North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

The Circle of Relatives

The Arts of Mothers, Sisters, and Wives

Man's MoccasinsLakota women were partners with men in the work of raising children and supporting a family, although they had separate spheres of activity. One way Lakota women cared for their families was to make and decorate beautiful clothing for all members, including their brothers to whom they had a lifelong obligation. Fine apparel for their families was and still is a sign of affection and honor from wives, mothers, sisters, and grandmothers.

Lakota women, respected for their skill as artists, excelled in quillwork and beadwork. Artists ingeniously converted porcupine quills, readily found in nature, into elaborate surface decorations. When glass beads were imported from Europe as a trade item in the nineteenth century, Plains women stitched them into their own traditional patterns, so that today beadwork is regarded as a purely indigenous art form. Lakota women have maintained an unbroken tradition of making quill- and beadwork embroidery, continuing to do beautiful work today.

ShieldHunters and Warriors

Because of the Plains peoples' dependence on the buffalo, hunting territories were important, and competition for the best areas gave rise to a warrior culture and the stereotypical image with which we are familiar: the buffalo-hunting warrior on horseback. Men gained status by the number of horses in their possession and their valor in defending their territories.

Feathers predominate in the paraphernalia of Plains men, and the eagle feather bonnet has become the most recognized symbol of the American Indian. Traditionally, only men of honor with accomplishments in warfare were eligible to wear these bonnets.

The Plains Indian Wars ended in 1890 with the Battle of Wounded Knee, effectively terminating the functional need for warriors. The warriors' continuing emotional needs, however, resulted in great frustration. Young men could not fulfill the requirements necessary for warriors to attain positions of honor, leadership, and the right to wear the meaningful eagle feathers.

In the twentieth century, by serving in the U.S. military, Plains men—and many other American Indians—have found an opportunity to continue the warrior life. Servicemen receive the same respect once given to warriors on horseback.

Beginning the Circle

Doll and CarrierPlains children are the treasures of the tribe. Traditionally, they began life wrapped snugly in a lovingly decorated baby carrier made by an aunt or a grandmother.

Lakota mothers sought to protect their children from physical harm and the elements. They thought the Euro-American-style sunbonnet, like the umbrella, was quite sensible on the treeless Plains. They preferred, however, to construct bonnets from hide decorated with beads or quills, rather than from cotton calico.

Children's belongings, such as amulets, were often decorated with animals, such as the lizard and the turtle, who are generally considered the guardians of a safe and long life.

Playthings teach children what it takes to be an adult. Mothers made miniature versions of women's equipment for their daughters to play with while practicing for their future roles as adults.

Because birds soar in the sky realm where the supernaturals dwell, they have the ability to carry messages between these lofty deities and earthbound humans. Possessing such powers, birds are sought as personal guardian spirits in visions or dreams. Personal talismans, such as bird feathers, claws, or bones, give evidence that the bearer has received such a patron.

Feathers were important to the Lakota. They used feathers from the Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Crow, Raven, Northern Harrier, and Turkey. Most of these birds are birds of prey, preferred for Plains feather bonnets.

Feather HeaddressThe tail feathers of the eagle, especially the immature Golden Eagle, are prized above all others because they are white with black tips.

Bald and Golden Eagle feathers are protected under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act. Carnegie Museum has a special permit to possess and exhibit eagle feathers. All of these feathers were obtained by Native people prior to enactment of the federal law and were either donated to or purchased by the museum. Bald Eagles have been protected since 1940 and the Golden Eagle since 1962.

Image 1: Man's Moccasins
Lakota, collected 1900-1914
Women sometimes expressed affection for men and children by beading every surface of their moccasins, even the soles. These moccasins were worn for special events such as weddings, honoring ceremonies, and burials.
Tanned hide, glass, commercial cotton, sinew, tinned metal, unidentified feather, commercial dye; L 28.0 x W 11.0 x H 9.5 cm; 23102-16895 a & b, gift of John A. Beck

Image 2: Shield
Crow, collected 1904
The design on this unusual Crow man's shield is constructed from the three-dimensional body and wing feathers of a Cooper's Hawk with two-dimensional painted legs and feet. Reality and illusion merge into a single bird of prey. Painted zigzag lines of lightning, representing power, emanate from the bird's eyes.
Buffalo (Bison bison) rawhide, tanned deer (Odocoileus sp.) hide, immature female Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperi), commercial wool stroud, glass, paint, commercial dye; D 50.0 cm; 2418-119 a

Image 3: Doll and Carrier
Sharon Bruguier, Yankton Sioux, 1993
It was a lucky girl who received a miniature baby carrier for her doll. When children were sent away to boarding schools, familiar playthings served as comforting reminders of the life they knew back home.
Tanned hide, glass, commercial cotton, commercial wool stroud, brass, rawhide, commercial leather, nylon sinew, synthetic hair, commercial dye; L 67.0 x W 18.5 x H 14.3 cm; 35710-2 a & b

Image 4: Headdress and Trailer
Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, ca. 1910
After the close of the Plains Indians Wars, tribal regulations concerning the right to wear warbonnets were relaxed. No longer did a man wear a feather headdress only because of his many brave deeds in battle. Elaborate bonnets assumed new generalized roles and were frequently worn at community events as badges of honor and recognition.
Tanned hide, adult Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) feather, Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) feather, Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) feather, glass, horse (Equus caballus) hair, sinew, sealing wax, commercial wool stroud, commercial cotton, commercial dye; L 235.0 x W 85.0 cm; 35153-16 & 18, gift of Albert Miller

AmuletImage 5: Amulet
Alice New Holy (1925- ), Oglala Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 1992
Women embroidered prayers for protection and long life into the things they made for their children. Each child received a decorated amulet containing their dried umbilical cord.
Both the lizard and the turtle are the chosen forms for umbilical amulets. These animals were considered the guardians of life because of their abilities to protect themselves. The turtle's hard shell provides complete protection when the animal withdraws into it. Some lizards shed their tails to distract predators; others change color to camouflage themselves. Thus, they are good candidates for long, safe lives.
Amulet: Tanned hide, porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) quill, immature mountain goat? (Oreamnos americanus) hoof, sinew, commercial dye; L 15.5 x W 8.7 cm; 35415-8

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