Women’s Work: Creating Beauty

Artwork created by and for Indians of the Great Plains


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Sioux Vest

Image: ©2002
Sioux Beaded Pictorial Vest c1890
Sherwoods Spirit of America remote
Santa Fe

"I was industrious when I was young. Seven robes I have worked with bird quills and two robes I have embroidered with porcupine work. I have also in my life time embroidered with porcupine quills seven buckskin coats; three of these coats were of deer skin and four of Rocky Mountain sheep."

Buffalo Bird Woman (1839?–1932)

Our visual record of the old-time buffalo culture of the Indians of the Great Plains is largely composed of 19th century brown-tone photographs. These are informative, to be sure. They are also oddly quaint, and fundamentally flawed sources because a vital element is missing. Victorian technology, after all, cannot come close to conveying even a rudimentary impression of the vibrant and colorful hues that permeated the lives of Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos, Pawnees, Kiowas, and Comanches. Today, many of those who look at examples of Plains Indian material culture in museums and galleries—the objects people used and the clothes they wore, basically the stuff of everyday life—are understandably impressed by an awesome display of artistic exuberance, nothing less than a thundering cascade of design and color.

Plains Indian languages did not actually contain words precisely equivalent to the English language term "art." There was no such thing in those traditional cultures as the idea of "art for art's sake." The closest of the tribal terms that might apply would perhaps be "beauty." And that was something about which Plains Indian folk knew a great deal. The Indians of the Great Plains looked at the world around them and beheld much that was beautiful. What they saw was the Great Circle, an exquisitely created, perfectly formed universe composed of diverse, elegantly designed parts.

The sun, moon and stars were part of this Great Circle. So, too, the sky and its swirling clouds. Towering mountains and rushing streams, leaf-laden trees and waving grasses contributed to the magnificent whole. Plains Indians were acutely aware that compared to the world surrounding them, and the animals among whom they lived—the members of the tribes of four-legged creatures and the nations of those that flew—human beings were relatively plain and not particularly beautiful. Without attractive fur or feathers decorated with exploding colors, humans seemed almost abnormally plain.

So Plains Indians attempted to place themselves more in sync with nature by filling the visual void. They did this by creating beauty. And this was, typically, the task of women. Among the Plains Indians the kind of tasks one performed each day, the types of activities in which people engaged, were all determined by one's sex. Hunting and warfare were male activities. Gathering food—or, among those, like the Mandans and Hidatsas of North Dakota, who lived in more or less permanent villages along rivers, planting and harvesting corn—caring for children and creating the home environment fell to the women.

Whenever you look at an object that came from the Plains Indian tribes, consider this: If it was not intended for hunting, warfare, smoking, perhaps the making of music, it was probably made by a woman.

Every buckskin dress and shirt, every bead, each flattened and dyed porcupine quill; all of the pipebags, moccasins, leggings, and rawhide parfleche carrying cases—they were all made by the women.

Image: ©2002
Plains Parfleche 19th Century
Morning Star Gallery remote
Santa Fe

The role of women in Plains Indian tribes has long been both barely understood and inaccurately portrayed. Women were not the slaves, mindless drudges and poorly treated drones who populate so many novels and films. (Nor, for that matter, were they the equally fictional and stereotypical "Indian princesses" who grace many of the same venues).

In real life, Plains Indian women played vitally important roles in tribal societies. The Cheyennes, for example, could not even contemplate conducting the Sun Dance—their annual, early-summertime ritual celebrating the world's rebirth after the stark Great Plains winter—without the presence of a woman who represented Mother Earth herself. But with the notable exception of today's Plains Indian people, the crucial role of women in old-time Plains Indian life has been only poorly understood.

Perhaps this is because most of the anthropologists who started collecting information about Plains Indian tribes in the late-19th century were men. (After all, they came from a culture that as a matter of course consigned women to a "separate sphere" from males, and few of them ever expressed much interest in women's lives.) It is, of course, also possible that Plains Indian women were not particularly anxious to talk with men from outside their own milieu.

What usually interested the outsiders who looked at Plains Indian culture was the warrior sitting astride a horse, an eagle feather warbonnet on his head, buffalo hide shield strapped to his left arm, and lance clasped firmly in his right hand. This image became the figure of enduring memory. Yet aside from his war gear, virtually everything a Plains Indian male owned was made by women, and it is they who left a powerful legacy in the works of art they created.

Some insight into the real significance of women's roles in Plains Indian life can be gleaned from the recollections of Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa from North Dakota's Upper Missouri River country. Consider, for example, the business of tanning the buffalo, elk, deer, antelope and bighorn sheep hides that were used to make tipis, clothing, pipebags, moccasins and myriad other objects.

"Scraping hides was hard work," Buffalo Bird Woman recalled. And that was just the beginning. The raw hide was staked out on the ground and treated with a stew of sinew, brains and sage. It dried for several days before being soaked and scraped, soaked and scraped again. After that, it was rubbed with a stone for hours and worked over with a rawhide rope to soften the hide and regulate the texture and thickness. Then, and only then, was it ready to become a surface for geometric painting or the application of quillwork or beaded strips.

In her lifetime, Buffalo Bird Woman prepared literally hundreds of hides in this way. Because of this, she received what was known as "an honor mark." As Buffalo Bird Woman explained in her old age, during reservation times: "My aunt Sage gave me such, a maipsukasa or woman's belt. These were broad as a man's suspender and worked in beads . . . . One could not purchase or make such a belt; it had to be given."

This enduringly powerful legacy of skill and creativity is largely owed to the ladies. For it was the tribes' women who were responsible for the existence of the overwhelming majority of Plains Indian art.

"I was industrious when I was young," Buffalo Bird Woman once said. And not only industrious, but one of that legion of anonymous Plains Indian women whose legacy is the art through which their culture is remembered.

Thanks to Dr Ron McCoy, Emporia State University.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 16

Related Pages

A Phoenix Rising from the Trail of Tears article
American Indian Signs and Symbols article
A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
Collecting & Change in Native American Baskets article
Contemporary Expressions in Traditional Art article
Ethnographic Art / Artifacts article

Glossary of Indian Art Terms article
Historic American Indian Artifacts article
Indian Trade Blankets article
Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article
New Perspectives on Collecting Indian Artifacts article
What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article

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