Imagine the thrill of discovering a missing volume of American history.
That’s precisely what it feels like to walk through the much-anticipated “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” in the special exhibition galleries of the Bloch Building. Magic, drama, rarity, exquisite craftsmanship — the exhibit delivers all these and more.
Carved pipes and painted buffalo robes, beaded dresses and commanding feather headdresses illumine a parallel reality to the exploits and travails of explorers and settlers that dominated American history books for generations.
Predating the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years, the Plains way of life was governed by dramatically different values from the ethos of Manifest Destiny that drove the settlement of the West.
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At the heart of Plains culture was a reverential relationship with the land and its creatures — and the skies above.
Images of bears and horses, sun and stars, wind and weather recur throughout this exhibit, in clothing and regalia, weapons, personal items, religious objects and domestic wares. Revered above all was the buffalo, source of food, clothing and shelter.
Gaylord Torrence, the museum’s senior curator of American Indian art, brought a connoisseur’s eye to the selection of the exhibit’s 136 works, producing an exhibit that is not just an account of a way of life, but a paean to Plains creativity.
The installation strikes a contemplative tone. The first thing one sees on entering is a mural-scaled black-and-white photograph of the plains. The image is unremarkable and uninhabited, but it quietly sets the stage for remarkable developments.
During a recent walk-through, Torrence paused in wonder before a circa 1800 Pawnee war club with a carved design of stars and constellations, and marveled at the face carved by an Osage artist on the bottom of a pipe bowl. Torrence pronounced it “sublime.”
Having spent the better part of five years on this project, he says with confidence: “It’s just one icon after another.”
And indeed, there is no filler in this show.
Working with the musee du quai Branly in Paris, where the exhibit made its first stopover this summer, Torrence searched museums and private collections in Europe and North America for the best of the best.
They include four robes from quai Branly’s exceptional holdings of American Indian objects, brought back to France by 18th-century traders, missionaries and military men for a collection to educate the king’s children.
It was the prospect of showing the quai Branly robes — three of which have not been seen in the U.S. since they left three centuries ago — that convinced Torrence to do the show.
A striking circa 1700-1740 quai Branly robe, emblazoned with the image of a thunderbird, appears in the opening section.
The three others are displayed with robes from Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, in a grouping that provides a kind of radiant center for the show.
One of the things that makes the robes so terrific is the skill and detail of the painted designs. Several depict narratives of battle, including a circa 1800-1830 robe from quai Branly that Torrence says is “arguably the greatest pictographic robe in history.”
One can easily get lost in the robe’s spellbinding depictions of two Lakota warriors’ exploits, which the artists divided into 14 different episodes with painted dots connecting the characters in each. (The drawing styles employed in the robe are different, so Torrence is fairly certain that more than one artist worked on it.)
The Lakota warriors and their companions have round heads and topknots; the enemies have swept-back hair, varying in length.
Torrence is equally enthusiastic about the Linden Museum’s robe, which displays the geometric box-and-border design representing the internal structure of the buffalo. While men’s robes characteristically featured depictions of battle, the box-and-border design was used for women’s robes.
German Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp zu Wied collected the Linden Museum’s piece during an expedition to North America in 1832-34. The artist Karl Bodmer, who joined the prince on the trip, painted a woman wearing this very robe. A reproduction of the Bodmer painting is featured on the exhibition label.
Visitors may well be surprised at the scale of many of the objects on view. In addition to the robes, roughly 7 feet wide, the exhibit includes feather headdresses standing 6 and 7 feet tall, shirts, dresses, coats and a 78-by-70-inch quilt.
Made in 1915 by a Sioux woman, the quilt is displayed near the robes, as a kind of feminine counterpoint.
“Instead of a war record, she’s looking at daily life,” Torrence said.
In the upper left of the quilt, the artist incorporated an image of a bird with two eggs; in the lower right, the eggs have hatched two chicks.
From precontact to the present
Torrence has organized the exhibit chronologically, beginning with a choice selection of intimately scaled precontact objects in a section labeled “Ancient Peoples.” Six subsequent sections chronicle the changes in Plains life, from the era of horse and buffalo to the death of the buffalo, relocation onto reservations, early 20th century life and the present.
The objects tell the story through changes in materials such as the introduction of European-made beads, red trade cloth and metal cones. All three can be found in a circa 1840 crupper made by a northeastern Plains artist and used to hold a saddle in place on a horse’s back.
On loan from the Gatineau (Quebec) Canadian Museum of History, the crupper is one of the finest known, incorporating rosettes of intricate quillwork as well as geometric designs in silk applique, outlined with beads, on red trade cloth.
Over time, particularly with the death of the buffalo, the motifs of Plains art changed too. Scalp shirts, so called for their fringe of human hair alluding to the warrior’s brave deeds, gave way to garments and shields adorned with the symbolism of the Ghost Dance.
The Ghost Dance, evolved in response to the devastating effects of European colonization, sought to bring back the old way of life. Adherents sent prayers via bird and animal messengers, such as the eagles, magpies and crows painted on a circa 1890 ghost dance dress made by a Southern Arapaho artist in Oklahoma.
The Ghost Dance was one of several religious movements that developed during the period when the Plains Indians were moved onto reservations, which is explored in the section headed, “Living on Islands of Ancestral Land, 1880-1910.” In addition to religious material, it includes a prodigious array of intricately beaded items, from dresses and horse masks to valises.
These objects speak to creative resilience: while coping with the radical changes of reservation life, Plains Indians developed pictographic beadwork into a high art, with men drawing the designs and women sewing the beads.
The exhibit’s historic material, which includes a slide show of late 19th-century drawings (some made on the lined pages of a ledger book) is choice, but the inclusion of contemporary work is crucial to debunking the popular romantic fiction of the “disappearing Indian.”
Plains peoples suffered immeasurably from Western expansionism, but the culture of the Plains lives on, most notably in the pageantry and regalia of the powwow, according to Oglala Lakota artist, scholar, and educator, Arthur Amiotte. He is one of many Native American voices included in the exhibition’s catalog and wall texts. The show’s final section, “Contemporary Artistic Revival, 1965–2014” includes video interviews with several artists, including Amiotte.
The objects include a beaded powwow dress that is a vision in pink and white. Torrence first spotted the dress in 2006, when the owner was dancing in it. That would be Jodi Gillette, a Hunkpapa Lakota artist from North Dakota, now senior policy adviser for Native American affairs for the Obama administration.
Gillette designed the dress on the computer and enlisted family and friends to help sew the 15 pounds of beads used in the dress and accessories.
One of the most eyecatching objects in the final section is “Feather Bustle,” circa 1973, created by Meskwaki, Iowa, artists John K. and Grace Papakee. Designed to be worn on a dancer’s back, it comprises two circular fans of radiating “feathers,” ingeniously crafted from acrylic fibers, ermine skin and dyed deer hair.
The piece speaks across the ages to one of the earliest objects in the show, a 2,000-year old pipe in the form of a man wearing a feather bustle.
“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky”
Where: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St.
When: Opens Friday and continues through Jan. 11.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday.