Monthly Archives: March 2015

America’s Lost Treasures: The Plains Indians

Buffalo picture of tipi of Never Got Shot. Photo credit: Claudia Santino

Buffalo picture on teepee. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art transports you to another place and time. For anyone who’s been itching to pay New York City a visit, it’s a perfect reason. But it’s got a short run and will close on May 10, 2015, so start planning.

You don’t need to be an art critic to understand the value of this exhibit. It’s easy to fall under the spell and spirit of what the Plains Indians were all about. Some of the artistic forms on display go as far back as 2,000 years when migrating peoples contributed items into Plains Indian culture.   The bounty at the Met represents pieces from many Native American nations.

Man's vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Man’s vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The Great Plains of North America was once a vast open landscape of earth and sky, running from the base of Texas and heading north across the mid-west and into Canada. That idea alone made it easy to immerse myself in understanding how the moving canvas of their environment influenced Native American Indians.

We lost the treasures of our country’s earliest artists  a long time ago. The 130 items in this exhibit are on loan from museums in Europe and North America. This treasure chest of Native American art was tossed across the ocean ages ago when soldiers and other opportunistic eyes recognized their value and traded then off.

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Animal power and a reverence for nature was central to Native American culture and that relationship is on full display here in almost every piece. The pipe is also a significant item in the exhibit. It served as a sacred instrument used in prayer and other rituals. A symbol of friendship and trust, the peace pipe helped seal the pact.

For the Plains Indians these items served more than one purpose.  They were more than form and function. They were part and parcel to their way of life. A war club made of walnut wood is smooth and glossy and engraved with a constellation of four-pointed stars.

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The arrival of Europeans in the mid-1500s and onward had a significant impact on the Plains Indians, for good and bad. The goods they acquired from these new settlers entered into their artistic expression, with glass beads from Venice, cowrie shells from the Pacific Ocean, and brass buttons from England adorning their clothing and other materials. Battle gear, blankets, dresses, moccasins, shirts and headdresses, mix the natural and the New World and the items on display are a wonder. One very cool looking man’s coat of native tanned leather, porcupine quills, brilliant embroidery and metal hooks and eye fasteners was handcrafted by a Sioux-Metis woman, yet looks like something you’d see on London’s Carnaby Street.

Handcrafted man's coat. (Photo credit:  Claudia Santino)

Handcrafted man’s coat. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Traveling north from Mexico, the Spaniards introduced the horse. Native American Indians quickly harnessed its power, joining the spirit of this animal into their way of life and swiftly adapting to a more nomadic existence. If they were one with nature before, now they could ride alongside her changing seasons. They could hunt better and find the food and shelter necessary to sustain their way of life. Now on the move, they couldn’t afford to be materialistic. The creativity and craftsmanship around their evolving lifestyle is brilliant and inspiring.

The horse transferred the beast into an animal with sacred powers.

The mask transferred sacred powers. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A saddle blanket made of leather, glass beads and wool cloth was used for resting beneath a woman’s saddle and used on social occasions to convey wealth and power. A horse mask transferred this animal into one with sacred powers in warfare or during ritual. A crupper, a strap that secures a horse’s saddle, is beautifully crafted from rawhide, native tanned leather, wool cloth, silk, glass beads, porcupine quills and metal cones. A riding dress with a Morning Star motif signals the four cardinal directions.

Photo by Claudia Santino

A crupper. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

There are many standout items on display. One of them is a cradleboard. Passed down as family heirlooms, these baby carriers worn on the back were crafted by a woman’s family and featured elaborate designs. Thunderbirds accented this one, mythical creatures recognized as powerful guardian spirits. Tiny metal cones hang around the top of a framed strap, creating a tinkling sound to soothe a baby. The thoughtfulness of which stayed with me.

A cradleboard. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A cradleboard.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Something called the parfleche envelope blew me away. It was the Ziploc bag of its time, only a lot better and, clearly, a work of art. Made from buffalo rawhide by Great Plains women, this painted envelope functioned as a beautiful weather resistant container. Central to life on horseback, it was expandable, lightweight and unbreakable. I may only ride the iron horse to work every day but I like the idea of having one.

Headdresses made from raven feathers and other bird feathers and beads are majestic. Porcupine quillwork, an art form unique to Native American Indians, features strongly in their clothing and other adornments. Painted hides depict ceremonial battles, mythic birds and other forms of life and spirit, using every bit of canvas. They wasted nothing.

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

The Plains Indians spun materials from the natural world to evoke spiritual powers of animals and celebrate creation. A shield with a painted buffalo bull was passed down through five generations. A Cheyenne shield was used in war for almost 100 years. The animal depicted on their battle armor was the owner’s guardian spirit. The belief was that it was the image that would protect the warrior, not the shield.

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Sadly, in the end nothing could protect these Native Americans. Frontier settlers and the US government stripped them of their land and devastated the natural resources, mainly buffalo, that the Indians relied upon to sustain their way of life. The artwork here, from pre contact peoples to contemporary artists, are all of the elements used in their life which serves as a canvas to tell their story. In essence, they are America’s earliest experiential travelers and storytellers.

There’s a lot to marvel over in this collection. These in between days of spring when the weather toys with us are a good excuse to call in a mental health day or take vacation and play tourist for a day or two at one the city’s greatest cultural playgrounds. A chance to see what the Plains Indians contributed to American culture.

Come see this beautiful sight before it leaves town.

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Norway’s Good Nature.

Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Still high off his recent trip to Norway, guest blogger Evan Byrd would gladly travel back
to one of the happiest places on the planet!

Reeling, I sit with my airplane seat back up and tray table locked, absorbing swelling forest green hills gutted by long rivers passing through on all sides. I’m arriving in Oslo, Norway on an $800 roundtrip ticket from Newark that I had booked 5 months out. The airport is small in comparison to most but surprisingly inviting. It only takes a short while to figure out the many affordable transit options leading directly to city center.

Oslo is impeccably travel-efficient, offering various tram/bus/subway/ferry routes that rival the convenience of New York City’s subway lines. “Day” or “Multi-Day” passes provide access to all three of the aforementioned modes of transportation (save ferry, which is separate). Depending on your zeal for tourism, the Oslo pass is actually a good idea, as it allows for an all-day pass to popular tourist attractions & transportation.  Although don’t get caught without a card by one of the “tram ticket ferries,” because if I wasn’t such a good “stupid American” I would probably have gotten a ticket. Thankfully, 99% of the time, Norwegians speak English and are excited to practice with you. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!

For anyone travelling on a budget, Thon Hotel properties are affordable and have an absolutely delicious buffet style breakfast, with fresh fruit, warm pastries, omelets, salmon, and lots of other good stuff. Complimentary for guests, it alleviates the pain of having to remember to budget in your breakfast in a city that truly makes New York City look like a dollar store. My friend Ulrik once said, “Norwegians don’t care about paying high taxes but to the rest of the world we look like the Norwegian mafia!” And it’s not only my blood that the city’s too rich for, most locals I spoke with shared their preference for cooking at home and finding their own free activities (hiking being #1, which they do relentlessly).

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. Photo credit: Evan Byrd.

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Because of their accommodating transportation system, it is possible to be an efficient turbo tourist in Oslo. Many of the stops correspond to the actual attractions. For instance:

  • Vigelandsparken (Vigeland Sculpture Park): An absolute must for art enthusiasts, bicyclists, and lazy bodies looking to picnic for the day. The sculptures are serene and the park is symmetrically appealing and clean.
  • Nationaltheatretr: Near the Royal Palace and the Theatre. Also a more commercial area east of the theatre where the American footprint is clearly visible. Steer clear of the food options, ain’t nobody trying to eat at TGIFridays in Oslo!
  • Bygdøynes Bus Stop: Takes you directly to the more rural and affluent Bygdøy Peninsula on the #30 bus. History buffs will enjoy the Kon Tiki museum and learning about the original discovery of Easter Island!
  • Operagata Tram Stop: If not just to walk up the side wall of the Opera House, it’s an architectural masterpiece worth seeing the sunset from.
Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Now, I’m not one to be constrained to a city for all of my fun, nor should you given the expansive countryside Norway boasts to the west. The National State Railways offer daily rail trips for affordable rates. After Oslo, I visited my friend Ulrik and his family in Molde (mole-dee), a small town on the Western coast. The NSB took me to a town called Åndalsnes (6 hours from Oslo) and Ulrik scooped me up from the station. An hour and a half, two ferry rides, a couple of marshmallow treats, and several wondrous vistas later, we reached his home.

The Rauma Railway is the chosen route when traveling to this part of the country and it’s a spectacular ride. Norway has made a conscious effort to intertwine its railway system through, over, and alongside the mountain ranges. If you don’t have time to head into the heartland, at the very least travel to Åndalsnes located at the crossroads of the many impressive vantage points in Norway. Fjords are more prevalent here and reality quickly takes a back seat to the fruits of Mother Nature’s long and patient assemblage of Norway’s outstanding terrain.

For example, a fjord (fee-yord) is a mountain pass and bears the markings of steep stone walls and crystal turquoise water. The fjords are a result of melted glaciers which have carved the valleys of the fjords and then replaced the rivers with salt water from the Atlantic. Around Åndalsnes, with the help of a rental car or tour group, you can travel to:

  • Trollstigen (Trolls Road): Impossibly engineered mountainside road curving its way like a snake nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The view from the top is staggering.
  • Trollveggen (Troll Wall): Another crowd pleaser and the tallest vertical rock face in Europe (3,600 feet). It’s dark, mysterious, and imposing mountain face looms over you as you peer up from a nearby vantage point on the lawn.
  • Geirangerfjord, Eagle Road, & Flydalsjuvet: Geirangerfjord is a stunning fjord. The famous Seven Sisters waterfall is easily seen from the precipice of the Eagle Road or more commonly known, Ørnevegen, within the Geirangerfjord. Flydalsjuvet can be reached by travelling down the Eagle Road and up again past the hotel area where onlookers can actually step out, if they dare, onto a very picturesque yet precarious overhang (I was brave!)
Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird's eye view.  (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird’s-eye view. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Prepare yourself for hardy fare in Norway. It’s basically a comfort food menu and there’s nothing wrong with that! Try Kjøttkaker if you have an opportunity (with peas, which I was told is crucial by my Norwegian hosts). They’re Norway’s version of meatballs and compare similarly to Sweden’s famous creations. Be sure to hike plenty to work some of it off!

The food, culture, people, scenery, and experience all serve to envelope your mind, breath, and taste to the point of disbelief. I found myself asking Norwegians, “How in the name of Norsk Gods and Goddesses is your countryside even possible?”

So deserving is Norway for all travelers to indulge in a country rich in wildlife, meals cooked in traditional styles, monuments of international praise (Nobel Peace Center & Kon Tiki Museum), and a unified population serving each other before themselves. Ulrik once said, “We don’t think about paying taxes, we just do, it’s for the greater good.”

The happiest cities on the planet are said to be in Scandinavia where you can be greeted by an excited, “Hi, Hi!” or an afternoon invitation to scale a sizeable mountain. Hence, lending to the Norwegian’s good nature; a sense of belonging resonates within you.

With its tremendous surroundings, gushing ice-cold waterfalls, ancient stones lifted to insurmountable height, or just good company, you may keep your faculties wandering within forest green memories long after Norway fades behind jet black streams.