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At the Brooklyn Museum:


by N.F. Karlins
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In 1889, the same year that Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night, the Húnkpapa Lakoda warrior Rain-in-the_Face illustrated a chronicle of his exploits -- horse-stealing, making war and even the heroic rescue of a chief’s daughter during a battle with U.S. soldiers -- on the liner of his tipi.

As the tipi shows, Native Americans had architecture as well as art. More than 30 different Plains Indian tribes spread from Texas to Canada used tipis as shelters during much of the 19th century.

This portable dwelling is the focus of “Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains” at the Brooklyn Museum, which has taken the presumably crowd-pleasing opportunity of erecting several actual tipis as part of the show (the Indians of Brooklyn, and the rest of the northeast, did not use tipis). Visitors are allowed to enter one example, which soars 28 feet into the museum’s fifth-floor rotunda. It was constructed around three slender wooden poles, to which others were added, and then a painted canvas (formerly a buffalo-hide covering) was unfurled on top and secured.

The museum commissioned this splendid tipi from Blackfeet artist Lyle J. Heavy Runner, who owns the design. Traditionally, designs have been passed down from generation to generation, and pictorial imagery is based on visions men experienced during religious ceremonies.

This example is called Bleeding Buffalo Skull. The main red motif can be interpreted as a bleeding buffalo skull or as two men holding pipes or hatchets. The design, which is read from the ground up, has many other elements.

The show contains two more full-size tipis, giving an idea of the evolution of the form. One is a replica of a Lakota buffalo-hide tipi that dates to pre-Reservation days, or before 1860. Another is from the Southern Cheyenne, dating to 1904, and is filled with beautifully made backrests and painted parfleches (folded, rawhide rectangular containers).  

Women were typically responsible for making the tipi, and in many tribes they contributed abstract, beaded medallions to tipi covers, as can be seen in the 1904 tipi on display. Women also made most of the family's possessions, and designed geometric motifs for clothing and small portable objects.

Native American men owned and displayed their medicine bundles and warrior regalia in the tipi, earning the rights to wear certain prestige items, like feathers in war bonnets, based on their fighting prowess. Men also created naturalistic designs on tipi covers and liners, which in the reservation era were also drawn in ledger books.

The decoration of objects by Native-Americans women artists is always dazzling to me. They were and are formidable mixed-media artists. Even a small Arapahoe pouch from the turn of the 20th century merits an abstract design worked in porcupine quills and beads, while an Ogala Sioux spear case from the 19th century mixes hide, red trade cloth, and beads into a three-dimensional scheme of great vigor and complexity.

Another extravaganza by an unknown Sioux artist is a man’s 19th-century buckskin shirt, which is part pigment-dyed with beadwork bands of red hands on a white background, hair and feathers.

“Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains” includes several examples of one type of object, like moccasins, to underscore the esthetic diversity of the Plains Indians. The tribes of the Great Plains encompass a huge array of visual ideas, all constantly in flux.

One look at Kiowa artist Terri Greeves' beaded high-heeled sneakers, Great Lakes Girls (2008), which are decorated with spiny oyster shell cabochons, Swarovski crystals and several types of beads, shows how far traditions are being pushed today.

A team led by Brooklyn Museum curators Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller organized this excursion into Plains Indian life.

“Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains,” Feb. 18-May 15, 2011, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, N.Y. 11238

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.