Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World

Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World

Hardcover(1 ED)

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During the winter of 1880-81, Black Hawk, a Lakota artist living on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, drew seventy-six vivid images depicting complex scenes of ceremonial activity, personal visions, historical events, and nature studies. Having recently emerged from obscurity, Black Hawk's drawing book now stands as the most complete visual record extant of Lakota art of the early reservation period (1875-95). It is published here in full, for the first time, with fine quality color plates of each drawing. Detailed commentary accompanies the drawings, providing insight into Lakota religion, art, and culture in the nineteenth century. Some of Black Hawk's illustrations are the only known drawings of ceremonies described in ethnographic works such as Black Elk Speaks, the famous account of visions experienced by Lakota holy man Black Elk. The ceremonies depicted in Black Hawk's drawings include the Sun Dance, buffalo transformation ceremonies, and ceremonies honoring the sacred pipe. He also recorded scenes of Lakota encounters with the Crow, of buffalo hunting, and of wildlife. An invaluable contribution to our knowledge of Native American history and art, Black Hawk's drawing book is a window unto a complex and eloquent world. 76 color illustrations, 20 b/w illustrations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807614655
Publisher: Braziller, George Inc.
Publication date: 12/28/2000
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 11.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The bay horse said to me: "Behold them, your horses come dancing." I looked around and saw millions of horses circling around me—a sky full of horses. Then the bay horse said, "Make haste." The horse began to go beside me and the forty-eight horses followed us. I looked around and all the horses that were running changed into buffalo, elk, and all kinds of animals and fowls and they all went back to the four quarters.

—Black Elk

IN THE LAKOTA language, the word hanbloglaka can be translated as "vision talk," that is, relating orally one's experiences in the spirit world, or as "the language of the spirits." In Lakota tradition, the personal vision, rather than culturally established dogma or doctrine, is the essence of one's spiritual life. By means of hanbloglaka one recounts one's spiritual history, which serves as the foundation upon which other acts are predicated.

    In the famous Lakota narrative, Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk presents his vision (it occurred in 1872, when he was only nine) as the cornerstone upon which all subsequent actions and activities of his life rest. In the vision, he goes to the world of "the Grand-fathers," the ancestral spirits who guide the Lakota nation. There, in the most visually dramatic moments of Black Elk's complex narrative, he sees herds of spirit horses neighing and bucking, causing the world to shake with thunder, lightning, and wind.

    A person who had such a visionmight present it to the people by means of a public ritual performance. In nineteenth-century Lakota life, if such a person were male, and had artistic aptitude, he might present it through drawings—on tipis, on hide robes, or, by the last third of the nineteenth century, on drawing paper. The Lakota artist Black Hawk experienced such a personal vision and recorded it the same way countless generations of Lakota historians and artists before him had—by drawing it.

    Pictorial narratives have an ancient lineage on the Great Plains. In earlier centuries men recorded dreams, visions, and historical actions in petroglyphs and pictographs on rocky escarpments. More recently, the bison-skin robes and painted hide shirts for which nineteenth-century Plains warriors are famous demonstrate these artists' keen interest in recording autobiographical details in pictographic form. Black Hawk's book of drawings opens with two images that were revealed to him in a Vision Quest (see pls. 1, 2). Like Black Elk's vision, it, too, concerns powerful horselike beings that fly through the sky. But as the subtitle of this book, Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World, emphasizes, it is not only the spiritual vision that is important for subsequent generations to understand but also Black Hawk's vision of his world as he lived it. In seventy-six drawings, later amassed in a leather-bound book, Black Hawk recorded scenes from Lakota ceremony, including the Sun Dance, the female puberty ceremony, and many animal transformation masquerades. He chronicled the history of warfare between the Lakota and their bitter enemies, the Crow. Yet paradoxically, he also drew some of the finest extant images of Crow ceremonialism. He recorded scenes of buffalo hunting recalled from his youth, as well as animal illustrations so scientifically precise that they serve as the finest indigenous exemplars of nineteenth-century natural history drawings.

    In contrast to some of his cohorts, he apparently chose not to record images of the rapid changes and willful destruction of Lakota life wrought by the U.S. government during the last third of the nineteenth century, Unlike some drawing books of the era, we see no images of white soldiers or log houses. While elements of non-Native culture appear in his drawings (carbines and rifles, trade cloth, and the like), they do so as elements fully incorporated into a Lakota world.

    Black Hawk may have been deliberately turning his back on the upheavals that were rending traditional life as he had known it as a young man. He may have decided that it was more important to record the people, animals, and objects that made up a Lakota world. While many questions remain about Black Hawk and his artworks, this book offers a first glimpse of one kakota man and his pictorial record of traditional life, ceremony, and spirituality. All of his known drawings are included here in full color, so that they can be studied and interpreted by others. This book represents an initial attempt to place one man's eloquent visual legacy into a Lakota universe—a universe that still flourishes today, despite the best efforts of an interloping civilization to extirpate it through whatever means necessary: military, religious, economic, or educational.

    This chapter introduces nineteenth-century Lakota life, thought, and art and places Black Hawk and his Sans Arc band of Lakota within that world. It looks in some detail at the history of Lakota graphic arts and considers Black Hawk's place within that tradition. Chapter 2 examines his works of art in groups, according to their subject matter. Drawing upon historical and contemporary Lakota ethnography, as well as traditional art historical tools such as stylistic and iconographic analysis, I interpret the meanings of these images. In the third chapter, I suggest some interpretive strategies for understanding the drawings, not only within the realm of Lakota life at one particular historical moment, but also within the realm of intercultural circulation of knowledge and images. I also briefly examine the trajectory of Lakota life and art since Black Hawk's time. Finally, two appendices discuss the physical condition of the bound book and its drawings, and the historical documentation that was passed down through the generations of the family of William Edward Caton, the man who commissioned these drawings from the artist.

Art and Culture in the Nineteenth Century

When the Lakotas came from the middle of the world they were one as a people and made but one winter camp and kept but one council fire. After a time some did not return to the winter camp and when they did associate with the original camp they maintained their council fire, so they were called tonwan [village] because they thought they had power sufficient to be independent. Then others did so until there were seven tonwan, or seven council fires, when the people all associated. While these people were independent of each other, they were friends, so they called themselves Dakoda, or friends [Lakota in the Teton dialect] and they were allies against all others of mankind.

—James Walker

LAKOTA PEOPLE TODAY reside mainly on several reservations in South Dakota, but their history is one of migration and adaptation to various environments and situations. Until recently, they were better known by the names the U.S. Army and anthropologists called them a century ago: the Sioux, the Dakota, the Teton Sioux, or the Western Sioux. The nomenclature is confusing: while all Lakota are Sioux, not all Sioux are Lakota, and today most people of the Western or Teton Sioux prefer to be called Lakota, for the language they speak. The Lakota group is composed of seven bands, called in Lakota oceti for "council fires" or "fireplaces": the Oglala, Sicangu (or Brulé), Hunkpapa, Minneconjou, Itazipco (or Sans Arc), Oohenunpa (or Two Kettle), and Sihasapa (Blackfeet).

    From sources as diverse as archaeology, ethnohistory, Jesuit narratives, the memoirs of trappers and traders, and the pictographic histories of Lakota people themselves, scholars have pieced together a picture of the migration of Sioux peoples and their development into the culture we recognize from the nineteenth century. In the seventeenth century, the ancestors of the Lakota probably lived in the tall-grass prairies west of the Mississippi River in what is now Minnesota. Over the next decades, they seem to have pushed westward toward the Missouri River area, in part because of pressures by their Algonkian neighbors, and later by the inexorable movement of non-Native peoples westward from the Great Lakes and farther east. The Lakota, in turn, pressed other groups even farther west or south—the Omaha and Arikara, for example, and later the Kiowa and Crow.

    During these years, as scholar George Hyde has written, they transformed themselves "from little camps of poor people afoot in the vast buffalo plains into seven powerful tribes of mounted Indians." They obtained guns from European traders and horses from other Indian nations. Through means of this powerful duo—the gun and the horse—they became the equestrian warrior culture familiar to us from the nineteenth century. But it was not population pressures alone that caused the western migration of the Lakota. The rewards of the fur trade—access to guns and trade goods in exchange for beaver pelts—were a powerful incentive. For their own needs, the Lakota depended increasingly upon the buffalo, for the sturdy and plentiful buffalo was a source of meat, fuel, clothing, artistic materials, shelter, and tools (see pls. 56, 57, 58, 59).

    According to indigenous pictorial records, the Lakota reached the Black Hills (in present-day western South Dakota) around the time that a new independent nation was being formed in Philadelphia—1776. The Black Hills became so fundamentally important to the Lakota that today some Lakota think of this site as their ancestral place of origin, from which they migrated and to which they returned. This vast tract of forested land became a refuge for the Lakota in the nineteenth century. It is a place of quiet majesty, a setting where one might contemplate all that is wakan (sacred, mysterious); indeed, many Lakota have gone and continue to go there for personal Vision Quests. For a nomadic people, it was a source for fresh water and abundant game. Its dense, tall conifers were good for making long, straight lodgepoles for tipis. Its quiet canyons sheltered Lakota bands from harsh winter storms and from the predations of their enemies.

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Lakota had to contend principally with trappers and traders and with the occasional U.S. military or scientific expedition. By the 1840s, wagon trains of white families began making their way west: some came in search of land in California or Oregon; others, like the Mormons, came in search of religious freedom. By 1848, when the California Gold Rush was under way, many came in search of riches. One newspaper correspondent at Fort Kearney (in what became Nebraska Territory in 1854) noted that by mid-June 1849, more than five thousand wagons had passed through that region just since the start of that spring, giving some indication of the amount of traffic in a region formerly used by small bands of hunters and large herds of game. These settlers and travelers disturbed the great buffalo herds that had become central to the Lakota way of life. Just as trappers and traders had zealously sought beaver pelts in earlier decades to supply fashion's demands in New York and Paris, buffalo robes became prized items of trade by midcentury. Both Indian people and whites decimated the great herds by overhunting and wastefulness.

    While the early history of Sioux peoples and their migrations and alliances is both confused and confusing, what is important for our purposes is that by the early nineteenth century the Lakota had emerged as the great and powerful warriors of the Northern and Central Plains. Historian Richard White has suggested that their power grew, in part, because they increased in population during the nineteenth century, unlike most other Plains tribes, who experienced a dramatic decrease in their numbers. The Lakota were less affected by the great cholera, measles, and smallpox epidemics than were some of the sedentary tribes on the Upper Missouri, for example.

    Throughout the nineteenth century, the Lakota and their Cheyenne allies fought repeatedly with Pawnee, Crow, and other groups over control of resources in the area around the Platte River, thus institutionalizing these tribes as traditional enemies. This enmity is evident from Lakota pictorial arts and winter counts (pictographic calendars of historical events). These repeatedly record clashes with warriors from those ethnic groups (see pls. 39-55; for a rare truce, see fig. 7). So it was logical that when the Lakota and Cheyenne battled the U.S. military, Crow and Pawnee scouts were eager to side with the U.S. Army against their traditional foes.

    Less emphasized than their role as implacable warriors, especially by earlier writers, is the fact that the Lakota lived in a well-functioning society in which individuality, bravery, and freedom were prized, as were generosity, humility, and group solidarity. Lakota people typically identified themselves not only by their band ethnicity (Oglala, Sans Arc, etc.), but also by the smaller residential units or camps to which they belonged. Lakota social organization was fluid and flexible, with people moving to other camp circles or bands because of marriage, death, or other personal circumstances. Camps were organized and controlled by chiefs and a male governing council. Individual camps would come together into a larger camp circle for annual gatherings like the Sun Dance or other occasions having to do with hunting or ceremony. An elaborate social etiquette for proper behavior was developed and institutionalized. Fraternal warrior societies and sororal artistic guilds imposed structure and order on daily life.

    Artistic accomplishments were highly valued. Men's arts, usually made to highlight their exploits in war and the hunt, included pictorial narrative paintings on animal hides used in clothing, on painted tipis, and on shields and drums. They also produced pictographic historical records known as winter counts, which used individual glyphlike symbols as mnemonic devices to recall important events of last winter and the winter before that (with "winter" essentially marking a year), stretching back dozens of years.

    While men's culture of warfare, and the arts associated with it, received the lion's share of attention in the early literature, women's creativity was central to Lakota life as well. Women were accomplished hide tanners, who processed the hides from men's hunting expeditions and turned them into goods for sale or for use in both men's and women's arts. Women painted abstract designs on robes and on luggage and ornamented all of the goods of daily and ceremonial life with fine quillwork and beadwork (figs. 1, 2).

    While men gained status through military societies, women's prestige grew according to their artistic accomplishments. They belonged to quillwork and beadwork guilds, which taught them the techniques and customs of their particular artform. Like male warriors, who would recall their exploits while seated with a group of cohorts around a fire, women also publicly validated their artistic achievements. Rattling Blanket Woman recalled the year when, during the summer Sun Dance camp, she challenged other women to come sit in a circle and recount their finest works. Each woman was given a stick for every item she had quilled. The women with the four highest tallies were seated in places of honor and were served food before all the others. The tallies, or "quilling coups," were recorded on the tipi liner of the Red Council Lodge, along with men's military achievements.

    Like many other Amerindian peoples, Lakota believe that dreaming is a noble way to receive sacred knowledge (as will be discussed further in the next section). So for women, the art of quillwork is imbued with a sacred legitimacy by its origin in a dream. A supernatural figure named Double Woman appeared to a young woman in a dream and taught her how to use porcupine quills for artistry. Before that, according to the Lakota, no one knew that such items had a practical or aesthetic value. After her sacred dream, this young woman requested a tipi, a porcupine, and a prepared buffalo hide. She went out in search of natural dyes of red, blue, yellow, and black. She entered her tipi and worked alone, emerging only for meals. She plucked the porcupine quills, separated them according to length, and dyed them. Eventually, she invited one of her friends into the tipi and shared with her the techniques of this new art. Together they quilled an entire buffalo robe, then prepared a feast, and invited many other women. They sang songs and explained quillwork and other secrets Double Woman had shared with the young woman. For this reason, the Lakota say, quillwork is a sacred art.

    Just as a dream engendered this sacred art form, it is also said that if a woman dreams of Double Woman she will excel at art, producing fine quillwork of unsurpassed quality. According to some sources, the Double Woman dreamer herself would have extraordinary powers:

She could do the quill or beadwork on one side of a pair of moccasins, place it against the blank one, sit on it, sing the song, and both would be done. Or she could even just put the quills between the moccasin blanks, sit on them, sing the song, and it would be finished.

    Lakota people believed that menstruating women had power that could interfere with other sorts of power within the community. So women withdrew to isolated tipis during their periods. The seclusion imposed during menstruation was considered a perfect time to engage in artistic pursuits. A woman in a menstrual tipi would be waited on by her older female relatives who would encourage her to enjoy this period of relaxation and use it to perfect her skills in quillwork and beadwork. During a girl's first seclusion, her mother would ceremonially instruct her in quilling and moccasin making. As one Lakota recalled, "Even though she had learned quilling before, the girl must quill continuously for four days. If she does this, she will be good with the awl; if she does not, she will never be industrious." Other ceremonies performed after a young woman's first menstrual seclusion would further ensure that she had the traits of industry and generosity (see chapter 2, pp. 57, 59-63).

    For both men and women, the making of artwork often followed upon a dream or vision. Lakota people created a culture that valued private individual religious experience—the Vision Quest—as well as public affirmation of that experience in group ritual and ceremony.

Cosmology and Religious Practice

    I am bringing something so the people will live.

—White Buffalo Woman

THE LAKOTA MARK a pivotal event in the formation of their history not by the writing of a document, like the Declaration of Independence, nor by the winning of a certain territory in a war, but by the giving of a mysterious gift. This salutary event in ancient history was the appearance of White Buffalo Woman, who brought Lakota people the Sacred Pipe.

    As recounted in the story, two young men were out hunting, when a beautiful young woman appeared before them. One was so taken with her physical attributes, that he approached, intent upon raping her. When his companion next looked up, the man who had held such evil desires was reduced to a pile of bones. The virtuous young man brought the young woman to his community, where she told the people, "I am bringing something so the people will live."

    She came from the Buffalo Nation, it is said, to bring gifts to the Lakota. Most of these gifts concerned ceremonial procedures and fundamental modes of correct behavior. She taught people how to perform the handful of core rituals that then became central to Lakota religion, among them the Vision Quest, the Sun Dance, the Hunka Ceremony, the Spirit-Keeping Ceremony, and the Buffalo Ceremony, many of which Black Hawk depicts in his drawings. She also gave them a material object to symbolize the Lakotas' profound bond with the sacred mysteries of the universe: the Sacred Buffalo Calf Pipe, along with instructions on methods of smoking willow bark and tobacco as a means of prayer. As she left the camp, she transformed into a white buffalo calf. Since that time, whenever an albino buffalo calf is born, it is revered by the people. The Sacred Pipe that was so mysteriously delivered to the Lakota is also highly revered and has been handed down through the generations within the Sans Arc community—Black Hawk's band—on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

    With this story, Lakota people account for their fundamental social structure, which is shaped by ceremony and ritual obligation. All Lakota histories—both oral and pictorial—commemorate the coming of White Buffalo Woman. In winter counts it is sometimes shown as having happened in antiquity. Battiste Good, a Lakota making his records on paper in the 1880s based on earlier sources, places the coming of White Buffalo Woman around A.D. 1000 (that is, in mythic time, in time immemorial, long before the memory of any Lakota people, or even in the memory of their direct ancestors).

    Many of the details of Lakota ceremony are presented more fully in chapter 2, in the analysis of Black Hawk's drawings, but a few more remarks on Lakota cosmology and spirituality will help set the stage for that discussion. Central to the Lakota understanding of the cosmos is the concept of Wakan Tanka (the great mystery, or the great unknowable). Christian Lakota would use this term in reference to God, but in traditional spirituality, it is the cumulative life force of the universe—all that is incomprehensible to mere humans. Other aspects of the universe (thunder, lightning, earth, rock, water, and so forth) are described in terms of personified forces.

    These forces, however, cannot be reduced to the simplistic idea of god of thunder, or god of wind, as has sometimes been described. Personifying these forces is simply a way to speak of them easily, for metaphor is more readily understood than abstraction. These forces were observed to have an energy that is long lasting. Energy can move between different realms, and human individuals can tap into these energy forces and channel them: that is the function of much art and all ceremony. Terms of human relationship are often used to name these forces (tunkasila, the grandfathers, for example) or to indicate the deep kinship among humans, animals, and the forces of nature (which in the Western tradition are divided between animate and inanimate, a meaningless distinction in Lakota thought), Color, numerical, and directional symbolism are important as well, as will become evident in the discussion of individual drawings. Events and objects often occur in multiples of four, in honor of the four directions.

    Unlike Christianity, Lakota religion has no great body of standardized dogma. A great deal of spiritual experience stems from the direct encounter an individual might have with things that are wakan (sacred, mysterious); this happens through an individual Vision Quest. There are, however, various categories of ritual specialists, both male and female. Some have knowledge of herbal medicine, while others specialize in particular curing ceremonies. Some hold encyclopedic knowledge about proper protocols for conducting ceremonies like the Sun Dance or the Buffalo Ceremony. Others are simply recognized as particularly holy or powerful people. So the term medicine man is a rather simplistic designation for a variety of ritual specialists. William Edward Caton, who commissioned Black Hawk's drawings, states that Black Hawk was "Chief Medicine Man of the Sioux" (see appendix 2). Still, we don't know what kind of ritual practioner Black Hawk was. The only evidence we have is Caton's simple, and perhaps hyperbolic, statement. Surely it was more likely that Black Hawk was recognized as a powerful spiritual figure principally among the Sans Arc division of the tribe.


Table of Contents

FOREWORD BY Arthur Amiotteix
Art and Culture in the Nineteenth Century
Cosmology and Religious Practice
Black Hawk: An Artist of the Sans Arc People
The Lakota Drawing Tradition
Visions of Spirit Beings
Sacred Pipes and Sacred Altars
The Sun Dance
Ceremonial Practice and the Arts of Transformation
Lakota Social Organization and Daily Life
Crow Indian Ceremonialism
Warfare, Horsemanship, and the Hunt
Natural History Drawings
THREE WOWAPI WAKAN: Art and the Persistence of Cultural
The Reservation Era: Loss, Endurance, and Survival
Black Hawk and the Persistence of Cultural Memory
On the Other Side of the Ledger:
Lakota Aesthetic Practice across Generations
The Artist's Methods and Materials
The Binding of the Drawings
The Sequence of the Drawings
About the Authors190

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