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Feature

A Feast for the Senses

By Susan Q. Graceson | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

The Plains Indian Museum is celebrating its makeover with a splash of tradition. For the June 17 opening day, "we'll have a powwow and a buffalo feast to honor the great cooperation we've had from the tribes," says curator Emma Hansen.

The museum, part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, houses one of the nation's largest collections of Plains Indian art and artifacts. Approximately fourteen hundred of those objects will be shown in a context that tells the stories of the people who used them and the events that gave them importance. The purpose of the renewal of the galleries is to create, in the words of museum advisory board member and Crow tribal historian Joe Medicine Crow, "a living breathing place where more than Indian objects are on display."

A trip through the exhibits is experiential. Visitors encounter the many cultures of the Plains, among them the Arapaho, Arikara, Blackfeet, Comanche, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Lakota, Pawnee, Shoshone. They hear native languages, see the change of seasons, watch dances, visit a traditional tipi, and walk through an early reservation house.

"This reinterpretation represents a significant shift in approach from traditional natural history or art-historical presentations of Plains art and cultures," says Hansen.

In the gallery called "Wisdom of the Elders," visitors discover a reconstructed Hidatsa earth lodge, which sets the stage for gathering and storytelling. The plans describe it: "Theatrical lights wash the walls in cool blue and stars sparkle through the tiny holes in the overhead dome, representing the midnight sky. Visitors step through a portico framed by willow branches into the darkness of the lodge, guided by the warm flickering hearth fire at the center. Inside, they find weapons of the hunt, clothing, and tools for farming. A smoke hole in the ceiling reveals the starry sky above.

"Sitting on a circle of benches surrounding the fire, visitors listen as the voice of an elder tells of origins, spiritual life, archaeology, and sacred sites throughout the Plains. Slowly, the firelight dims, and the earth walls of the lodge disappear into darkness, revealing the narrator's image on large video screens along the walls. One by one, as the story continues, images begin to pierce the darkness in a circle around the room. The narration is passed from one person to the next as the story unfolds, enhanced by photographs and artwork. Speakers under each monitor guide visitors' attention to each new storyteller. By the time the story reaches its end, all of the screens are illuminated at once in a 360-degree view. As the fire begins to glow brighter, the video images fade away one by one into blackness and the earth walls of the lodge are restored."

Exhibit cases on either side of the earth lodge expand the presentation and include petroglyphs, a winter count, or calendar, attributed to Lone Dog, ceremonial smoking objects, a set of Omaha calumets, and a Crow medicine blanket.

Poems, oral histories, and contemporary statements and art by tribal members appear throughout the galleries. In the section on "Buffalo and The People," Les Ducheneaux, a Cheyenne River Sioux, comments on the present day: "When the Creator made the buffalo, he put a power in them. When you eat the meat, the power goes into you. Now we have the poorest diet. We have alcoholism. We have juvenile and adult diabetes. When our spirituality comes back, when we see the buffalo as our grandfathers saw them, then we'll be on the road to recovery."

The words of Linda Poolaw, a Kiowa, remind visitors that "It is very important that we show that the Ghost Dance did happen and that Plains Indians were fighting for their own religion." In the late nineteenth century, the Ghost Dance was important to many tribes that were influenced by the teachings of Paiute messiah, Wovoka. He taught that, if the tribes could bring back their old ways by performing the dance and living peacefully, the buffalo would reappear and white men disappear.

The reservation house of a Lakota named Standing Bear was the inspiration for one of the exhibition's highlights, a period log cabin. The exhibit includes quilts, sacred bundles, pipes, and other Lakota personal and domestic items alongside a wood stove, family photographs, and Euro-American clothing.

The museum was able to construct the house with advice from Standing Bear's great grandson, Arthur Amiotte, an artist and scholar. Amiotte, a founding member of the museum's advisory board, once lived in Standing Bear's house with his grandparents and mother. "My early experience of 'real culture' began with my grandparents. My art makes a statement about native existence--not of a mythical, romantic Indian riding across the Plains, but rather the story of the Indian today who was born into a reservation home," says Amiotte in This Path We Travel: Celebrations of Contemporary Native American Creativity. "For example, we lived in a log house on the reservation, drank water from the creek, and made wastunkala (dried corn) and wojapi (pudding). We were still allowed to experience life through all the senses, growing into the age of reason, where one is able to understand as an adult the true meaning of things."

The celebration at the museum continues through the summer. In July and August there will be artists-in-residence in the galleries. A summer institute from June 19-30 led by Amiotte will address the arts of the Northern Plains Indians. The Plains Indians Seminar from September 14-17 focuses on sacred lands.

Susan Q. Graceson is a writer in Virginia.

NEH has provided $177,060.00 for the reinstallation of the Plains Indian Museum collection, and $544,000 for the preservation of the collection.