After major renovation the Native American Gallery reopened to the public September 1, 2010. Initially
opened on October 20, 2000, as part of the capital expansion program started in 1991 the gallery was
the sixth permanent installation devoted to the story of the American West showcasing the Museum’s
permanent collection. The original implementation of the Native American Gallery was made possible
through a generous grant from the late Robert T. Stuart, a businessman and philanthropist, and member
of the Board of Trustees from 1997 until his death in 2001.
Initial funding from the Noble and Dogwood Foundations, and from the National Endowment of the Arts
provided the catalyst for renovation of the gallery, which reopened after three months of work.
Nearly 190 individual cultural items are now on display more than doubling the original installation.
The gallery is divided into eleven unique interpretative themes showcasing the diversity of Native
cultures and traditions.
The beaded Lakota dress is a classic example of the continuity and adaptation that is central to
Native American cultural expression. European traders introduced glass beads to various tribes as
early as the 16th century. Glass beads, along with other commercial goods, gradually replaced older
materials. The impressively large beaded yoke on the dress evolved during the reservation period of
the late 1880s. The new, sedentary lifestyle of reservations presented beadworkers with abundant
time to apply their talents.
The horse, reintroduced into the Americas by Europeans in the 16th century, brought radical change
to the lives of Native people and it replaced older symbols as an important icon of power, wealth,
Prior to the 1800s, the headdress was used by a relatively small number of tribes and was worn only
by select warriors who had proven themselves worthy enough to wear it. By the 20th century the use
of the feathered headdress as an important symbol of honor and identity had spread to numerous
tribes across the Plains, Plateau, and Southwest.
Native artists render the human figure in a variety of ways and for numerous symbolic reasons.
Early sculpted figures in stone and clay were created as representations of important individuals,
or as deities who possessed a human likeness. The use of the hand icon dates back thousands of
years and is symbolic of Native American presence. Lakota, as well as other tribes, produced
pictorial calendar histories of individual or group experiences known as "winter counts." The
approach to chronicling such histories varied from tribe to tribe. The individual images of
people or events served as a type of visual record for a particular event by which that year
was remembered. Tribal elders often assisted in deciding the events to be noted on the "winter
Early Hopewell and Anasazi cultures used the circle motif as a reference to the powerful Sun
deity. Among Plains tribes the circle personifies the sacred medicine wheel. During earlier times,
tribal villages were laid out in a circular plan. The cross often represents the four cardinal
points and intermediate directions, and is frequently associated with the circle motif. Specific
colors also are utilized to represent many facets of the universe.
The influence of Christianity upon Native American design can be readily seen in objects dating
back hundreds of years. Simple silver crosses introduced by British entrepreneurs were traded
to and worn by members of Eastern tribes during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In
earlier times, Native artists occasionally decorated items with Christian symbols to appease
reservation agents and local missionaries. Such symbolic reference also illustrates the
blending of traditional and Christian beliefs by many Native people.
Although appearing to be a random placement of lines and colors, abstract and geometric design
elements are commonly derived from the natural world and conform to formal cultural expressions.
Native artists produced painted or incised abstract motifs on rock walls thousands of years ago.
Abstract motifs can range from very simple lines to complex mixtures of forms and shapes. In
earlier times, designs were commonly derived from dreams, which served as an inspirational
resource throughout life. Abstract designs on painted hides were created almost exclusively by
women, while figurative images were produced by men.
Twentieth century Diné weaving designs center around specific communities that are commonly
associated with specific localities such as Ganado, Two Grey Hills, and Teec Nos Pos. Many
weaving patterns are developed and maintained by certain families. Such designs are passed down
from grandmothers to mothers and daughters, and to aunts and nieces. It is common for weavers
within a given community to glean ideas for new patterns or designs from one another.
Around 1910, weavers near the Teec Nos Pos trading post began producing rugs that integrated
Oriental carpet motifs with indigenous Navajo designs. The results were weavings with very bold
colors and vibrant geometric patterns. Although trading post operators, gallery owners, and
individual buyers wield a certain amount of influence over contemporary weaving designs, Diné
artists still retain a strong sense of cultural integrity and independence.
Since the arrival of the first Europeans, various tribes have formed alliances with and fought
for the causes of different countries and factions. The flag motif replaced older war honor
symbols on women's and men's clothing. Wives of noted warriors often decorated various
clothing and ceremonial items with flag motifs intended to honor the husband's acts of
During the 19th century, Lakota artisans occasionally used flag motifs to signify the owner's
act of counting coup. This was the ultimate display of bravery in which a warrior touched an
enemy with his hand in combat. Native Americans have served valiantly in the armies of various
countries and factions dating to the 1500s. During World War I, more than one-third of the
eligible male Indian population served in the military. Their bravery and sacrifice have
continued during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts.
Change is an integral part of Native cultural tradition and artistic expression. Long before
the arrival of Europeans, interaction between ancient Native American cultures brought about
changes in such things as belief, subsistence, and artistic expression. Floral designs spread
from eastern and northern tribes to the more western inhabitants through the fur trade and
the work of missionary groups. The result was a broad spectrum of artistic interpretation,
from very simple to extremely complex patterns that varied between tribes and across
Certain floral design elements are fairly widespread among various tribes. The beaded
"maple leaf" motif used by the Delaware is also a common motif utilized by Kiowa, Caddo
and many other tribal artists. Such crossover designs have long existed in Native
American art. However, the 19th century reservation system in which different tribes
were placed in close proximity to one another, greatly increased this practice. For
example during the early 20th century, the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana became
the center for designs that exhibit a unique composite of Great Lakes and Northern
Plains style beadwork.
There are varying beliefs among the different tribes on the origin of the horse that
affects the way they refer to the animal. The Dakota term for horse is súnka wákan or
"mysterious dog." The Blackfeet word is ponokámita or "elk dog." The Shawnee expression
is m0shäwä or "elk." Native artists have depicted horses in carvings, drawings, paintings,
and quill and beadwork since their first contact with the animal. Such horse images serve
multiple functions including a record of personal history, a tribute to the animal itself,
and an acknowledgment of blessings received.
Early Spanish explorers introduced both Paint and Appaloosa horses to the Americas. During
the 1800s, many Plains and Plateau tribes selectively bred these spotted horses for their
unique coloration. The horse is one of the most recurrent pictographic icons produced by
Lakota artists between 1890 and 1920.
Native American depiction of animals encompasses a long history dating back thousands of
years. It occupies a special place in many tribal traditions, customs, and beliefs. Among
some tribes, sculptures of game animals are incorporated into important medicine rituals.
The turtle plays a significant role in many tribal creation stories and is commonly
incorporated into objects used for sacred rituals and religious ceremonies.
Birds, dragonflies, butterflies, and other insects serve as messengers between humans and
the deities in many tribal beliefs. Their spiritual significance is exhibited in numerous
art forms and decorative motifs. Cranes are a common feature on courtship flutes. During
earlier times, a young unmarried male adhered to certain tribal rituals when trying to
win over a prospective bride. The beautiful music coming from his flute was supposed to
entice a possible mate.
Reptiles play an integral role in numerous traditions and beliefs. Some 2000 years ago,
people of the Hopewell culture created elaborate carvings and mound structures of the
serpent and snake as part of a religious movement associated with fertility. Tenth-century
Hohokam people of the Southwest used images of the rattlesnake to decorate their stone
bowls and pottery in recognition of the animal's powers. Ancient Native cultures from
Florida to California also have portrayed the avanyu, or mythical plumed serpent, as a
reference to water and the underworld.
Among many Plains tribes, the elk, and other game animals such as deer, are important
and powerful symbols incorporated into a variety of beliefs, ceremonies, societies,
and artistic expressions. For the Lakota, the elk is synonymous with love and courtship.
Images of this animal, achieved during a dream or vision, play a significant role in
the life of an unmarried individual. They believe the recipient of the image is given
the supernatural powers of the creature. To dream of a bull elk is to acquire the
special seductive powers of the animal.
Today, in the United States alone, there are more than 500 different Native American
tribes recognized within the framework of modern society. Each tribe maintains its own
unique customs, beliefs, and oral histories. Art has been an integral part of Native
cultures for thousands of years. Artistic expression provides a means of preserving
the past, examining the present, and defining the future. The use of some of the
ancient cultural symbols has ceased, while others continue to play an important
tribal role. With the creation of each new object, contemporary artists preserve the
spiritual and cultural values of their ancestors. This gallery celebrates both the
legacy and the future of Native American artistic expression.
Dress Lakota (Sioux)
loan courtesy of the Margueritte Piers Foundation
The U-shaped design motif in the bottom center of the Lakota dress is intended to represent the turtle,
a protective symbol for Lakota women. The motif is an adaptation from an earlier dress style in which a
deer’s tail was applied for decoration. The tail’s placement was in the bottom center of the cape where
the beaded U-shaped design is located.
Native American Church Lighter Sticks Tsistsistas (Cheyenne)
Acc. No. 96.27.1322
Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection
The cross is not unique to Euro-American religion. Native American artists were producing variations of
the cross long before the establishment of Christianity in North America. The Cheyenne lighter sticks
exemplify the coalescing of traditional Native spiritual beliefs with Christianity. The Native American
Church grew out of the Plains tribal religions during the late 1870s. Formally organized at the
beginning of the 20th century, the Native American Church is the first Native religious movement
based in part on western theological practices. Illustrated on one stick is a variation of the
cross and Sacred Heart of Jesus symbol. On both sticks are additional images of objects important
to the Peyote Religion--the crescent, ritual staff, peyote rattle and fan, and the water drum.
Purse Lakota (Sioux)
Acc. No. 82.27.04
The 1880s marked a notable change in Lakota beadwork design. Traditional geometric patterns of
rectangles, squares, triangles, and lines were augmented with elongated diamond shapes and pronged,
decorative appendages as illustrated on the purse. The use of color was also greatly expanded during
this period with green, yellow, and blue being preferred. Although appearing as a dominant color on
these objects, pink beads were not considered first choice by many Lakota artists. The checkerboard
pattern on the bottom of the moccasins is another uniquely Lakotan decorative motif that appeared
around the end of the 19th century.
Bugle Lakota (Sioux)
Acc. No. L85.05
loan courtesy of Clinton and Julia Anderson
For two centuries prior to America’s independence, Spain, France, Holland, and England planted their
flags in the "New World." Native artists turned these foreign flags and banners into design motifs
used on baskets, weavings, quill and beadwork, and other items. The American flag became a popular
decorative element during the late 19th century. Between 1890 and 1920, Lakota bead and quillworkers
produces hundreds of different utilitarian and ceremonial items with this adopted symbol of courage
and power. The motif became a popular design element on items sold to tourists, traded to business
owners, and presented to government officials. The emblem of the Great Seal of the United States
also became a common design element of the period.
Winter Count Teton Dakota
Acc. No. 92.19 gift courtesy of Mr. Forrest Bratley
This particular winter count was reproduced in the 1890s from an earlier one reportedly
belonging to Swift Bear.
Woman’s "Friendship" Blanket Wazhazhe (Osage) by Anita Fields
Acc. No. 2000.27
Anita Fields learned ribbonwork from Maudie Cheshewalla, who taught traditional Osage arts for
several years at the tribal museum. Ribbonwork designs are cut into a layer of silk ribbon and
turned under to expose the bottom layer of a contrasting colored ribbon. The strips are sewn
together forming a repetitive pattern of reverse applique design. The hand motif is specifically
associated with women’s blankets. The blankets are made for women and girls to wear during
I -lon-Seka, an Osage ceremonial dance and family honor song. The blankets are also made to
honor respected individuals during give aways and special occasions. The making and giving
of the "Friendship" blankets are a rich spiritual gesture that strengthens and define one’s
place and relationships within the Osage culture.
Gauntlets Natimiwiyiniwuk (Plains Cree, Rocky Boy Reservation)
Acc. No. 91.01.0956
Joe Grandee Collection The reservation system during the 19th century, in which different tribes
were placed in close proximity to one another, created an environment that greatly increased the
influence of inter-tribal artistic designs and techniques. During the early 20th century, the
Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana became the center for designs that exhibit a unique composite
of Great Lakes and Northern Plains style beadwork.
Honoring Hand Drum Northern Plains Probably Lakota (Sioux)
Acc. No. 83.30.09
Among many Plains tribes, the elk and other game animals such as the deer are important and powerful
symbols incorporated into a variety of beliefs, ceremonies, societies, and artistic expressions. For
the Lakota, the elk is synonymous with love and courtship. Images of this animal, achieved during a
dream or vision, play a significant role in the life of an unmarried individual. They believe that
the recipient of the image is given the supernatural powers of the creature. To dream of a bull elk
is to acquire the special seductive powers of the animal. Like the elk, the deer also plays a
significant role in many tribal beliefs and customs. Various societies and ceremonies centered
around the deer. Animal dreamer societies often include Buffalo Dreamers, Deer Dreamers, and Elk
Dreamers. During ceremonies, members of various animal societies often enter mock duels in which
the spiritual and physical powers of the animals are projected toward one another. As illustrated
by the shield, images of animals continue to hold special meaning for contemporary Native artists.
Moccasins Lenape (Delaware)
Acc. No. H.84.07
Gift courtesy of Harvey Bouto Certain floral design elements are fairly widespread among various
tribes. Note the beaded "maple leaf" motif on the Delaware moccasins and its similar application
on the Cree gauntlets. The maple leaf is also a common motif utilized by Kiowa and Caddo artists.
Such cross over designs have long existed in Native American art.
Tobacco Bag Lakota (Sioux)
Acc. No. 83.30.01
The paint horse image seen on this bag is reminiscent of those illustrated on early hide paintings
and later ledger drawings. The horse represented on the bag is probably a Paint. Early Spanish
explorers introduced both Paint and Appaloosa horses to the Americas. During the 1800s, many
Plains and Plateau tribes selectively bred these spotted horses for their unique coloration. The
horse is one of the most recurrent pictographic icons produced by Lakota artists between 1890
and 1920. On the opposite side of the bag is the image of a mounted warrior with a long flowing
headdress. He rides a dark blue Paint horse with an American flag tied to its tail.
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