NEW YORK — There’s a passage in the catalog accompanying “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that pulls you up short. The writer, Colin G. Calloway, a professor at Dartmouth College, evokes a gathering might by means of a list that reads like an incantation. But, like similar passages in “The Iliad,” it also serves as a litany of future loss.
“Comanches and Utes traded them to Shoshones,” he writes; “Kiowas traded them to Caddos; Wichitas and Pawnees traded them to Osages; Shoshones traded them to Crows; the Flatheads and Nez Perces in the Plateau region traded them to the Blackfeet. Blackfeet traded them to Assinibones and Crees,” and so on.
Calloway is talking, in case you wondered, about horses.
Horses came to the flourishing, semi-sedentary villages of the Plains river valleys in the 17th century, and effected a profound transformation in Plains Indian societies. These beautiful, long-nosed, orb-eyed animals, introduced by Spaniards in the 16th century, had both muscle and stamina. Those two qualities, combined with an ungulate’s even temperament, provided Plains Indians with the means to carry greater weights, build larger abodes, range farther and wider for hunting and trade, and also to wage war.
It was thanks to this unique union of horse and human that the dominant powers on the Great Plains in the 18th century were Native American rather than European. New wealth, trade networks, and conquests meant burgeoning forms of artistic expression in the forms of effigy pipes, axes, feather headdresses, shields, painted buffalo hides, war clubs, saddle blankets, and beautifully embroidered clothing.
Many such objects are included in “The Plains Indians,” an ambitious exhibit organized by Gaylord Torrence, which comes to New York after stints at Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Just as the multiplication of horses meant expansion and reinvention for Plains Indians, the depletion of another animal, the buffalo, scarcely two centuries later, coincided with catastrophe.
Plains Indians hunted for buffalo on horseback. But by the middle of the 19th century, their prey had been slaughtered for commerce, and ravaged by bovine disease. Plains Indian ponies, meanwhile, were systematically killed by the likes of General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, representatives of a new nation bent on prosecuting Manifest Destiny.
Buffalo numbers dropped from 30 million near the beginning of the 19th century to around 700 by 1890. Calloway quotes a Crow woman called Pretty Shield, who in old age recalled Indian hunters who “stared at the empty Plains, as though dreaming.”
It’s an image — of irretrievable loss, but also of communication with absent spirits — that still haunts Native American identity, and obliquely inflects every object in this show.
Among the exhibition’s finest objects are several loans from New England museums. A famous bison robe and a beautiful side-folded dress with porcupine quillwork have been borrowed from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. A cradleboard with quillwork comes courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.
There are also prestigious objects on loan from museum collections in Paris, Bern, Vienna, and across North America.
The majority of the objects in the show were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. But there is a human effigy pipe retrieved from a burial mound in Ross County, Ohio, that dates from around the time of Caesar Augustus.
There is also a sampling of 20th-century and contemporary work in the final section — although, sadly, compared to recent efforts in the same vein at the Peabody Essex Museum and Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, this last has a perfunctory feel.
The effigy pipe has tremendous charisma. Gray at the front and red at the back, it’s carved from pipestone into the shape of a muscular man with short, powerful legs and strong arms held at his side. The pipe’s bowl rests on the figure’s head, an invisible tube runs through his body, and his sturdy feet are clamped around the mouthpiece.
Similar pipes exist in the forms of animals, hinting at potent, almost conspiratorial relations between Plains Indians and their animal brethren. This human/animal magic act — a sharing of unaccountable things, ranging from social status to spiritual intensification — is a leitmotif of the entire show.
The accoutrement most commonly identified with Plains Indians is surely the feather headdress. As a cliché of romanticized, outside views of the Plains Indians, it ranks with the harem in the Orientalist imagination — every boy wants one.
But the history of these magnificent regalia is uncertain, and, what’s more, “contaminated” — to use the words of the independent scholar Christian Feest, writing in the catalog — “by borrowings from an iconographic tradition based on Brazilian models.”
Given all this, it’s fascinating to learn that one of the headdresses in the exhibition — it’s the earliest known Indian headdress in the “swept-back” or “flaring” style — was part of an ensemble worn by a mannequin at Versailles after 1783. Intended to represent “a savage from Canada,” it was used to instruct the son of King Louis XVI.
The bison robe from Harvard’s Peabody Museum is one of the most famous of all 19th-century Plains Indian artifacts. The hide itself was taken whole from the animal’s carcass — unlike most robes, which are taken in two pieces and then sewn together.
Its surface is covered with human figures with characteristic box torsos, wider at the shoulders, with slender, in-filled legs, and horses with long necks emerging from rectangular bodies. Both kinds of creature are actors in a number of depicted battles involving Missouri River tribes fighting the Lakota (western Sioux).
The whole robe is an early example of Biographical War Art, and was long thought to have been collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition. This legendary exploratory and diplomatic mission into the North American interior was launched by Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the 19th century. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether the Peabody Museum robe was, in fact, acquired by Lewis and Clark, but its authenticity and quality remain beyond doubt.
The figures and geometric patterns on the cradleboard from Salem - described by Karen Kramer in the catalog as “one of the finest examples of porcupine quillwork extant” — are in orange, white, and brown, colors characteristic of Dakota quillwork in the first half of the 19th century. Around the time it was made (c.1840), beadwork was beginning to supplant quillwork as ornamentation on Plains Indian clothes and accessories.
Pony beads were displaced in popularity around 1850 by small Venetian glass beads, which allowed for an expanded palette and greater intricacy in design.
Two stunning items here — a Lakota woman’s leather dress with an elaborate yellow yoke with blue, red, black, and white patterns, and a pair of Cheyenne moccasins emblazoned with a blue bird against white glass beadwork — are among the most refined articles in the show. “So sacred do the moccasins appear,” writes the artist Rhonda Holy Bear in the catalog, “one feels that every step the wearer took was a prayer.”
Sacredness and loss become more intimately intertwined as the show leads us forward in time. We see clothes, drawings, and other objects relating to the Sun Dance — a traditional rite of renewal banned by the US government in 1883 for being “immoral and barbarian” — and the Ghost Dance — a spiritual movement that spread across the Plains in 1889-90 and, in the face of widespread devastation, envisioned a return to a time of peace and plenty.
The losses continued to mount as history poured the oil of disease, drought, and buffalo depletion onto the fires of conquest and humiliation. But as loss piled on loss, intimations of the sacred seemed oftentimes to grow and intensify.
In this light, one of the catalog’s more arresting double pages is the one devoted to an undated Pawnee star chart — a stunning depiction of the Milky Way — painted on an oval piece of tanned leather about the size of a human torso. It appears nowhere in the Met show, nor did it appear in Kansas or Paris. So what is it doing in the catalog?
The star chart is part of several sacred bundles reputedly given to the Skiri Pawnee by the gods. Their contents were displayed for several decades at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
The Pawnee people had a chance to reclaim the bundles in 1990, as part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But they chose to leave them with the Field Museum. Six years later, in accordance with their expressed wishes, the bundles were repacked and stored away out of sight.
The curators of “The Plains Indians” asked to borrow the star chart for the show, but the Field declined. In the catalog, Torrence respectfully quotes the explanation given by Jonathan Haas, the museum’s former curator of Native American Ethnography.
When the bundles were rewrapped in 1996, writes Haas, the Field and the Pawnee agreed that they would never be unwrapped again unless they were back in the possession of the Pawnee: “The bundles are all extremely powerful and dangerous to those who handle them. . . . There is basically nothing that could justify unwrapping them for an exhibit or anything else.”
So there it is.
“The Plains Indians” evokes a narrative arc, from flourishing plenitude and power to near-annihilation and flinty endurance, that is based in historical fact. But it also presents an alternative narrative: of resourcefulness, invention, mystery, and great refinements of beauty. It’s a story illuminated all along the way by pulsations of the sacred, keyed closely to loss, but inextinguishable nonetheless — even when out of sight.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of Colin G. Calloway.