Saturday, 13 August 2011

Research Point - Visiting an Ethnographical Exhibition: Warriors of the Plains

Lotherton Hall in Leeds is the first stop for this touring British Museum exhibition that runs here from 18th June till 25th September 2011.  It complements the Native Americans of the Plains exhibition on display at the hall until the end of the year.  On display are costumes and accessories, mainly from the period in the late 19th century when the Native American Indians were in their heyday (today many Indians live on reservations, but live and dress much like any other Americans).   I visited on 4th and 5th August.

Is there a theme?
The theme is the warrior culture of the one of the seven groups of Native Americans from this particular vast region bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Mississippi to the east.  It stretches from the plains of Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  The Plains people were largely nomadic buffalo hunters, so for practicality their art needed to be portable.  They wore their beautiful things - adorned themselves and their homes.  The designs on their bags, shirts, war bonnets, teepees etc were often symbolic of their spirituality and the landscape around them.

Map drawn by Mark Sykes, exhibition co-curator

Is it well displayed?
The items were well spaced and helpfully themed in glass cases such as 'Childhood' and 'Womens Arts'.  I found it a little frustrating only being able to see one side of each item due to the wall behind the glass cases.  Not all of the labels were next to the items and it was not always easy to identify what the label referred to.  Some labels helpfully had a small picture of the item on.

Is the lighting appropriate?
The exhibition space was part of an historic stately home rather than a purpose built gallery so I expected the light levels to be low.  However, it was incredibly dim in the rooms and I heard many visitors commenting they found it difficult to see.  Even after my eyes adjusted, I found myself peering and headbutting the display cases trying to get a better look at the exhibits and it was difficult to see the colours accurately.

Is there enough explanation of the exhibits?
There was a brief sentence or two about each exhibit in plain English, enough for a general visitor to see and read about all the exhibits in a couple of hours without being overloaded with information. There was some general background information in each section but not really any detail or visitor guides if you wanted to find out any more.  However, I chose to visit on the day when the co-curator and local expert Mark Sykes was giving a talk about the exhibition.  I found this incredibly interesting and the chance to have my questions answered and listen to other people's was invaluable. It was also possible to see some items up close, touch and photograph them.

Seeing items up close helped to identify techniques

Is it visually stimulating and interesting?    
It's impossible not to be impressed when you walk in and see a huge feathered war bonnet, the iconic image of Native American Indians.  Children loved trying on the reproduction costumes.  It was a very colourful display with the bold symbolic designs primarily of red, blue, turquoise, yellow and green.  I sat observing and drawing for a few hours and both children and adults passing through seemed equally enthralled.  How much was down to the visual display and how much to the intriguing subject matter, I'm not sure.  I certainly found it stimulating, but much more meaningful after hearing the talk and particularly the surprising links with the north of England.  Maybe that's my learning style to listen and touch as well as look.  I really felt that afterwards I understood what I was looking at.

Choose three exhibits and look at each in more depth
1.) Honour Shirt - Painted deer hide with human hair locks and glass bead panels.  Once owned by Oglala warrior 'Grey Bear' Sioux (Lakota) 1876-1890

This shirt became more interesting to me the more I found out and I was struck that despite having intricate beadwork, it is a very masculine piece of clothing.  Initially it might look just decorative but it is also greatly symbolic and extremely functional.

Only the most esteemed warriors could wear an honour shirt that would be adorned with symbols representing their success in battle.  This one for example has long black triangle shapes that are very likely arrow heads.  The human hair on these shirts is often thought to be taken from the scalps of enemies.  However it's more usually locks of hair from the warrior's own family or tribe, representing the people they protect. The colours and motifs would help the warriors to recognise their allies and enemies like any other soldier's uniform.  The yellow paint at the bottom of this shirt is likely to represent the earth with the blue/green colour above being the sky.  Painting hide also had a very practical application by keeping flies at bay.

The Native Americans were hugely respectful of nature and their environment and every last part of the animals they hunted would be used in some way.  Hide was ideal in that it could be cut without fraying, was very hard wearing and offered good protection from the elements. Shirts and leggings were long to protect limbs from scratches.  Hide could also be smoked to make it more waterproof and wiping hands on shirts after eating meat would add to the protection.  Sinew would be chewed, twisted and used as thread to stitch and attach beads on this shirt.  It could be separated into strands of the desired thickness.  Even the thinnest strand of sinew would still be extremely hard to break.  It was durable, did not rot like cotton (enzyme in spit was the only thing that could soften) and it took up permanent dye easily.  No needle was required as a brad awl would make holes in the hide and the un-chewed end of the sinew would be pushed through fabric or bead.

In the 1800s chemical dyes and beads from Europe were available to the American Indians at trading posts and offered a whole new palette for decoration.  (They traded hides such as beaver which were popular for making top hats.)  As beads were much quicker to apply than the previously used dyed porcupine quills, they became the preferred decoration.  The beads on this shirt would have come from Italy, France or Prague and the colours on it were those popular at the time - red symbolising life or blood, blue for sky, yellow for earth and green for grass.  The colours are more subtle than the vibrant ones used in modern pow wow costumes and souvenirs, e.g. mustard yellows and rusty red rather than scarlet.

2.) Pipe Bag with Pipe Case - Cheyenne 1800s

I chose to study this chocolate brown hide pipe bag as these bags really embody the Native American culture.  This one seemed a good example of its type, with its abstract glass bead decoration being typical of the Plains Indians and I liked the movement of the slats. Unlike the Woodland Indians who had foliage to inspire their comparatively elaborate designs, Plains people often had a landscape of just baked earth and sky and so their motifs are what they could see, such as stars, or as the triangles on this bag show, mountains and tee-pees.  Design could also be inspired by dreams.

There is also a clear reference to the buffalo in the distinctive hoof shape decoration outlined with a yellow bead 'frill' attached to the top of the bag and at the end of the long ties.  The relief of the beads leave a hide background with the same hoof shape.  Plains Indians had a spiritual relationship with animals who they believed were their mythical ancestors.  Clothing and sacred items were adorned with charms and symbols of animals whose characteristics they wanted - the buffalo being a provider of food and protection and strength in battle.

Moccasins also showing typical designs,
such as the hoof-shaped flap and geometric stars and mountains
The glass seed beads look to be applied using 'lazy stitch', where rows of 7-10 beads are attached next to each other to form longer rows.  This was a relatively fast way to cover large surfaces quickly.

Sioux Style Lazy Stitch Beadwork
Lazy Stitch Technique
Reproduced with permission from where the full tutorial can be found.

The pipe bag is approximately 1m long with a case for a pipe and bag to carry kinnikinnick - a mixture of tobacco, dried herbs and bark.  The piece is functional and very symbolic as only an authority such as a chief would have the honour of owning a pipe.  Tobacco, smoke and the pipe itself were believed to be sacred as they could establish connections with the spirits and give protection in battle.  As there were over 500 languages used by tribes, smoking, along with sign language, was also a universal method of communication and often used to seal a pact.  A man using a pipe was a mediator with other men and with spirits.   I wondered whether the importance they saw upon man keeping in balance with nature had any connection to the balance of these geometric designs?

3.) Small Bag, Northern Plains c.1890

The reason this little bag appealed to me is that is was the one item in the exhibition that I could imagine owning and using myself today.  It doesn't look like a 120 year old bag! The colours on the quillwork - turquoise, orangey red and corn yellow are fresh and brighter than on many of the beadwork items from that era. I also had to include something that had porcupine quills as I was intrigued by the technique of applying them.  They had to be chewed for some time to soften them before they could be flattened, dyed and attached with sinew.  It was apparently a common cause of death for Indian women to choke on porcupine quills!

Approximately 20cm tall x 15cm wide, the hide bag is a taupe colour with a gusset and hide strip tied in a bow on the front.  I couldn't see a handle or a flap to close over and there was no information about what this bag might be used for.  Plains tribes were originally pushed from Northern Woodland areas.  Woodland Indians made beaded bags to celebrate the birth of a baby so perhaps this is a possibility.  The hide strip didn't appear to close any part of the bag so maybe was used to attach it to clothing?  I can imagine it around the waist.

The border was again decorated with European glass seed beads in those typical colours, mustard yellow, black, deep red and dark turquoise using rows of lazy stitch.  The central panel has quillwork as described above and I was interested to hear that red dye was popular with the Plains Indians as the colour symbolised blood and life and the dye was readily available from trading posts.  It was cheap because it was made in great quantities being the colour of British army uniforms from the late 17th to early 20th century. (I have seen some of these uniforms in the Bankfield Museum collection.)  Before 1870 the British army used a madder red and by the time this bag was made c.1890 this had changed to scarlet, one of the colours on the panel.  Another interesting local link was the steel made in Sheffield that replaced the obsidian flint originally used in tomahawks.  Particularly during the time of the Buffalo Bill show, Native American souvenirs such as beaded whimsy boxes were very fashionable in Europe but few of the buyers realised many of the materials had originated there.

Certainly, the shirt, pipe bag and this bag would all be made by a woman.  Warriors were mainly (but not always) men, while the women would hone their skills making clothes and accessories and they could become celebrated artists.  However, it was considered bad luck for a woman to handle a war bonnet.  The exception was when her husband had been killed in battle and she would wear it as an 'honour bonnet'.  Each feather was added by the warrior owner while he told a story about how he proved his honour and courage in battle.

The circle design is intriguing.  The information panel says the meaning has been lost over time.  It certainly appears to be symbolic and the information suggests a sun dance, bow and arrow or a Thunderbird.  The sun dance was a four day ceremonial dance around an object.  Dancers believed that by harming themselves and staring at the sun, they would become stronger and spirits would give them protection.  I'm more inclined to think it's a Thunderbird.  This supernatural creature was commonly depicted in quillwork on ritual objects from the Northern Plains.  The stylised hourglass shape looks similar to other images I've seen, though I'm not sure why this one hasn't got much of a head!  Winged, powerful and feared, the Thunderbird could control rain and shoot lightning from its eyes when angered.  Ceremonies and rituals could divert the storms towards their enemies.


  1. Excellent work!. I´m not speak english, but it´s really: excellent work! I´m whish learn this work :)

    .... Juan desde Buenos Aires/Argentina

  2. Excellent work!. I´m not speak english, but it´s really: excellent work! I´m whish learn this work :)

    .... Juan desde Buenos Aires/Argentina