A Song for the Horse Nation Spotlight: Horse Masks
Picture a horse wearing the mask above and coming toward you, and it isn't hard to appreciate how powerful and utterly transformative this head covering would be. The mask, made around 1845, is decorated with clipped feathers, Chinese brass buttons and pony beads, which were among the first glass beads introduced to Native Americans through trade with Europeans.
As horses became more integral to American Indian tribes like the Navajo, Crow and Blackfeet, riders became experts in fabricating horse gear for hunting, warfare and ceremony. Along the way, they transformed utilitarian equipment into a unique art form.
New ideas in design and ornament circulated through Native trade routes from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. Some Native groups acquired Spanish-style gear, or copied it, with modifications based on local materials and personal taste. A lively trade in bridle bits and other metal parts sprang up. But for the most part, Native craftsmen made their own: saddles, bridles, cinches, whips, and ropes. Blending a variety of influences—Spanish saddles, eastern beadwork, traditions of family and tribal identity—Native artists created a rich new visual art form.
Because masks limited a horse's range of vision, they were usually used only for parades, not for battles. The elaborately beaded horse mask above was used in 1904 by a Teton Sioux chief to lead the Fourth of July parade at Pine Ridge, the same South Dakota reservation where museum curator Emil Her Many Horses' grandmother was born.
What is so unique about this mask is that it appears to have been made with the intention of later being recycled into many different objects. The beaded section, which would be placed over the face of the horse, could be remade into a pair of women's beaded leggings, and the area over the horse's cheek could be made into a pipe bag. The upper neck section of the cover would have been made into a pair of tipi bags, also known as a "possible bag," because anything possible could be stored inside. The lower neck section could be made into a pair of moccasins.
A quilled horse mask like the one above would have been created by a member of a quillwork guild. If a Cheyenne woman wanted to learn quillwork, she made an offering to a member of the guild, and if her offering was accepted, she would be taught the art and allowed to work as an apprentice.
Quillwork guilds were not just instructional, they embodied a religious element as well, not unlike a sisterhood. To become a member of a quillwork guild was to assume a station of respect and power, and when the guilds died out in the late 1800s, so did the practice of quillwork in Cheyenne society.
But the art of making horse masks still thrives. The museum is pleased to showcase a contemporary horse mask (below) by Kiowa artist Vanessa Jennings that features cut glass beads, silver, red and black wool cloth, brass bells, brass spots, hide, and red dyed horse hair.
A Song for the Horse Nation, which will be on view from October 29, 2011, through January 7, 2013, is curated by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). The accompanying book, edited by Her Many Horses and the scholar George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin), is available at the museum’s shops and the museum’s Web site.
For the online exhibition, visit http://nmai.si.edu/static/exhibitions/horsenation/
For an online overview, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/item/?id=905.