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

RobeSky Watching: Finding the Way

On the Plains the landscape is vast and the sky looms large. Plains people have looked to the geographic features of the Earth and to the stars in the sky above for finding the way and making decisions.

All humans would be directionless on Earth without celestial aid from the observable sky, without the sun and the other stars to help us locate ourselves in space and time. The Plains tribes practiced naked-eye astronomy and observation. The Lakota used the stars to guide them in finding their way and to time their hunting, gathering, and ritual activities. Philosophically they believed that the geography of Earth is a reflection of the star world.

Plains artists pay homage to the centrality, power, and importance of the sun and the sky with depictions on ceremonial and personal-power objects. The stars and planets of most significance to Plains people are Venus (the Morning Star), Ursa Major (Big Dipper), and the Pleiades. Each tribe has its own name for the various constellations. The Arapaho call Ursa Major the "Broken Backbone." In a folktale the Lakota tell how the "Seven Little Girls," or Pleiades, were placed in the sky.

Plains people address the four cardinal directions plus two more, the zenith above and the nadir below, during every ceremonial undertaking.

The Morning Star
Star Quilt Venus shines brighter in the sky than any other star or planet. Lakota people observed the brilliant planet and incorporated it as a symbol into their myths, ceremonies, and works of art. The morning star, probably Venus, dominates Lakota quilt designs.

Lakota women began making quilts in the late 19th century as an alternative to buffalo robes, which were no longer available. They learned the technique from Euro-American women in government schools and church guilds. Lakota quilters singled out the star of Bethlehem pattern as a favorite, most likely because of its resemblance to their traditional morning star design.

Star quilts are made to be given away. Lakota women stitch quilts for new babies, graduations, weddings, veteran homecomings, wakes, and memorials--in sum, for every important occasion in a Lakota's lifetime and death.

Image 1: Robe
Arapaho, collected 1903
The Arapaho call Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) the Broken Backbone. Surrounding the broken backbone are shapes representing mountains, rivers, hills, ravines, valleys, creeks, and two bears' claws.
Cow (Bos taurus) hide, paint, clay; L 102.0 x W 107.0 cm; 3179-294

Image 2: Star Quilt
Nellie Star Boy Menard (1910- ), Sicangu (Brule) Lakota, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota, 1994
Nellie Star Boy Menard learned to make Lakota star quilts because she needed them for the memorial service of her son's death. Her mother showed her how to make the star and sew the pieces together. Since then, she has made dozens to honor relatives and to use as gifts for community giveaways.
At home Mrs. Menard is revered as an elder authority on the traditional arts by her own Rosebud community. Beyond the reservation, in 1995 she received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship—the country's highest honor for folk artists—for her lifetime achievement as a master folk artist.
Commercial cotton, polyester fill; L 237.5 x W 199.5 cm; 35882-1

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