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  • Laurie Seban

Plains Narrative Arts: Visions and Victories

Updated: Feb 20

A discussion of Plains narrative arts (tipis, shields, robes, ledger drawings) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


In the Plains, images of warriors and their exploits date back as early as 3000 BCE, with prehistoric petroglyphs scattered across an area that stretches from the Mississippi River west to the Rockies and from the Canadian border to the Southwest. Figures, mysterious creatures, and animals etched onto stone and canyon walls depict the gatherings, hunts, and battles of countless generations. After 1600 CE, sites even record the arrival of Europeans, horses, and new weaponry.


Map of Plains groups Writing-On Stone, Alberta Canada b. 1500 BCE


With the introduction of the horse, many groups capitalized on the newfound speed and mobility. They continued to hunt buffalo and other game in small-scale nomadic groups, competing with other tribes over resources. By the 18th century, over fifty tribes, each with distinct differences and languages, ranged across the Plains. Yet some common themes remained important. Even as increasing numbers of Americans brought irrevocable change into the region, the recording of victories and visions continued to be an essential means of power and protection for native warriors.


Recitations of hunts, horse raids, or battles, were an important means of acquiring prestige for any Plains male, and took place regularly during social or ceremonial occasions. It affirmed a man’s place in society and role in protecting the community. As visual displays of prowess, tipis, robes, shields, shirts and ledger drawings complemented oral narratives, and brought past events to life. They showcased the extraordinary spiritual and martial achievements of these men, standing as documents of the brilliant florescence and gradual destruction of Plains culture.


The tipi is a quintessential symbol of the Plains: a portable shelter of buffalo hides tanned, sewed, and owned by women. It was left to men, however, to paint the designs. The tipis served as a canvas for male artists, continuing the pictographic history of individuals and their communities. In a Sioux tipi model from the 19th century, a group of warriors are engaged in fierce combat, dominated by a central figure with a horned feather headdress raising his coup stick against another armed warrior. “Counting coup” upon an enemy, the highest achievement of a Plains warrior, meant touching a feathered lance (coup stick) upon an enemy. The ability to get close enough to an enemy to touch them and retreat unscathed was the greatest achievement of a Plains warrior—and the greatest humiliation for his enemy. All the action is conveyed using concise lines punctuated with color.

Tipi models: Sioux, Kiowa/Comanche late 19th century


Other tipis combine battles with invocations of the supernatural. A Kiowa/Comanche tipi model displays three powerful thunderbirds, rulers of the sky, which surround a crescent moon and seven discs, or stars: the Pleiades. Images like these might appear in dreams or visions, and utilized their power to protect the inhabitants within.


Across the Plains, visions of various kinds were an important means of acquiring power. A vision quest might be sought as an entrance into adulthood, or take place at later points throughout a lifetime. Necessary purification (sweats in a sweat lodge, fasting) would take place before an individual would retreat alone for a period of days, ready to receive communication from the spirit world. Spirit-helpers (in animal or supernatural form) would identify themselves to the individual in visions or manifest themselves in physical artifacts, which were then carried or replicated on bags, robes, shields, or shirts, to be called upon for aid. In spiritually powerful individuals sometimes called medicine men (or women), visions could occur at any time; notably, these were some of the most successful warriors, like Black Elk, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo.


A Western Apache robe from the 1880’s shows an accumulation of imagery in the vision of a medicine man. Medicine Beings with horned headdresses are arranged in the center and sides, interspersed with images of the sun, moon, and stars. A robe like this could have been placed directly on individuals for curing, or worn by the healer themselves. Significantly, the images on the inner tanned skin were not intended for outer display, but worn against the skin for absorption of their metaphysical power and protective properties.


Plains robes: Western Apache, Lakota "Grand Robe" late 19th century


Other men’s robes narrated past exploits for added potency. Specific battles, hunts, or even horse raids allowed opportunity to visualize individual achievements. The Lakota “Grand Robe,” so called because of the massive size (148 x 224 cm) and scope of events, depicts 60 warriors in an epic battle that unfolds in multiple episodes: the circular tracks of horse raids, the heroics of both mounted and foot soldiers, along with the drama of the fallen wounded. Focus is on the narrative action, with individuals identified by their dress and accoutrements (shields, headdresses, coup sticks). Wearers of robes like these became a form of living history, a visual document of past events, with the power gained from those victories and visions recounted in stories throughout the community.


Men’s shirts worn in battle or ceremony also conferred prestige and therefore protection upon individuals. Although shirts were made by women, men painted the designs and determined any additions to the shirt. An Apsaalooke (Crow) men’s shirt is elaborately beaded with a central panel of beaded stripes balanced by four geometric patterns on the torso and arms). The shirt is finished with other “power” materials: ermine fur (ermine are known for their ferocity), red feathers, red stroud wool and hairlocks, which represent the members of the community for whom the wearer was responsible. The protection these shirts afforded is demonstrated in the fact that some shirts were replicated and worn by others in battle precisely because of their perceived power. A child, too was protected by the images carefully beaded onto cothing. In the case below, it is the power of the bison, deer and other animals, along with the all-powerful morning star, that offer protection.

Mens and Boys Shirts: Apsaalooke (Crow) late 19th century


Spectacular shields used by warriors combined physical protection with spiritual power. Shield covers made from tough buffalo rawhide were stretched over a wooden hoop, painted with designs, and intended to overlay a thick buffalo hump, which provided the physical protection. But the perceived symbolic value of these shields was enough that men would often go into battle with the lighter shield cover alone, leaving the bulky hump behind. As with the robes and shirts, designs often originated with conquest; a warrior might choose a successful battle or raid as a means of transferring that victory to a later battle. The presence of powerful animals like the bear, raptors, or thunderbird increased potency.


Some shields depict the individual visions of the owners, translating metaphysical to physical power. Joseph No Two Horns, also named He Nupa Wanica (1852-1942), a Hunkpapa Lakota/Teton Sioux warrior, made several versions of his shield. Painted with mineral pigments, it shows his personal invocation of the Thunderbird. Lines radiate from its wings as a protective force; an indication of their efficacy is the fact that No Two Horns painted those same lines on his face and his horse going into battle. A clutch of feathers adds to the sacred power of the design. Elements of other birds and animals were often attached to the shield as an extra measure of protection. Birds were commonly used as symbols of and messengers to the spirit world; raptors like hawks and eagles were especially powerful because of their aerial and hunting prowess.


Shield of No Two Horns/He Nupa Wanica (Hunkpapa Lakota/Teton Sioux) late 19th century


Each shield, with images and additives, was an extension of the owner similar to a portrait. While visual narratives did not show the physical likeness of the warrior, they invariably depicted what was considered their much more essential identity: details of their dress which denoted their deeds and power. No Two Horn’s shield, for example, identifies the warrior himself in later ledger drawings, including his participation in the Battle of Little Big Horn.


By the late 19th century, as American settlers and soldiers moved into the Plains, warriors were increasingly in conflict with U.S. soldiers. Tribes that once freely roamed “Indian Territory” (land west of the Mississippi) were killed, imprisoned, or forced into increasingly smaller reservations. Buffalo were hunted to the point of near extinction, ceremonies banned, and children removed from their families to be “re-educated” at government boarding schools.

At this critical juncture, ledger drawings originated with Plains men as an eloquent means of processing a tumultuous tragic history while maintaining narrative traditions. As they no longer had access to hide as a medium, men used accountant’s ledger paper (lined paper, sketchbooks and muslin cloth were used as well) obtained from trading posts, the battlefield, or prison guards. With pencil, ink, crayon and watercolors, these warrior-artists continued to illustrate their exploits with emphasis on narrative action and the details of dress, depicted in the same linear style.


Just like the hidework, ledger drawings are primary source history seen through the eyes of the participants, with all aspects of life documented in extraordinary detail. Drawings range from the more mundane aspects of lives once lived (setting up camp, hunting, courting, animals) to more detailed events like ceremonies, horse raids, specific battles, or even treaty signings. Many reflect the increasing conflict between native groups and inexorably, with the US Army.


The Julian Scott Ledger holds scenes by several Kiowa (Ka’igwu) artists, including one identified as “Artist B.” He recorded a delegation of Kiowa visiting a reservation agent. The leader, resplendent with robe, otter skin and peace medal, leads five men, their authority reflected in the details of their regalia: headdresses, breastplates, leggings, moccasins, eagle feather fans. Compare that to a group of Caddo men wearing broad-brimmed hats, and their visit to the (same?) reservation agent.



Ledger Drawings: Julian Scott Ledger Kiowa (Ka’igwu) late 19th century


The Maffett Ledger, made by as many as 22 Northern and Southern Cheyenne warrior artists, shows a play by play sequence of events that rivals any action film. Virtually every page shows warriors and their horses in the midst of battle, with each character distinguished by dress, shield, and horse. Warriors trade arrows or sometimes bullets. They gallop across the page, flee in opposite directions, or tussle in hand-to-hand combat with fallen horses at their feet.


Ledger drawings: Maffett Ledger (Northern and Southern Cheyenne) late 19th century


In one, a combatant counts coup on a fallen enemy. In another, a warrior leans over his horse, using his coup stick to repel an array of guns with bullets flying towards him. The collaboration between multiple artists using pages in the same ledger demonstrates the fluidity with which events and visions could be shared.

Ledger drawings: Maffett Ledger (Northern and Southern Cheyenne) late 19th century


On other pages, United States soldiers and American settlers join the fray. Soldiers attack, wounded warriors, with vivid colors highlighting the drama. In one striking example, a soldier is dragged by his horse. In more lighthearted illustrations, soldiers packed into undersized wheeled wagons ride onto the battlefield at Adobe Walls like vaudeville actors in a performance.


The Henderson Ledger tells the story of Frank Henderson, or Hinono’eiteen (1862-1885). Henderson, an Arapaho orphan who came of age in the final phase of the Reservation period, attended the Carlisle Indian School from age 17-21 before returning to his home in Darlington, Oklahoma in 1883. He died in 1885 at the age of 23. Medicine Vision is a double page spread with the bottom half showing a vision emanating from a prone figure, possibly Henderson himself. The result of the vision and shield is also shown: the horned feather headdress, eagle and otter emblems on the tipi and the war lance all denote the subject as a man of superlative achievements—and therefore superlative protection.


Ledger drawings: Henderson Ledger Frank Henderson/Hinono’eiteen (Arapaho) Medicine Vision


History and experience blur in other drawings from the ledger. Night Skirmish shows a warrior in the midst of action, with the enemy represented by an anonymous array of pistols, sparks shooting from the muzzles. As bullets whiz by, the rider turns to shoot. He is a formidable warrior, with face paint, distinctive leggings and shield, a riding quirt by his side.

Ledger drawings: Henderson Ledger Frank Henderson/Hinono’eiteen (Arapaho) late 19th century


A possible self-portrait shows Henderson with horse, shield, and coup stick rendered in precise detail. He looks quizzically at the viewer, a lone warrior sketched out in the distance. The cowboy hat perched on top adds a surprising touch. One wonders how much was experienced by Henderson in his short life, and how much was a dream, or a window into past lives.

Ledger drawings: Henderson Ledger Frank Henderson/Hinono’eiteen (Arapaho). late 19th century


By the turn of the century, drawings documented a distant past that was also sold outside the community—to tourists, scholars, and collectors. Shields, headdresses and shirt identify specific warriors that can be tracked though time and space. Sitting Bull, with his horned headdress and distinctive Thunderbird shield appears in multiple drawings of the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn Sitting Bull led Lakota, Tsitsistas (Cheyenne), and Hinono’eiteen (Arapaho) warriors in a rout the United States Calvary.


The Battle of Little Big Horn was an epic victory recorded in various forms across Indian Territory, and sold to outsiders at trading posts. Standing Bear/Mato Najiin (1859-1933), a Minneconjou Lakota/Teton Sioux illustrated the battle multiple times; the tipi liner below was painted in 1920. Decades after his participation in the battle, Standing Bear recalls the victory in vivid detail, with native forces sweeping in on the right, each warrior identified by his regalia and shield. American soldiers appear trapped in a ravine, their riderless horses galloping away to the left. This time, the image was not to confer power, but recall the power of those past battles.

Standing Bear/Mato Najiin (Minneconjou Lakota/Teton Sioux) Battle of Little Bighorn tipi liner late 19th century


The life of Joseph No Two Horns, a Lakota Sioux who fought with Sitting Bull, marks the transition of the Plains people from nomadic hunters and warriors to forced confinement. He spent the last years of his life restricted to Standing Rock Reservation recalling his past exploits in various forms —no longer as a protective device, but a mnemonic one. From 1885 until his death in 1942, he made seven versions of his shield (on hide and muslin), and forty-three or more ledger drawings. In those drawings, the great warrior recalls his past exploits, including his participation at Little Big Horn. His distinctive Thunderbird shield is seen beside him, along with blood gushing from 5 separate wounds on his horse, a blue roan.


Joseph No Two Horns (Lakota Sioux): shield, ledger drawing, horse effigy stick late 19th century


No Two Horns went on to memorialize the sacrifice of his roan in that battle with a carved effigy stick of his horse, which he paraded in dances and ceremonies. In total, he made 10 versions of his horse that have made their way into collections. Each is a sensitively sculpted portrait of the horse in mid-leap, with tail wrapped for battle and distinct triangles to mark each of his wounds (South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre. Like other warriors of his generation, No Two Horns managed to keep his visions and victories alive through an eloquent array of narrative arts for future generations.


Plains narrative arts are an eloquent synthesis of tribal history and myth, autobiography and visionary experience.

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