Tag Archives: art

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.

Advertisements

Pushing Boundaries.

Ferrocarril_Central_AndinaWhile working on a project last month, I had the great pleasure of meeting Arden Haselmann. A young woman in her last year of college, Arden is majoring in peace and conflict resolution. When I said I didn’t realize it was a major, she told me it wasn’t, that it was something she created through her own dogged pursuit. Participating in a Thinking Beyond Borders gap year program really sealed the deal for her. This organization teaches students to have a meaningful social impact. Later this year, she’ll travel to Rwanda where she’ll have ample opportunity to put her studies into action. I shared an article I’d recently read about Rwanda’s lively art scene and how its artists are expressing themselves about the country’s horrific past or with optimism about its future. It offered another view into how Rwanda is dealing with the aftermath of its genocide. I hope to interview her when she returns.

Aside from her confidence and desire to make a positive impact globally, Arden is another great example that through curiosity and a desire to tap into something that’s knocking at your inner chamber door, you can stretch the boundaries of an organization’s structure. That just because something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean you can’t create it. Everyday I meet more and more people living life on their terms and outside the margins of cultural expectations when it comes to work and what brings them fulfillment.

While PortsAreCalling is about travel, anyone who’s been following it (and I thank you whoever you are) knows that it’s not always about travel on the traditional plane. It’s an opportunity to take a creative journey to destinations that range from north, south, east, and west, to food, literature, photography, and death. For the times when I can’t physically travel somewhere, it’s an opportunity to stretch my own mental boundaries. To meet and write about people who inspire me…like Arden.

She mentioned she’d gone to Turks & Caicos on a family vacation. When I asked how she liked it, she said it was lovely and that while she’d a great time but it felt odd to do nothing. Having lived in other countries because of her studies, she’s more comfortable diving into life on a local level. I told her she’d discovered the difference between being a tourist and a traveler.

How about you? How do you stretch your mental boundaries and where will you go?

Not everyone can afford to travel,  how will you spend your summer?

If you do travel, what’s your preference—tourist or traveler?

Share your story, let’s inspire each other.