“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.