The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Met

Lakota Eagle Feather Headdress, c. 1865

Lakota Chief Eagle Feather Headdress, c. 1865

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features 130 objects on loan from more than 50 international collections, ranging in age from pre-contact to contemporary pieces.  It has been called “one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York right now”  in Holland Cotter’s review in the New York Times.

The early Plains people had no written language, and they recorded histories and cultural and spiritual meanings through utilitarian and ceremonial art. They combined materials from the natural world to evoke the spiritual powers of animals, and later, incorporated goods acquired through trade with Europeans.  In his audio introduction to the exhibition, Curator Gaylord Torrence explains that while there was no word for “art” and no special class of “artists” in Plains Indian culture, the creators of these works were extraordinary individuals who were known and honored among their tribes and sometimes beyond.

The geographical area of the Plains cultures extended from Texas to Canada and from the Mississippi River to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Nations represented include Osage, Quapaw, Omaha, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche, Mesquakie and Kansa.


Woman’s Dress, c. 1855

The masterworks in the exhibition include an array of forms and media:  painting and drawing; sculptural works in stone, wood, antler and shell; porcupine quill and glass bead embroidery; feather work; painted robes, richly ornamented clothing and ceremonial objects.  Many of the works were collected centuries ago by French traders on their travels through America and ended up in French, not American, museums–particularly the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, where the exhibition originated in 4/14.  It then traveled to the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and was shown there from 9/14 – 1/15 before coming to the Met.

Pawnee Ghost Dance Drum, c. 1891

Pawnee Ghost Dance Drum, c. 1891

For more background on the exhibition and its major pieces, listen to the Met’s accompanying audio guide by curators Gaylord Torrence and Judith Ostrowitz, artists Edgar Heap of Birds and Dana Claxton, along with narration by Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund.  All of the exhibition objects are illustrated and described on the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition website. Click on any of the images in this post for a direct link to the Met’s description.


Girl’s Dress, c. 1900


The Plains Indians:  Artists of Earth and Sky continues through May 10, 2015.  The Met is open 7 days a week:  Sun-Thurs, 10-5:30, Fri-Sat:  10-9 & closed on major holidays.  1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street) New York, NY 10028  Phone: 212-535-7710.