were different, but one was not more praiseworthy than the other.

    As we have seen, men's arts in Plains cultures were traditionally pictographic and narrative, recording both individual and collective ·histories. Women's arts, by contrast, were principally geometric and abstract. Some arts, like men's painted and quilled war shirts (see fig. 7.4), reflect the complementarity of men's and women's skills: men hunted the buffalo; women used their specialized technical knowledge to process the raw materials, tan the hides, and fashion the geometric quillwork panels. The artistic elaboration of skins and hides did not change until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the buffalo herds were depleted by white expansion, forcing Plains peoples to rely more on trade cloth as the basis for arts and clothing.

    QUILLWORK. The most widespread art practiced traditionally by women on the Great Plains was the art of quillwork. Porcupine quills may seem an unlikely artistic medium, but Native American women devised an ingenious technology for working with them.

    According to the Lakota, quillwork had its origins in a sacred dream, in which a girl was visited by Double Woman, an important Lakota supernatural, who taught her how to use porcupine and bird quills as the raw material for art. Before that, no one knew that such items had a practical or aesthetic value. After her dream, this young woman gathered her materials and entered her tipi to work alone. She dyed the quills and separated them according to length. She wrapped and plaited them, and attached them to the hide with sinew. Eventually she shared these new techniques with a friend. Together they quilled an entire buffalo robe, prepared a feast, and invited many other women to learn this new art.

    Several indigenous groups on the Great Plains had guilds in which women learned the arts of quillwork and beadwork; within these artistic guilds they earned status and prestige as their expertise developed. A young woman followed set procedures when embarking upon her first major quillwork project: she made a public vow in front of the assembled guild, describing her intentions. She held a feast, and requested that one of the senior guild members draw the preliminary pattern of design on the item to be quilled. These steps demonstrated the seriousness with which the women approached their art. Women's artistic pursuits were sacred, for, in the mythic past, they were taught by sacred beings such as Double Woman. Beautifying the world by undertaking an artistic project was an act of honor and devotion.

    Figure 7.8: Side-seam dress from Northern Plains, Upper Missouri Territory, collected in 1804. Deer or antelope hide, glass beads, brass buttons, brass cones, porcupine quills and wool cloth, 42 in (106.6 cm) long. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Figure 7.8: Side-seam dress from Northern Plains, Upper Missouri Territory, collected in 1804. Deer or antelope hide, glass beads, brass buttons, brass cones, porcupine quills and wool cloth, 42 in (106.6 cm) long. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    A NORTHERN PLAINS DRESS. In most tribes, quillwork decreased during the nineteenth-century, in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of beadwork. Yet quillwork continued to incorporate new designs and materials, as demonstrated in the early-nineteenth century Northern Plains dress (fig. 7.8). While this garment has usually been illustrated as an example of original, "precontact" Plains clothing, in fact it is a compendium of everything that was new and international on the Plains circa 1800. The cut of the garment, in which two hides are sewn together, one of them flapping over the chest area, is a late-eighteenth century Plains style. But the ornamentation on it combines the old with the new. Bands of porcupine and bird quills ornament the body of the dress. At the bottom hem, tin cones are affixed, making a pleasing noise as the wearer walks or dances. On the yoke are brass buttons from England, cowrie shells from the Pacific, and glass trade beads from Italy. Anthropologist Castle McLaughlin has eloquently described this dress as a material embodiment of many linked worlds, rather than an artifact of a single culture. Indeed, it is a harbinger of the reach of globalization deep into the interior of North America in the early years of the nineteenth century, a time when whites on the East coast thought of this region as uncharted wilderness. Little did they know that the most stylish women on the Northern Plains ( often those who formed relationships with traders and other intercultural agents) already had access to the products of Europe and the Pacific.

    TRADE BEADS. By the late eighteenth century, trade beads had become a valued commodity on the Plains; the Crow, for example, would trade one horse for a mere one hundred beads. Native women quickly recognized beads' artistic potential. Strong, durable, and colorful, beads were much easier to work with than quills. Levels of ease in technical matters is a relative thing- the tens of thousands of beads used in an ambitious project still had to be individually strung on thread or sinew, and then grouped. Like quills, beads could be used to form small, discrete color areas or large monochromatic ones. They were easily sewn to both hide and cloth, and were used alongside quillwork for extra richness of ornamentation. In many areas of the Plains, beads replaced quillwork by the mid-nineteenth century, just as they had in the eastern part of the continent.

    The explorer and anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, who lived among the Cheyenne in the 1890s, said that quill and beadwork were highly valued, and "quite as creditable as were bravery and success in war among men." In meetings of the quillwork society the assembled women recalled their previous fine works, "telling of the robes and other things that they had ornamented. This recital was formal in character, and among women closely paralleled the counting of coups by men." From this it is apparent that women's fine artistic designs required the same resolve and finesse as a warrior's act of getting close enough to touch his enemy. In the 1980s, the expert Crow beadworker Violet Bird of Montana reaffirmed that this idea lives on: "A good design is like counting coup."

    George Catlin's Indian Gallery

    Catlin's portrait of Máh-to-tóh-pa was only one work in an extensive "Indian Gallery" that eventually encompassed some 422 paintings, the basis of his artistic reputation. Catlin's Indian Gallery embodies the ethical complexities involved in the project of representing cultures whose way of life was threatened. The process of producing an invaluable historical document of Native cultures unfamiliar to his Eastern audiences transformed the very subject of his study. His documentation of the Indian through his presence on the Indian-white frontier was itself part of the broader historical shift that overtook Plains cultures and forever altered them.

    The Lewis and Clark expedition had returned to the East laden with Indian artifacts-robes, feathered pipes, and other collections of objects along with specimens of previously unknown flora and fauna. Collecting was the first phase of encounter; it was followed in the 1830s by a fuller portrait of Plains cultures, produced by Catlin and his European contemporary Karl Bodmer. Their images went far beyond the modest watercolors of diplomatic encounters in the 1820s. Catlin and Bodmer produced sustained records of the Native people of the upper Missouri River that continue to speak today with an extraordinary documentary power.

    Catlin conceived his Indian Gallery in 1824, after seeing a delegation of Indians from the "Far West" passing through his native city of Philadelphia. Apart from a handful of sympathetic images from the eighteenth century, along with studio portraits of Indian delegations to Washington beginning in the early nineteenth, few works of art between the initial sixteenth-century encounter and the 1820s had been devoted to the delineation of Native features and dress for their own sake. Catlin's Indian Gallery was one of several assembled by American artists in the first half of the nineteenth century: Charles Bird King (1785-1862), Seth Eastman (1808-75), John Mix Stanley (1814-72), and Charles Deas (1818-67) all undertook to document the Native cultures of the West, some in their Plains homes, others as they journeyed to the capital city on treaty-making delegations. Of these galleries, Catlin's was the most complete, but all reveal an ethnographic impulse to catalogue the customs and ceremonial life of Native cultures. All shared the conviction that Native societies were doomed, and needed to be recorded in paint before fading into history.

    By 1837, Catlin's Indian Gallery included portraits of individuals from over forty-eight tribes. These 422 oil paintings depicted everyday life on the plains and landscapes of the Missouri and Mississippi valleys. Modeling his collection on Charles Willson Peale's museum (see fig. 5.33), Catlin also included Indian artifacts-tipis, painted robes, headdresses, medicine bags, war clubs, and pipes among them. Catlin painted quickly, brushing in his portraits with broad strokes often loosely detailed and inattentive to anatomical structure. Yet this technique proved so effective in conveying dress and body paint that today contemporary Plains Indians refer to his portraiture in reconstructing their own ceremonial dress for pow-wows. Consistent with older traditions of portraiture, the majority of Catlin's portraits are of important male figures-chiefs, warriors, and medicine men-although he also painted women, genre scenes of Native sports, methods of buffalo hunting, and sacred ceremonies. A number of these views were later published as lithographs in his North American Indian Portfolio in 1844.

    Figure 7.9: WILLIAM FISKE, George Catlin, 1849. Oil on canvas, 50 X 40 in (127 x 101.6 cm). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of May C. Kinney, Ernest C. Kinney, and Bradford Wickes.
    Figure 7.9: WILLIAM FISKE, George Catlin, 1849. Oil on canvas, 50 X 40 in (127 x 101.6 cm). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of May C. Kinney, Ernest C. Kinney, and Bradford Wickes.

    WILLIAM FISKE'S PORTRAIT OF CATLIN. The painting (fig. 7.9) shows the artist dressed in fringed buckskin; behind him, in the shadowed interior of the tipi where he works, is a handsome Plains warrior with a female companion. William Fiske's (active 1849-) portrait seems to suggest an identification between the artist Catlin and his Native subject. The red pigment on the brush Catlin holds alludes to his role as the painter of the "red man." Yet the Native man behind Catlin asserts his own claims on the viewer. Fiske's portrait reveals the tension between the living reality and the objectification of the Indian that took place in the act of painting him. Increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, Native Americans lost an active voice in their representation, literally-as here-pushed into the shadows.

    Catlin explicitly framed his project, as did other Indian galleries of these same decades, as a mission of cultural salvage. As he wrote in Letters and Notes on Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841), he wished "to fly to their rescue, not of their lives or their race (for they are doomed and must perish) but ... of their looks and modes .... " Through his paintings, the American Indian would rise "phoenix-like" from the palette of the artist. Catlin, and other artists of his generation, were self-styled "witnesses to a vanishing America," in the words of historian Lee Clark Mitchell, including not only Native societies, but the many species of wildlife that faced obliteration by the end of the nineteenth century. The passenger pigeons that had once turned the skies dark with their numbers were close to extinction by the end of the nineteenth century; buffalo had disappeared from the lands east of the Mississippi by the late eighteenth. Likewise, in the 1830s, the artist-naturalist John James Audubon (see p. 170) had been spurred to action by a dawning recognition of the ecological devastation caused by expanding agricultural settlement, dedicating himself to documenting the birds of America. Contemporaries dubbed Catlin "the Audubon of the Indians."3

    DOCUMENTING "A DYING RACE." The impulse to document is never pure; Catlin "desired to erect a monument to a dying race" but also, as he proclaimed in the opening pages of his two-volume study of North American Indians, "a monument to myself." Like other artists of the American West who would follow him, Catlin found in the subject of the Indian a vast new field for his professional ambitions. The West was an entrepreneurial frontier for artists hoping to tap a new market fueled by eastern curiosity. Having achieved little success as a portraitist in Philadelphia, Catlin turned to Indian subjects as the instrument of his fame and fortune.

    But Catlin's project served his Plains subjects as well, furnishing them with an opportunity to present themselves in full ceremonial regalia to a non-Indian audience, with a sense of pride in their accomplishments. Yet their encounter with Catlin coincided with the beginnings of catastrophic changes in Native cultures. Catlin was in the West through the agency of the American Fur Company. The fur trade brought not only artists and trade goods but contagious disease. In terms of the Mandan, at least, Catlin unwittingly realized his intention of documenting "a dying race": only five years later, the Mandan that Catlin had painted with such dignity were ravaged by smallpox, unwittingly introduced on a visiting steamship. (Máh-to-tóh-pa, who was by then the paramount chief of the Mandan, succumbed, along with his entire family; his tribe was reduced from some 1600 to 125 souls in just a few weeks.) Increasingly for Catlin and his audiences, there was no middle ground of productive encounter between cultures. Instead there was only a stark polarity between the Indian in a noble state of nature, and the Indian irredeemably corrupted, or destroyed by contact with white society.

    Figure 7.10: GEORGE CATLIN, Wi-Jun-Jon (Pigeon's Egg Head) Going to and Returning.from Washington, 1837-9. Oil on canvas, 29 x 24 in (73.6 x 60.9 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, O.C. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison.Jr.
    Figure 7.10: GEORGE CATLIN, Wi-Jun-Jon (Pigeon's Egg Head) Going to and Returning.from Washington, 1837-9. Oil on canvas, 29 x 24 in (73.6 x 60.9 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, O.C. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison.Jr.

    Nowhere is this polarity more starkly presented than in Catlin's Wi-Jun-jon (Pigeon's Egg Head) Going to and Returning from Washington (fig. 7.10). Catlin's two-part composition compares the splendid dignity of the handsome Assiniboine man on a trip to the nation's capital city (seen in the background) with the strutting vanity of the dandified Wi-Jun-Jon following his return from Washington. The before-and-after format contrasts every detail: the ceremonial peace pipe versus the civilized vice of the cigarette; the dignified contrapposto as opposed to the exaggerated swagger; the stoic bearing contrasted with the self-satisfied attitude. Lastly, the buffalo hide painted with the exploits of the warrior stands in striking contrast to the effeminate adornments of the so-called "civilized" Indian: white gloves, umbrella, and fan. Wi-Jun-Jon affects military wear: an officer's coat with epaulets, sword, and sash adds a further irony to Catlin's portrait. These empty symbols of military status stand in sorry contrast to the pictorial histories valued by Plains warriors, chronicling the selftesting of hand-to-hand combat. Completing this portrait of corruption are two whiskey flasks stashed in Wi-Jun-Jon's pockets. Catlin composed a chart of paired terms contrasting the pure and the corrupt Indian which he appended to Letters and Notes: the "pure" Indian was "graceful," "cleanly," "independent," and "happy"; the Indian in a corrupt state (following contact with white cultures) was "graceless," "filthy," "dependent," and "miserable." As far as Catlin was concerned, the Indian on the frontier, at the boundary between civilized and savage, was already contaminated, so Catlin set his sights on the Far West, presumably beyond the taint of contact with whites.

    The tale of Wi-Jun-Jon had a sad conclusion: on his return West, his stories of the great populated cities to the east were rejected as lies by his people. Those who had not seen for themselves these cities, with their towering stone buildings and grand boulevards, could not imagine that so many white people existed. They responded with resentment and suspicion, eventually killing and scalping Wi-Jun-Jon. For Catlin, who had himself come under suspicion of fabricating his paintings and lying about his experiences, Wi-Jun-Jon's misfortune had personal significance, revealing the dangers of standing between two cultures.

    Fast Forward

    TODAY, MANY FROM around the world travel to pow-wows and inter-tribal fairs to watch Indian people dance and display their best clothing and beadwork. Yet few spectators realize that they are participating in the marketing of indigenous ethnicity that has a history more than 450 years old.

    In 1551, in the first known instance of indigenous Americans being brought to Europe as an exotic spectacle, some four dozen Tupinamba Indians from Brazil were brought to Rauen, France, to take part in a festival to honor the visit of King Henri II. On the river's edge they reconstructed their village, with canoes, hammocks, and other accoutrements of daily life. Such visits continued through the centuries, sometimes involving individual notable personages, such as Pocahontas, who visited England in 1616, or the Iroquois who visited England in 1710 (see fig. 2.22, portrait of Hendrick).

    Catlin's Indian Gallery, which opened in New York City in 1837, involved paintings rather than real Indians. Unlike earlier exhibitions of Indian subjects, Catlin's combined popular spectacle with education and advocacy. Lecturing to his audiences, he exposed the complicity of the fur trade and the federal government in undermining traditional Plains cultures. Yet advocacy ran headlong into the desire to profit from the spectacle of the American Indian; after touring his gallery in England, Catlin incorporated living Indians into a continental tour that included a performance before King Louis Philippe in Paris, thereby returning full-circle to the sixteenth century and the royal festival at Rauen, when live Indians were displayed to the courts of France. Susceptible to the diseases of their new European environment, some members of the touring troupe died. The boundary between ethnographic display and spectacle remained blurred over the next century. By far the most famous-popular spectacle of the Indian was Buffalo Bill's "Wild West" show, which toured North America and Europe from 1883 to 1917 and was seen by millions (see fig. 9-42 and discussion below).

    The great international world's fairs beginning in the later nineteenth century-most notably those at Chicago in 1893 and St. Louis in 1904-continued the tradition of Indians on display, underwriting public curiosity about America's exotic others with claims to scientific authority. The public display of Native Americans in Chicago was overseen by leading scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard's Peabody Museum of American Ethnology and Archaeology. Beyond the official ethnographic exhibits at the fairs was the Midway, dedicated to commerce and entertainment. Just three years after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota (considered to be the last major episode of the bloody subjugation of Plains people that began after the Civil War), the Midway exhibited newly pacified Plains Indians alongside specimens of other "primitive" cultures from around the world, including the aboriginal people of Japan (the Ainu) and the Philippines. American Indians were situated in a "living museum of humanity," and located within a racial and cultural hierarchy that served America's emerging identity as an empire.4 Such displays were intended to justify colonial conquest and cultural containment.

    The 1893 World's Fair premiered the first dioramas of Native life-size figures engaged in customary activities and shown against realistically painted landscape backdrops. The diorama was a form of display taken up by ethnographic museums through much of the twentieth century. Science, public education, museum formation, and commerce together shaped the spectacle of the Indian into the twenty-first century. (See fig. 19.17, James Luna, "Artifact Piece," for a contemporary artist's commentary on museum display practices and Native people.)