A Song for the Horse Nation Spotlight: Warrior Dress
When horses arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, they transformed how many American Indian tribes traveled, hunted and waged war. Communities no longer had to spend days securing sustenance on foot or organizing hunting parties to track prey. Tribes could travel farther, expanding their access to natural resources, and a lone hunter could kill a buffalo almost at will.
Because of horses, which some tribes collectively referred to as the Horse Nation, Native Americans had something they had never had before: unencumbered time to develop their arts, spirtiuality, and philosophy. Most tribes embraced this new "big dog," and it fit easily within their cultures. The impact of horses can be seen even in the dress of Plains tribes like the Cheyenne:
Shirts such as these were made and worn by esteemed Plains warriors, spiritual leaders and diplomats. Many of the locks on this shirt are horsehair, and the shirt's owner is probably the lance-bearing warrior on the yellow horse (below, left). The black zigzag line running from the yellow horse's head and down its front leg symbolizes lightning; it would have been painted on the actual horse to provide it with power in battle.
Dresses like the one below, on the other hand, were reserved for a close family member -- possibly the wife or sister -- of the warrior depicted on the fabric. The paintings on this dress, which appear to illustrate vignettes of intertribal warfare between Plains communities, recall the distinctions of one individual and indicate that he suffered five wounds.
The museum's new exhibition, A Song for the Horse Nation, which opens Oct. 29, 2011, explores the many ways that horses have influenced American Indian culture even to this day. Contemporary traditions include the annual fair at the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana, which draws more than 2,000 horses each year and features elaborate parades and “giveaways” in which members of the tribe give away horses to relatives and friends as a gesture of generosity and honor.
A Song for the Horse Nation, which will be on view 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.