BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]
The idea of “art” is a European concept. In other cultures, such as the Sioux culture, they simply referred to artwork as “bringing out the beauty” in an object. To them, they wished to adorn simple, everyday items with something to reveal their hidden beauty, or to represent symbols in their society. This is why rather than creating solely visual art, such as paintings or sculptures, most Sioux artwork was found through functional objects, not solely aesthetic objects. There were three different eras of Sioux artwork: the nomadic era, reservation era, and modern era.
Most examples of traditional Sioux artwork come from the nomadic era. A common example of this is the Winter Count. Sioux men and women would create large blankets made of hide with pictures placed on them. Instead of keeping track of time using calendars, the Sioux people would count by winters, and each winter, the winter count keeper would place another image on the blanket. Tribal elders would decide on the most important event that occurred that year, and the event decided on would become part of their historical record. Men would usually create images of visions, battles, or great hunts, while women would create colorful geometric designs that symbolized the tribe’s connection to nature.
Clothing was also an important facet of Sioux culture. Since having a well-dressed family was a symbol of honor and industry for women, many women strived to join a women’s society. The Sioux people believed that women gained artistic talent through visions, and that they were gifts. Because of this, the Lakota and other Native American tribes formed quilling and beading societies that helped preserve tradition. Only very select women could join these guilds, and they received great honor in their tribe. Many members took pride in the number of hides they prepared for beading. Preparing a hide required a woman to strip the hair, scrape excess flesh, apply a dressing made of brain and fat, stretch the hide, and dry it. It would take almost four days to prepare a hide, and the women marked their tools with a notch for each hide they completed. Clothing would then be sown together with different hides and painted or beaded. Fringe, beadwork, and other decorative elements might be added to symbolize different animals or connections with nature. The constructions of their garments help anthropologists determine which tribe a piece belonged to.
To the Sioux, beadwork was considered sacred, since it required large amounts of time and delicacy. As Europeans entered North America, the Sioux began trading them and received beads in exchange for other goods. Before dyes were brought to the tribes, women would boil plants, roots, and berries to create different colors of clothing. By the 1860s, the Sioux people were mostly using seed beads in their designs. Styles varied amongst different groups: the Lakota preferred geometric patterns, while the Dakota and Nakota preferred floral designs.
The Sioux would also create sculptures in the form of useful objects, like utensils, toys, pipes, and flutes. Most of these sculptures were themed around different animals for ceremonial purposes, like the buffalo, eagle, horse, bear, and other animals.
Warriors would use art to decorate their shields. Their visions during their rite of passage would provide inspiration for the designs. They believed that petroglyphs and pictographs provided protective powers from nature, animals, spiritual beings, and the Milky Way. They would also record their war or hunting accomplishments through art and oral narratives.
When European missionaries arrived in North America, they brought quilts with them. Lakota women decided to create quilts as well, but they formed their own art style, including the eight-pointed Morning Star. It became the most common symbol on Native American quilts, symbolizing the separation between the dark of night and the light of day. Eventually, quilts replaced the significance previously held by buffalo robes at religious ceremonies.
In the Reservation era, some of these traditions changed. Since the Sioux people no longer lived from buffalo hunts and bartering, many people resorted to creating beadwork and other goods to sell as crafts to the European settlers. Women especially began to make heavily-beaded clothing that depicted geometric designs and more realistic images. This served as a way for them to hold onto their culture.
Since the buffalo hunt didn’t exist, the Winter Count could no longer exist on hides. Many Native Americans drew accounts of reservation life on old ledger books. They used crayons, markers, and watercolor to draw on paper rather than creating paint by hand. The Sioux also had to start creating commercial sculptures. They started creating decorative animal statues, paperweights, and crosses.
Now, in the modern era, Sioux artists create both commercial artwork and artwork to
represent their history. Much of their artwork reflects their cultural heritage, though artists now use any medium they choose. Some painters still choose to use geometric elements in their art, although they are not limited to do so.
To create beadwork, modern artists now use chemical dyes, plastic beads, and cotton thread. Pouches, moccasins, and pipe bags are still commonly created. Traditionally, beading was a woman’s task, but now there are many male artists who try out the art form. Similarly, sculptures, clothing, and paintings aren’t limited to one gender or another. Modern art represents a combination between Sioux traditions and practices of the present day.
Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)
Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)
Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)