23 March 2011

Meta-Criticism: Responding to the Response to the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum, Conclusion

First and foremost, open, honest dialogue that is ongoing is good. Not every Native artist wants a non-Native audience, but for those that do, the response is informative. Several of the writers were receptive and responsive to the works in Tipi but others had points of serious disconnect.

If this show were at the National Museum of the American Indian, the response would no doubt be different. Perhaps the show is experiencing some of the backlash Nancy Mithlo has described that happens with Native artists step outside the Native art arena for the larger art world.

With various levels of elitism in the art world, some writers from Manhattan might be prejudiced against Brooklyn or shows designed for the general public instead of a specific art world audience. Many writers geared towards children, which perhaps in their views negates the seriousness or sophistication of the art presented. Museums are constantly looking at ways to reach out to new audiences and create interactive exhibits, so is this regard, I’ll wager the show will be a success.

By disconnect, I refer to instances the writer is literately not responding to what in the show at all but writing about their own preconceptions. One writer laments the fact that buffalo hides are no longer used for tipi construction; another writers points out that a buffalo hide tipi is being constructed as part of this very exhibit. All the references to tourist kitsch were not only insulting but illuminating. It is important that non-Native youth experience Native culture outside the arena of highway souvenir shops (never mind that the souvenirs certain writers might be writing about were most likely not made by Natives).

While tourism was mentioned, hippies, New Agers, and hobbyists were not mentioned in context of tipis, even though these three groups are often the owners and residents of tipis. However, these groups might be just as exotic as Native Americans to the writers.

The requests for more tragic historical information surprised me, but part of the cultural imprint of Native Americans in the current US psyche is the tragic figure, or as Mary Brave Bird (Brulé Lakota) puts it, “Lo, the Poor Indian.” That Natives’ right to be happy is an issue is evidenced by Ryan Red Corn and Sterlin Harjo’s recent video, “Smiling Indians.” The artists aren’t being superficial or avoiding hard discussions when they tone of the work presented is cheerful. There’s a direct message there: we have the right to be happy and to be three-dimensional living people instead of walking stereotypes of tragic loss. Trust me, every one of the participating artists is keenly aware of their tribal histories, of land loss, massacres, and other human rights’ violations. They are saying that there is more to them and their tribes than loss.

A happy surprise was that none of the art writers mentioned problems with “craft” and “fine art,” and they do not question the state of contemporary works as art. Since that false dichotomy refuses to die here in New Mexico (I am personally committed to helping kill it), it’s encouraging to not see in the East.

Since I’m used to hearing complaints about Native art being too interested in the past, I was surprised and troubled by the repeated complaints about the contemporary work being “problematic.” I did notice none of the writers mentioned Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa-Pima) — were they not aware that she’s also a living, contemporary artist? 19th century Plains Indians are locked into the American consciousness but more and more, contemporary Americans seem to not know how to deal with living Indians. Are there mental blocks? Absolutely. Living indigenous artists don’t want to be the Exotic Other or assimilated, so a new conceptual space for contemporary Native art must be carved out in the mainstream art world.

Joseph Sutton’s point that Native American cultures are “integral to our country’s history” is one approach. Despite assimilationists’ best efforts, tribal cultures have touched every aspect of American society — government, agriculture, medicine, pop culture, etc. To fully live in the US, one should know about Native cultures. None of my ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution, but I definitely study both, and pay attention to contemporary political art. Commonalities arising from sharing a land could be emphasized in promoting living Native arts to non-Native peoples.

Cross-cultural communication is possible. Curators Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller are knowledge and sensitive to Native American art, artists, and greater cultures. I believe through their efforts, as well as the artists’ and consultants’ effort, cross-culturally conceptual bridges will the built and strengthened.

For a person such as myself, who is 2006 miles away from the art show, the museum published an amazing catalog, featuring a dozen essays and excellent photography. The artists contributed essays, as well as curators and other art writers.

Rosoff, Nancy B. and Susan Kennedy Zeller. Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum, 2011. Hardcover, 304 pages. ISBN 978-0295990774.

22 March 2011

Meta-Criticism: Responding to the Response to the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum, Part Two

Continuing to look at writing about the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains currently at the Brooklyn Museum...

Rosenbaum, Lee. “Beyond the Tepid Tepees: Brooklyn’s Engrossing Plains Indian Show.” CultureGrrl. 17 March 2011.

The New York Times disabled comments to Ken Johnson’s article, so award-winning art writer Lee Rosenbaum responded to him on her blog in “Beyond the Tepid Tepees: Brooklyn’s Engrossing Plains Indian Show.” She said she “loved this show!” and yet, she delivers one backhanded insult after another. Rosenbaum feels the contemporary art “don't measure up to their antecedents.” Teri Greeves’ Great Lakes Girls, a fully beaded pair of high-heel shoes, which Rosenbaum labeled as “kitsch”; however, Greeves’ beading ability compares very favorably with many 19th beadworkers, and she uses finer materials. Rosenbaum describes Lyle Heavy Runner’s tipi as “big” and “garish.” Perhaps if it were a century old, then it would be “prodigious “ and “graphically bold.” The contemporary artworks are “modern knock-offs.” What are these 21st century post-modern artists “knocking off”? Are they not allowed to bead, carve buffalo horns, weave baskets, or sew tipis? By what authority? Is there any aspect of these works that suggest they were finished quickly and without care?

Rosenbaum shares information text from and even photographs of the museum labels, demonstrating that Ken Johnson’s criticism that the exhibition "offers no revelatory perspective on its [the show's] contents” is unwarranted.

As she brings up in her Wall Street Journal article, Rosenbaum has major issues with the curators choosing to not display culturally sensitive shield covers imbued with medicine. You either respect Native culture and appreciate that some things are not made for general public to view, or you don’t. Attempting to divorce the aesthetics of an artwork from its content is to undermine the intentions of the artist. When it comes to culturally sensitive items that cannot be seen by the public, the only parallel in Western culture I can think of is the Ark of the Covenant (burned into our collective psyche by Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). Rosenbaum writes she “was of course disappointed that Brooklyn had to fall back on a newly created substitute.” So Marcus Amerman’s fused glass sculpture can’t be seen as an art piece in its own right, with its own aesthetic qualities and content? Am I to assume Sherrie Levine’s photography is also “a newly created substitute?” Does Amerman and the other contemporary artists simply have nothing valid to say? That would make them unique among artists—being devoid of independent viewpoints or experiences.

Rosenbaum wraps her response up with her view that those interfering tribal consultants “restricted Brooklyn's display of pipes” by having the pipe stems and pipe bowls displayed separately because inserting the stem into the bowl “activates the power of the pipe,” as curator Nancy Rosoff explained to Rosenbaum. Kudos to Rosoff for being respectful and showing the pieces separated allows the viewers to see more, not less, of the pipe’s components.

Rosenbaum, Lee. “Shows That Defy Stereotypes.” Wall Street Journal. 15 March 2011.

“Today's curators want visitors to view Indian artworks not as quaint ethnographic artifacts, but as vital expressions of a living culture, spanning prehistory to the present,” writes Lee Rosenbaum about Denver Art Museum’s new Native American galleries. I can’t agree enough. While praising the museum, Rosenbaum finds the juxtaposition of old and new works “exasperating” and is troubled by Bently Spang’s photography war shirt. She describes the Northern Cheyenne artist as “suddenly ubiquitous,” which is ironic, since the artist has been steadily exhibiting for two decades. His works “are meant to be seen, not worn, are also on view in Manhattan and Brooklyn.” So, is this a problem? He’s an installation artist, performance artist, photographer, and filmmaker. Should I be sad that I can’t wear Guy de Cointet’s or Nairy Baghramian’s artwork? Should Sprang not exhibit his artwork in Manhattan or Brooklyn?

Nancy Blomberg, curator of Native American art at the Denver Art Museum, is quoted saying, "Everything in this gallery was new when it was made. . . . I didn't want to separate prehistoric from historic from contemporary.” Yes! This simple statement is powerful. We want our present, our future, and our past, and to acknowledge the continuity between them all. Someday the mainstream art world will accept the fact that Native cultures evolve just like every human culture the earth.

The oddest comment by Rosenbaum was suggesting that museums working with Native advisors can “diminish” art exhibits and cites Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller’s decision to not display warrior’s shield imbued with medicine in the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi exhibit. I applaud Rosoff and Zeller for their decision, which honors the deceased warriors, their medicine, and their tribes and protects the audience from exposure to potential danger. By being respectful of culturally sensitive materials, tribes will want to work with these curators in the future and will most likely be more forthcoming with information and artworks to share with the museum.

Rosenbaum suggests the two curators had to “settle” for a fused glass shield by Choctaw artist Marcus Amerman. I would love to “settle” for one of his five-digit glass sculptures, which win awards and are in major collections throughout the country. But a profound ambivalence to contemporary indigenous art permeates all these critiques.

Karlins, N. F. "At the Brooklyn Museum: Tipis of the Brooklyn Plains." Artnet. 2011.

N.F. Karlins, a New York critic and art historian, wrote a highly informative and straightforward piece for, “At the Brooklyn Museum: Tipis of the Brooklyn Plains.” Karlins discusses gender roles in art, ownership of designs, aesthetics, and changing traditions. One line strikes an strange chord: “…Native Americans had architecture as well as art’’ – are there cultures without architecture? But overall, this is a well-written, concise critique. Of the 11 illustrations, the only contemporary images were two works by Teri Greeves.

Deliso, Meredith. “Home on the Range! Brooklyn Museum Reaches New Heights with Tipi Exhibition.” The Brooklyn Paper. 15 Feb 2011

Melissa Deliso’s description of the Tipi show is enthusiastic, and she took the time to personally interview curator Susan Kennedy Zeller. She writes about a “Southern Shayne tipi.” I make type-o’s and spelling errors too, but I don’t have paid copy editors reading my text. “Cheyenne,” besides being the capital of Wyoming, is a standard word in all computer spellcheckers. In composing her title, Deliso was most likely unaware that Kansas’ state song, “Home on the Range” has a verse devoted to the ethnic cleansing of Natives from Kansas: “The red man was pressed/from this part of the West,/He's likely no more to return/To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever/Their flickering campfires burn”.* Fortunately the ethnic cleansing was unsuccessful and Kansas is home to four federally recognized tribes and Haskell Indian Nations University.

* Higley, Brewster and Dan Kelley. “Kansas State Song: Home on the Range.” State Symbols USA.

Sutton, Benjamin. “The Brooklyn Museum Turns Tipis Inside Out.” The L Magazine. 2 March 2011.

Benjamin Sutton wrote about the functional and conceptual aspects of a tipi and about the complex and interdependent Plains gender roles. He points out that the exhibit included tipi liners painted by Rain-in-the-Face, a 19th century Lakota warrior, and Harvey Pratt, a living Cheyenne Vietnam veteran. He makes the interesting observation that tipis are “places to display pride and admit vulnerability.” Unfortunately, Sutton also seems to be troubled by contemporary Native art, writing that “Contemporary pieces problematize such functions” and is concerned that Crow artist Mary Lou Big Day’s dolls are sold in galleries instead of being played with. So the problem isn’t that Mary Lou Big Day has chosen a potentially utilitarian or “craft” form of art; it’s that they are valuable and featured in art institutions. Maybe the longstanding tradition of highly valuable Japanese ningyō would be an appropriate comparison?

Levin, Ann. “'Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains’ on view at the Brooklyn Museum.” The Associated Press. Via North 1 March 2011

Ann Levin wrote a descriptive piece literately with when/where/how much information about the show. She describes practical details of the “tepee” and paraphrases the rules of behavior in a tipi as outlined in the show’s signage. She described lessons Dennis Sun Rhodes (Northern Arapaho) learned from his grandmother and Levin concludes, “Maybe all of us should be living in tepees.” Her description of the show was concise, precise, and thoughtful.

Sutton, Joseph. “Review of the Tipi Exhibit: Wandering the Great Plains at Brooklyn Museum.” Brooklyn Exposed. 21 Feb 2011.

Joseph Sutton is the first writer who comes out and speaks to the unrealistic perspective about Native Americans that is so pervasive in the United States. He mentions that Brooklyn only has 0.3% Native American population, which acknowledges that Brooklyn has a Native American population. Sutton encourages his readers “to satisfy their curiosity of a culture integral to our country’s history.” This is profound; the Native American isn’t the Other. Natives and non-Natives are united by a common national history. Sutton describes Harvey Pratt’s Vietnam War Experiences Tipi Liner and discusses Native military traditions. He talks about earlier works being functional first and aesthetic second. A basket by Arapaho-Seminole artist Carol Emarthle-Douglas (not Carole Emarthele-Douglas),“Gathering of Nations” is presented as an example of the shift towards aesthetics over utility in contemporary Native art. Sutton’s statement that “the basket is strictly art” is huge in a climate when “crafts” are frowned upon.

Sutton writes, “It’s a privilege to have such insight on a culture we do not pay enough attention to outside of stereotypical portrayal in the media.” The “we” implies that the readers cannot be Native themselves, but other than that, his critique was well written and thought out. He suggests the show is didactic, which is a legitimate criticism.

ICTNM Staff. “Brooklyn Exhibit Focuses on Plains Culture.” Indian Country Today. 2 March 2011.

I had hoped to close by writing about Indian Country Today’s assessment of the Tipi exhibit; however, all they had was a brief blurb and a slide show. There’s an enigmatic, uncensored comment questioning Lyle Heavy Runner’s Blackfeet heritage, a subject I know nothing about. But if you want anyone to seriously consider what you have to say, LAY OFF THE CAPS LOCK. Native magazines tend to be uniformly promotional in tone. So no criticism from the Native side, yet… I’ll definitely watch for more Native responses formal and informal. Hopefully a Native critique will be forthcoming.

Meta-Criticism: Responding to the Response to the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum, Part One

New York is arguably the center of the art world, and the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains puts Native art, both historic and contemporary, in crosshairs of mainstream art writers. That it received so much attention from art writers is a coup for curators Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller. However, the quality of much of the writing leaves something to be desired.

Johnson, Ken. “Plains Indian Culture, as Seen Through the Ingenuity of the Tepee.” New York Times. 14 March 2011.

I’ll begin with Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, as it stands out as the most flippant and dismissive. He approves, albeit condescendingly, of the historical works but disregards the “kitschy pieces” by living artists.

Johnson’s critique opens with, “You know there’s trouble when the first object you encounter in a museum exhibition looks as if it had been misplaced from the gift shop.” The art piece to which Johnson refers is 21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi, a miniature tipi by Teri Greeves (Kiowa-Comanche-Italian), which he describes as “cartoonish” and “cheerfully saccharine.” Art is subjective and certainly he has no obligation to like the piece, but if it’s a true critique, the description should be accurate. The tipi, commissioned by the museum of the show, stands 46” tall and is made of brain-tanned deer hide, various seed and bugle beads, silver, pearls, raw diamonds, copper, cotton, rope, pine, poplar, and bubinga, a tropical African hardwood (Rosoff and Zeller 35). Kitsch refers to work that is cheap and mass-produced; this is a labor-intensive handmade piece with precious and semi-precious materials.

The beaded imagery is celestial (sun, morning star, and moon), zoomorphic (three buffalo), and various Native figures – faceless adults and children, a drum circle with microphone, and dancers. Nothing particularly screams “saccharine” — the palette is bold with the only pastel color being sky blue. Perhaps the imagery of adults holding or walking with children is too sweet? That’s a sad state of human affairs is that is the culprit. Otherwise, the “fault” must lie in the diminutive size of the piece. The art world is rife with size queens.

Johnson writes about the tipi, “the object has a relationship to the historic material that is perplexing at best.” Sorry, the relationship is painfully obvious and the title even underlines the point. The figures are all Plains Indians in 21st century dress—some Kiowa, some intertribal—and the piece shows that songs, dances, familial relations have maintained continuity over the centuries, as have Plains peoples relationships to celestial forces, despite changing technology, as exemplified by the microphone. Miniature tipis have an historical antecedent as young girl’s toys, but in the 20th century, they have increasingly been commissioned by museums. Just as the tipi is portable, the miniature tipi is a portable expression of Plains culture. The piece is upbeat, but that is part of the message: Kiowa people are alive and have much to celebrate. Greeves’ art statements are included in the labels and wall text; however, none of the art writers referred to these texts.

Johnson is disappointed that he believes the show “speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication,” but frankly that’s not an inappropriate assumption—very unfortunately non-Natives tend to not have extensive knowledge of Native culture, as Johnson illustrates when he switches his spelling to “tepee” and simultaneously points out that Lyle Heavy Runner (Blackfeet not “Blackfoot” as Johnson writes) created a tipi with a “sacred design…handed down for generations” but describes it as looking “as if it had been borrowed from a roadside souvenir stand.” Which one is it? Apparently Johnson has only encountered tipis at roadside tourist traps and refuses to make the conceptual leap that tipis (and by extension Indians) have an existence independent of tourism and kitsch in the 21st century.

Húŋkpapȟa Lakota Butch Thunder Hawk’s Horse Head Effigy Stick is described by Johnson as resembling “a war club, with a horse-head-shaped business end.” The writer has never heard of the Horse Dance and doesn’t know that when a beloved horse dies, its owner will make or commission a wooden sculpture in the likeness of that horse to carry in ceremonial dances. Fair enough. But if I went to a museum and wasn’t familiar about art form, personally, I would opt to not publicly parade my ignorance; I would either read up or ask questions, but that would require the desire actually to learn about the art form in question.

Johnson suggests that the Native American Church material deserves its own exhibition, because he has never heard of the 2002 traveling exhibit Symbols of Faith and Belief: Art of the Native American Church with a superb catalog. Perhaps Google was down that day?

The gift shop with tipi-related products is repugnant to Johnson in light of “the tragic, still painful history evoked” by the exhibit. These reflect some of the “rules” about Indians that firmly implanted into the mainstream American psyche:

  • Indians are historic.
  • Indians are tragic. 
  • Indians are dead.
“The Plains Indian culture that gave rise to these kinds of objects,” Johnson insists “was practically destroyed by the United States government’s campaign to clear land for settlement by white people over a century ago.” But it wasn’t destroyed. The artists Kevin Pourier, Butch Thunder Hawk, Teri Greeves, Lyle Heavy Runner, and others are explicitly spelling this fact out through their art—Plains culture and Plains Indians is alive in the 21st century. These artists still have a relationship to their spirituality, their land, and their people, as well the buffalo, deer, and horse that have been so integral to Plains culture. It is an important message, which was lost on a man wearing his “selective-attention goggles,” but hopefully will not be lost on other museumgoers.

Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, Brooklyn Museum website

19 March 2011

Adventures in Egg Tempera

I finally got to answer a question that crosses the mind of every beginning egg tempera painter. Perhaps chicken eggs are the best-suited eggs for painting, but what about other bird's eggs? I finally got the opportunity to deviate from the prescribed course when I found quail eggs for sale at Talin International Market in Albuquerque. Ideally you paint with the freshest, organic eggs available, so it's definitely a risk to paint with quail eggs shipped in from California and have been sitting on shelves for an indeterminate period of time.

Egg tempera is an ancient painting medium using egg yolk as a binder for pigments. The yolk has to be separated completely from the white (paint with egg white paints was used in European medieval manuscripts and is called "glair"). The quail eggshells are quite beautiful, cream with brown speckles and pale blue on the inside. They are softer than chicken eggs and don't break as cleanly. On the plus side, probably due to the smaller surface area, the yolk sac isn't as fragile as a chicken's.

The quail egg yolk handled very much like chicken yolk. I use a 1:1 yolk-water ratio with a drop of vinegar to keep the paint from spoiling quickly. I had a 7"x5" true gesso panel and found an 19th-century tintype of a Cherokee girl from Indian Territory, that was in the public domain, to provide subject matter for this experiment. The underpainting is built up with transparent layers. Ideally you get some paint on your brush, wipe it off, and then create barely perceptible layers, but my patience only goes so far before I finally resort to cross-hatching the top layers. I leave visible brush strokes, but I like the energy this gives the work. Egg tempera is about the least spontaneous art medium I know of.

The handling and the end results of the quail egg tempera were good. The only advantage I can see to painting with quail eggs is the smaller yolks allow you to use exactly as much as you need every time you painting, instead of leaving the remaining yolk mixture in the 'fridge.

Although I've never heard it suggested that precontact peoples in the Americas used egg tempera, many tribes domesticated turkeys, so at least it's possible that egg tempera might have a history here. Indigenous paint binders I do know about include bear grease, lime, blood, squirrel fat, cherry sap, milkweed juice, cucumber juice, and pine pitch. I'd be very curious to know if tribes used rabbit fat or walnut oil as a paint binder.

From Ahalenia

15 March 2011

Cheyenne Quilling Society

For thousands of years, indigenous people created and evaluated art according to our own standards. In the last few centuries, non-Native people have collected, critiqued, categorized, and theorized about Native art to such an extant, that in some venues they temporarily drowned out Native perspectives. Fortunately the tide is turning, with more tribes establishing their own museums, more Native peoples curating their own art shows, and more Native writers contributing to the canon of Native American art history. One window into historical indigenous perspectives on one genre of art can be found in Plain’s women’s quilling societies.

While warrior societies among Plains tribes are well known, many tribes also had artistic guilds. One such guild was the quilling society, which was the most prestigious women’s society among many Plains tribes. Specifically I want to look at the Cheyenne women’s quilling society. The Cheyenne name for their quilling society was Mëëno’istst , which meant “quiller”–specifically “one who applies quills to hide”. Eme e ni means “she sews on quills” (Grinnell 160). The women who belonged to the society were known not only for their artistic skill but also for their moral standing (Western History Association 6).

Quillwork, the aesthetic use of porcupine quills on textiles, hides, and other surfaces, is an art form unique to North America. Quillwork has been popular from coast to coast, taking hold throughout the range of the porcupine. The earliest examples of quills used as binding agents were found in caves in Utah and Nevada, dating back to 530 BCE, and the oldest quillwork found on moccasins date back to the 6th century CE (Palmer 75).

My incomplete understanding is that a cultural hero named the Buffalo Wife first brought the art of quilling to the Plains tribes. Picking Bones Woman, a Cheyenne told the story about Buffalo Wife to anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, and she describe the human man who married Buffalo Wife. This man learned quilling while living among the buffalo. When he returned to Cheyenne society, he created the quillworkers’ society and instructed the women in the sacred protocol of quillwork (Grinnell 163).

The quilling society was an intergenerational institution, with older women instructing younger women. “Not only were the quillwork guilds instructional, but they embodied a religious element as well, not unlike a sisterhood. To join this prestigious society was to assume a station of respect and power” (Her Many Horses and Horse Capture 9). Women created other art forms, which had their own societies, but quillwork was considered the pinnacle of women’s artwork (Williams 70).

The accomplishments of quillers were on par with battle honors among men’s societies (Grinnell 159). As Beatrice Medicine and Patricia Albers write, “[T]he contributions of women were recognized by the Plains peoples, even though they have not been so recognized by anthropologists and art historians. Excellent in craftwork brought prestige and wealth to the woman and to her family” (Albers and Medicine 109). The artist had a place in Cheyenne society.

When the women decided upon a quilling project, a specialized camp crier would publically announce their plans to the whole camp (Grinnell 160). Quills had to be harvested, dyed, and processed. They were softened with saliva and pulled between teeth to flatten.

When a young woman quilled her first robe, she threw a feast. She would sit in the back of the lodge with the elder who instructed her sitting on her right. A poorer member of the tribe would be invited to witness the young woman quill her first robe and this poorer individual would be given a present, often a horse. Afterward if the visitor were a man, he would ride through the camp and sing a song mentioning the young women’s name and that she quilled her first robe (Grinnell 161).

To protect the robe while it was being quilled, a woman would covered her hands with white clay or burnt gypsum (Grinnell 164). If a woman made a mistake when quilling, a ceremony had to be preformed, in which a brave man counted coup on the robe being quilled. The man would say, “And when I scalped him, I did it in this way,” as he cut the errant quills from the robe with a knife owned by the quilling society (Grinnell 166).

To ensure success of a relative or to health someone in ill health, a girl or young woman could create a quilled robe for a healer, religious leader, or warrior in a specific ceremonial manner. The girl would offer a gift to an elder member of the quilling society and ask her help in the project. The elder would respond with a particular ceremony and then she would instruct the girl. Upon successful completion, the girl could attend quilling society feasts and teach others the techniques she learned (Grinnell 160).

At certain gatherings, women would recount the quilling accomplishments, which would be attested to by a witness or said over an arrow or pipe (Grinnell 162).

The elder members of the quilling society “had strict rules in their designs and they kept secret the meaning and arrangement of the colors, as well as the relation of the designs to each other,” as Rodolphe Petter wrote in his 1915 Cheyenne-English Dictionary.

When preparing to quill a hide, a woman might ask an elder to visit her lodge and draw a design on the robe with a stick and white clay, for which she would be given a gift or clothing and food (Grinnell 163).

As Petter wrote, “The designs were always symbolic and talismanic, representing concrete organic objects, whereas the color were more emblematic of the abstract in creatures and creations, e.g., white for active life, very light blue for quietness, peace, serenity (from the cloudless sky); green for growing life; red for warmth, food, blood, home from blood); amber yellow, ripeness, perfection, beauty (from the sunsets); black for cessation of enmity, hostilities (from a dead glow being no more hot)” (Grinnell 168-9).

It’s intriguing that genres within quilling fell into a strict hierarchy. Woman began quilling moccasins, then cradleboards, stars or circular disks for lodges, buffalo robes, then finally lodge linings, backrests, and “possible sacks” (Grinnell 161). Those who completed these increasingly prestigious items increased their own prestige. Quilling an entire lodge by oneself was a great accomplishment but the highest accomplishment was quilling thirty complete buffalo robes. Doing so guaranteed the quiller a “long life full of good fortune" (Neithammer).

The quilling society came to an end in the late 19th century (Her Many Horses and Horse Capture 9), after the Southern Cheyenne relocated to Indian Territory and the Northern Cheyenne moved onto their reservation in Montana. However, quilling itself never died and has never been completely replaced by beadwork.

“Sacred protocol” and “moral standing” are not exactly common art terms today. It’s interesting to consider how many community members were involved in creating quillwork, or repairing it, or celebrating its creation. Wealth was tied to art before the reservation era, as was prestige; however, the nature of wealth is different in a reciprocal society than in a capitalist society. The Cheyenne quilling society is an example of how certain artists were perceived by a tribe and how their work strengthened relationships within the community.

  • Albers, Patricia and Beatrice Medicine. The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.
  • Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
  • Her Many Horses, Emil and George Horse Capture, eds. Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2006.
  • Neithammer, Carolyn. Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
  • Palmer, Jessica Dawn. The Dakota Peoples: A History of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota through 1863. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.
  • Petter, Rudolphe. English-Cheyenne Dictionary. Kettle Falls, WA: Valdo Petter, 1915. Link.
  • Western History Association. The American West. Volume 10. Cody, WY: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1973.
  • Williams, Lucy Fowler. Guide to the North American Ethnographic Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 2003.
For Cheyenne art in the collection of NMAI, including quillwork, click here.

09 March 2011

53rd Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market

The Heard is perfectly timed because, after hibernating all winter, we all want some sun and to see each other. This year bought some structural changes, including an additional 100 artists. The larger tents were so much nicer with fewer tables and more escape routes. The economy kept many seasoned veteran artists at home, giving opportunities to new artists.

One of the first-timers did spectacularly well: 32-year-old Jeremy Frey, a Passamaquoddy basket weaver from Maine, who won Best of Show will his Point Urchin, a gorgeous sweet grass and brown ash basket with unbelievably fine point curls and a lid with a wrapped ring handle. He learned basket weaving from his mother Gail Frey, and, recently, National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a major grant.

Northeastern artists did well throughout the show. Theresa Second (Penobscot) won third place in baskets, while another newcomer Eric Otter Bacon (Passamaquoddy) won second place. I picked up an incised birch bark piece mounted on wood with black ash splint wraps by Otter Bacon. The way he takes basic design elements from historical birch bark art and enlarges it to a new abstract form reminds me a bit of Tlingit sculptor James Schoppert’s work with formline elements.

Classification winners included Maria Samora (Taos)–jewelry; Lisa Holt (Cochiti) and Harlan Reano (Kewa)–pottery; Thomas Tapia (Tesuque Tewa)—painting, drawings, graphics, photography; Stetson Honyumptewa (Hopi)—wooden carvings; Marcus Amerman (Choctaw)—sculpture; Kenneth Williams, Jr. (Northern Arapaho-Seneca)—diverse art forms; and basket classifications have been mentioned above.

I’m not sure how they organized judging, but judges also competed, which seems like a conflict of interest.Lacking much inventory, I didn’t bother entering the competition, and I have to say, it was rather nice to not be emotionally invested in the outcomes—I was happy for my friends and pleased to see some amazing work. Randy Kemp (Yuchi-Choctaw-Muscogee) and Ryan Singer (Diné) both had hilarious paintings that won. I was surprised to hear they don’t know each other already. A show of Kemp, Singer, and Daniel McCoy (Muscogee-Potawatomi), who shares their humorous social commentary, would be a great thing.

The Heard is much more relaxed and genteel than Indian Market, although structural changes between the Heard Museum and Heard Museum Guild made for some interesting developments—the funniest being the bathroom cops. Apparently the Heard Museum has an aging plumbing system. May I suggest private donors be solicited to overhaul the system? They could then have plaques on each toilet, dedicated to the enemy of their choice.

The extensive network of demonstrators in the main museum courtyards represented area tribes and was an interesting, educational additional to the market. For instance, Jacob Butler (Pima-Maricopa) of the Pima-Maricopa Cultural Resources Department shared detailed information about etching shell with cactus juice.

It was great to see everyone—even if fleetingly. Thanks to Andrea Hanley for sharing information about challenging new artists’ works at the Berlin Gallery. I pillaged the new museum bookstore. Thanks to the best booth mates in the world, Marcus and Linda. Thanks to Francis and Jose Burruel for their incredible hospitality. Thanks to Staci for being a most excellent traveling companion. Oh yes, and thanks to Linda and Gloria for taking me to IKEA for the first time in my life. And I am still finding oranges in my boxes.