The story of the native people of the American plains is epic, and still unfolding today. This museum does a great job of providing a basic overview of the complex network of tribes, with exhibits that highlight their cultures, their traditions, their spiritual perspectives and values, and provides some context of their lives today. The label of “Plains Indian” is a rather broad brush to paint a lot of different communities with, but it basically refers to the native people who lived as far west as the Rocky Mountain range, and east to the Mississippi River, extending north well into Canada and south into Mexico. It felt a little off to me to put all of those cultures into a single box and try to make sense of it, so instead I approached this museum looking for both unique attributes and common threads to try and stitch together a better understanding.
There is a historical map as you enter the museum, which places the major tribes in their geographic location, labeling each with both their native language name, as well as their European name. Noting names such as the Missouria (Nutachi) and the Ioway, it’s easy to spot how many states and cities in the historical footprint were named.
The museum has many exhibits featuring both every day and ceremonial items. My favorite was a child’s miniature tepee, made using techniques similar to a full-sized tepee. The hide was colorfully painted with scenes of everyday life, and embellished with simple bead work and dyed porcupine quills.
I also loved the color and detail of a dramatic shirt that was Apsáalooke (Crow) from Lodge Grass, Montana ca. 1908. It was made of tanned deer hide, glass beads, ermine, wool cloth, and human hair.
A war lodge, collected in the Green Mountains of Wyoming has been reconstructed here. By building these lodges in heavily wooded areas as they were traveling, warriors could not be seen from the open plains. The lodges were constructed of logs, with branches and leaves piled around them to provide shelter and conceal the small fires built within. These small lodges served as a base for hunting and to store supplies. I absolutely loved seeing this display, because it reminded me of the forts that my sister and I used to build in the woods when we were growing up on our family farm in Missouri. I’m pretty sure we thought we invented the concept.
There were many well preserved articles of clothing and other items that were expertly crafted from things in the natural environment which would have been readily available prior to European settlement in the plains.
The exhibits also touched on the wide variety of homes constructed throughout the plains, with both materials and structures differing according to the challenges of different weather climates and the avilability of building materials. That was interesting to me because I tend to think “teepe” when I think of the native people of the plains. The widespread use of earthen mound homes was a surprise to me.
There was a reconstructed plains cabin that was fun to walk through, where I eavesdropped on two teenage girls who were evaluating the home for comfort and style, eventually pronouncing they could, “totally live there just fine” as they snapped selfies and complained about the slow uploading speeds. I might have rolled my eyes.
I moved on to the more somber exhibits that covered the impact on the tribes of the arrival of European settlers. I was surpised to learn that American Bison once roamed as far east as Pennsylvania and even into southwest portions of New York State. The decimation of the bison herds was devastating to both the ecology of the plains and the livelihood of the tribes who lived there. Smallpox wiped out entire tribes, or caused them to merge with one another and individual cultural identities were lost. Historically speaking, guns and money have a way of winning arguments. Conflicts between native peoples and the U.S. Government forces were brutal and devastating to tribes that were forced onto reservations located far from ancestral homes. Native children were forced into boarding schools, which were operated solely with the intent to assimilate them into the non-native world. Many were located far from reservations so as to intentionally remove them from cultural and family influences. I have never felt this is a part of U.S. history that is something to be proud of, and this museum definitely drives home how much was lost during that period.
Somehow through all of that though, the culture of the native people of the plains has managed to survive, and to evolve. There are several modern works of art on display by contemporary native artists who are finding new ways to express their cultural heritage. (Again, I do not own these images, which are distorted both in orientation and color here. They are presented only to share the experience.)
“….artmaking has to be an extention of who we are and what our life experiences are — that’s a time-tested process going back thousands of years.”
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
Art has played a very important role in the preservation of the cultural identity and spiritual practices of these native peoples. Several exhibits here explore the importance and nature of spiritual practices, both historically and today. I found it very interesting that the interconnectedness of all things was a core concept (this was also the case with the Ancestral Pueblos on the Colorado Plateau). The interconnectedness of all things meant for example, that the bison, humans, and the smallest crickets are not lined up in a hierarchy, but are to be viewed as equals. Each has a role in the natural world that is specific to its nature, and should be respected for that. Seems wise to me.
I leave you with this final photo from my visit:
This is a star quilt, and was made by Freda Goodsell, Oglala Lakota (Oglala Sioux), Northern Plains, 2000. Culturally speaking, star quilts are a bit like the painted buffalo skins of centuries ago, and they are an important part of the plains culture today. They are primarily made by women, and are exchanged both to commemorate big occaisions and as gifts of honor for everyday use. The dynamic bursts of color and shape recall feathered patterns of eagle feather bonnets, the rays of the sun, and the morning star. I loved the beautiful colors of this one so much that I’ve decided I’m going to make a similar one myself.
Overall impression: This is an interesting collection, and the exhibits do a good job of giving an overall picture of the native people of the plains. I would have liked to see more detail on individual tribes, and also more on how tribes disappeared or merged into one another following the arrival of the Europeans, but that was really beyond the scope of what they could cover in this space. I’m definitely going to plan some blog posts on some of these stories for later, and if there is a particular tribe or area you would like to know more about, please let me know!
Costs: Admission included in the multiday ticket to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.