NMAI: Hear the Song of the Horse Nation

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 10-31-11)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”

To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today.
Photo courtesy of
‘beaded coat’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

It opens with historical context, showing the arrival of the horse to the North American continent from as early as the 1500s. Believed to have returned to the continent after evolving and moving westward through Asia and Europe, the horse made its return among the exploratory ships of the Spanish and British. The first appearance of the horse was quite the shock to the native peoples and helped the Spanish to quickly overcome any opposition. Natives had never seen an animal that could carry a person and many struggled to come up with a name for the new creature. Many Native names for the horse ended up being a derivative of “dog” such as the Cree’s “big dog” (mistatim), the Lakota’s “mystery dog” (sunkakhan), or the Blackfoot’s “elk dog” (ponoka-mita).

Natives quickly turned their fear of the horse into desire for them. In 1680, the Pueblo Uprising opened up the floodgates as hundreds of captured Spanish horses were traded to nearby tribes. The horse population quickly expanded north and east across established tribal trading networks. Historians often note that as the acquisition and absorption of the horse moved west-to-east, the rifle’s debut and spread among Indians moved east-to-west. By the time of the country’s western expansion in the 1800s, both rifle and horse were fixtures among the encountered Native communities.

courtesy of ‘bhrome’

The exhibition quickly recounts the historical narrative, however, moving from scholarly education into that of cultural definition. By the time of America’s expansion into the West, horses had made their mark among the Indians. Their likenesses decorated shirts, dresses, tipis, blankets, and toys. Because the Native perspective sees creation around them as a partner in life rather than an obstacle to overcome, the horse was a fellow creature to share the land with. It’s grace and beauty were respected and honored by Natives; to own a horse was a mark of prestige and blessing. The practice of “giveaway” became an honored tradition and a symbol of wealth. Owning several horses was one thing; generously giving them away in times of ceremony and to those less fortunate was the ultimate gesture in prosperity and humbleness.

Of note is the lengths the exhibition goes in pointing out the importance of horse capturing to these communities. Young men would often go out either solo or in small groups and raid an enemy’s encampment through taking horses. Several artifacts on display show a warrior’s personal record or stories to that effect, decorating their blankets or clothing with these heroic exploits. A young man who could return to the camp with a captured horse received praise and honor from family and friends. Horse capturing was elevated to an art form. And there was no greater honor for such a young man to return astride such a prize and then give it away to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community. Such actions manifested the man’s generosity of spirit, as well as his bravery.

When seen from this point of view, it isn’t hard to page back through the history books in our minds and remember the stories taught about “Indian horse thieves” and how it was a scourge upon the Western colonists. From the white man’s viewpoint, it was breaking the law. From the Indian view, it was a cultural norm. These contradictory viewpoints were but a part of the constant conflict that clashed repeatedly between the ever-expanding Americans and the Natives of land.

Photo courtesy of
‘cree saddle beadwork’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Even as the West was lost and the reservations became the norm, the horse never left the Native communities. By the 1900s, the horse was irrevocably tied to Native culture, honored in beadwork and drawings in both art and personal belongings. Though many horses were confiscated by the U.S. government (such as the vast herds of the Nez Perce), they remained an undeniable part of the community. As the exhibition winds through the last days of the frontier and the ends of the Indian Wars, the horse is seen more in cultural symbols and traditions of the tribal communities than as a weapon of war.

It becomes obvious that the cultural shift remained permanent. Even as the reservation lifestyle forever altered Indian ways, it did not sever the connection Natives had to the horse. More and more, Native peoples honored the horse through their beadwork and crafts, creating elaborate decorations and ornamentation for use in celebrations, parades, and powwows. The Smithsonian’s exhibition blooms at the end with artwork from the turn of the 20th Century through the modern day. Contemporary artwork using traditional methods such as beadwork and quillwork, as well as ceramics and oil painting, still convey the respect and honor Natives have for the horse. At the very end, a short film highlights the Nez Perce’s continued efforts to rebuild their horse herds through the Young Horsemen’s Program, which seeks to preserve the Appaloosa made famous by their ancestors. Their dedication to not just breeding but in respecting the animal speaks volumes of the attitudes of many tribal communities today.

By showcasing modern artwork through everyday items such as martingales and blankets, masks and paintings, the exhibition ties together and drives home just how important the horse truly is to Native culture and relevance. It is a syncretistic blend of the old and new, adaptation and growth, and a shining example of the spirit of today’s Native people. The Horse Nation is alive and well because of their efforts and will remain an integral part of the history, culture, and understanding of Native America for generations to come.

A Song for the Horse Nation will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. You can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

The Song of Emil Her Many Horses

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted on 10/28/11 at WeLoveDC.)

out of the earth / I sing for them
A Horse nation / I sing for them
out of the earth / I sing for them,
the animals / I sing for them.

~a song by the Teton Sioux

Emil Her Many Horses is, by first appearance, a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A museum specialist in the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he is responsible for the facility’s latest exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation.” A member of the Ogala Lakota nation of South Dakota, his expertise on the Northern and Southern Plains cultures is well served and seen in the exhibit that opens to the public tomorrow.

NMAI’s latest offering is a touching and brilliant display of how the horse has deeply impacted and affected Native cultures since their introduction to the Americas in the 17th century. “The exhibit tells the history of the horse; that they were here once before, migrated to Europe, and returned as the horse we know today,” explained Her Many Horses. “They changed Native culture. The horse had a major impact on hunting, warfare, travel, spirituality. These were big changes.” Changes that extend beyond the European vision of the animal.

Seen as a beast of burden, a tool, a weapon, the horse was brought and used by European explorers and colonists early in America’s “New World” history. And their introduction, according to many Natives, was probably one of the biggest positive changes brought about by the white man.

Emil Her Many Horses, NMAI Museum Specialist (photo courtesy NMAI)

Exploding across the Plains after the Pueblo Uprising in 1680, the value of the horse was readily apparent to many tribes. Their acceptance quickly altered the very fabric of tribal life and culture as Natives admired the animal’s grace, beauty, bravery, and determination. “When American Indians encountered horses—which some tribes call the Horse Nation—they found an ally, inspiring and useful in times of peace, and intrepid in times of war,” said NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee). “This exhibition shows how these splendid creatures came to represent courage and freedom to many tribes across North America.”

“The horse really became a fellow creature that lives with us,” explained Her Many Horses. “They are a comrade, ally, friend. What we try to establish is a relationship with a fellow living being, something that really reaches into the realm of companionship, as opposed to that of a simple tool or resource.”

That relationship can be seen in Her Many Horses’ own family history. The name is Lakota and that of his paternal great-great-grandmother. “More accurately, the English translation would be ‘Many Horses Woman,’ meaning she owned many horses,” he said. When the first census was made on the Ogala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, her name became the family’s last name. The census takers, however, had mistranslated “Tasunka Ota Win” into English as “Her Many Horses.” And so it stuck.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Among the Lakota, horses were a measure of wealth, but not in the traditional European sense. To the Lakota—and many other tribes—a more important demonstration of wealth came from giving away horses or other items in honor of a family member. Possession was not as important as generosity. Horses could be given away at naming and memorial ceremonies, or at giveaways, which celebrated anything from the return of a war veteran, honoring a graduating student, or the marriage of a daughter.

In the exhibit is a piece familiar to Her Many Horses. It is familiar because he made the toy painted tipi himself. “I made it to talk about the origins of my last name. It shows a woman—my grandmother—surrounded by many horses. To me, it became an honorable name to have.”

The opening of the exhibit is exciting to Her Many Horses. An expansion of the original exhibit at NMAI’s New York City George Gustav Heye Center location, this one adds an additional 15 major objects. One of the centerpiece displays is a 19th century 38-foot round tipi that stands 16 feet tall. Cavorting across the surface are 110 hand-painted horses, both with and without riders, all in full gallop. “The tipi is Hunkpapa-Lakota, showing horse raiding and battle scenes all along the outside,” said Her Many Horses. His glee at being able to set it up for visitors was evident. “If you look at the drawings, you can see who’s the enemy. It’s Lakota versus the Crow—you can tell because of the hairstyles. It’s kind of a war record of the warrior who lived within.”

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
The tipi was a challenge for the staff to set up, taking them four afternoons. “We knew it had been re-sized, plus it wasn’t being set on open ground but a slick display surface,” he said. It’s safe to say the effort was worth it; the tipi is an exquisite testimony to how personal the horse was to one individual in the tribe; a sentiment still shared across the Native landscape today.

Other objects of life and culture of the Plains tribes decorate places of honor in the exhibit. “We included pieces that are associated with famous people, such as the rifles of Geronimo, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Joseph,” said Her Many Horses. “And we have photographs of many of these people, showing that link between the object and the person.” These placards are entitled Honor In the Name, introducing them to visitors and providing a glimpse of past lives to those in the modern day.

But primarily, the horse dominates. So entwined into the lives of tribes, they are the subject of beaded artwork on tipi bags, shaped into dance sticks, decorate jackets. Objects of everyday use with the horse, such as saddles, saddlebags, and horse masks, are given individual touches of color and life, providing an intimate look into the relationship between the owner and the animal. “I want the public to walk out of there understanding not just how the horse revolutionized Native life, but how that thread continues even today,” Her Many Horses said.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Bridging that gap of history to the modern, Her Many Horses invited Native artists to create their own contemporary art for the exhibit. He believes it’s critically important to show that continued thread of relationship still impacts Native life in today’s world. “We may no longer depend on the horse for travel, for hunting, for warfare – but it’s still important to us, our culture.”

To that end, NMAI will celebrate the opening of its new exhibit with a variety of events on Saturday, October 29. Partnering with the Washington International Horse Show, celebrating its 53rd year through this weekend at the Verizon Center, both WIHS and NMAI are providing free programs and activities at both locations. (A free shuttle will run between the museum and the Verizon Center on Saturday only.)

Central to Saturday’s events is a presentation of the U.S. and Crow Nation flags on horseback between Crow equestrian and artist Kennard Real Bird and the DC Mounted Police. Following the presentation, K.J. Jacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will sing the U.S. national anthem. The presentation will happen in the museum’s outdoor Welcome Plaza.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Award-winning bead worker and porcupine quill worker Juanita Fogarty Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), whose own art is displayed within the exhibition, will hold demonstrations throughout the day. Children will be able to “dress” a full-sized horse mannequin using pieces that simulate many of those in the exhibit. S.D. Nelson (Lakota/Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s book author and illustrator, will host special storytelling sessions and lectures for both kids and adults.

It’s a jubilee worthy of the exhibition, and one that Emil Her Many Horses and the museum’s staff have worked tirelessly to bring together. It’s a celebration of the horse through many pathways, one that gives a glimpse into the history, life, and culture of many of the 38 Native communities represented.

Photo courtesy of
‘beaded horse mask 1’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

In the exhibition’s companion book of the same name, Her Many Horses points out one particular piece that succinctly symbolizes the power and value of the horse in the Native community. A beautiful and elaborate Lakota horse head cover is on display. Covered in exquisite designs among a glimmering background of white beads, the cover was used at a 1904 Fourth of July parade at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Alone, it is a fascinating work of art in geometric design and stitching.

What stands out, however, is that it appears to have been made with the intention to be recycled later on as different objects. A critical Native eye can discern where a pair of women’s beaded leggings could be fashioned from the “face” of the horse. A pipe bag, from the “cheeks.” Tipi bags (or, “possible” bags, because pretty much anything possible could be stored inside them) and moccasins could also have been made from the upper and lower neck areas.

The resourcefulness of the artist is evident; fortunately for us today, never followed through. The union of gifts never passed on and remains a delicate and intricate symbol of traditions brought together through the celebration of the horse. It stands as a beaded and colorful declaration of the art and the grace of the animal.

To Emil Her Many Horses, it is an expression of life and of culture that will hopefully never fade. “The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.” With the opening of this latest exhibit, Her Many Horses honors his Lakota roots. Through the blend of art and artifacts, stories and characters, community and culture, he presents the public a valuable gift worth more than a simple object. He gives away to all of us a view into part of the past, the present, and the future of Native America.

And that is a song worthy of the Horse Nation.

A Song for the Horse Nation opens on Saturday, October 29 and will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. WeLoveDC will have a full review of the exhibit on Monday; you can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

The Strange Comfort of Brian Jungen

People's Flag

(Originally posted on 10/16/09 at WeLoveDC)

Opening today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a new exhibition that will run through August 8, 2010. Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort is a major exhibit showcasing the critically acclaimed works of the Canadian-based artist and is his first exhibition organized by a Native American museum. Jungen’s work has been on display around the world, including the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in Quebec, and the Witte de With in the Netherlands.

The NMAI’s first solo exhibition since its opening in 2004, Strange Comfort is exactly that. The stunning “Crux” is your first view of Jungen’s work – recognizable from the crocodile piece show in the recent ads around town – and only continues to intrigue and inspire when you visit the main gallery on the third floor.

Jungen, of Dunne-za First Nations and Swiss-Canadian ancestry, explores several themes through his art. The use of every-day objects to create Indian cultural icons is something very different, born from Native ingenuity of crafting one object out of another, a common practice with many First Nation people. Jungen commented that he grew up watching his Dunne-za relatives recycle everything from car parts to shoe boxes. “It was a kind of salvaging born out of practical and economic necessity, and it greatly influenced how I see the world as an artist.”


It shows. The first piece to greet visitors in the main gallery is a suspended whale skeleton entitled “Shapeshifter” – made entirely out of white plastic lawn chairs. (This was easily my favorite piece of the collection.) It’s utterly reflective of something one would see at a natural history museum – indeed, a visitor need only roam over to Sant Ocean Hall to see something similar. But the realization that it was made from simple white lawn furniture, the kind that nearly everyone has on their deck or back yard, makes the piece comforting, not intimidating.

Shapeshifter - front


Consider “Prince,” made entirely of baseball gloves and a dress form. Jungen captures the iconic image of an Indian chieftain with its form and shape, but draws you closer to the piece with the knowledge of its material. The simpleness of the items used redefines in a sense how you begin to see the world around you.

Totem Poles

Probably the best example of this is the series of totem poles made out of golf bags and cardboard tubes. As you look on in rapt attention, you begin to see the images of faces within the stacked columns through the use of symmetrics and cleverly-positioned handles and straps. Something so iconic of corporate deal-making and upper-class sport is transformed and brought into the foundations of Indian culture.

Carapace - side

“Carapace,” argueably the one piece custom-made for NMAI (it had to be shipped over in pieces, which Jungen then assembled to his satisfaction within the gallery, making it a bit different than previous displays), allows people to walk through it. The dome-shaped structure made out of green trash cans and recycling containers suggests a turtle’s shell, linking it to many First Nations creation stories. But in truth, the piece reflects Jungen’s interest in geodesic architecture and the environment. Again, a combinational melding of modern materials and thought with established cultural identities and nature.

Prototype for New Understanding

Overall, 24 pieces grace the entire collection, curated by Paul Chaat Smith. Other pieces of note are the Northwest regional iconographic masks made from Nike Air Jordans (“Prototype for New Understanding”), an interweaving of professional sports jerseys to make a Native-patterned blanket (“Blanket No. 7”), and delicately carved five-gallon gasoline jugs (“Monarch,” “Dragonfly,” “White Death Camas”).

Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time

The most intriguing sculpture was an always-on television encased in multicolored serving trays (“Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time”), representing the number of Aboriginal men doing time in Canadian prisons, color-coded to the length of each sentence. It was a piece with more sound than sight – the television is all but hidden from view though you could hear it – and once you understood his message, you couldn’t help but think. Its ordinariness took on a whole new meaning, forcing the viewer to change perspective.


And that, at the root of it all, was what I think Jungen is trying to tell us. Out of the ordinary everyday icons of our modern world one can find a deeper meaning, infused with the uniqueness of our own beliefs, understanding and preconceptions. And often enough, you end up finding the past in the modern, bringing a sense of comfort within its strangeness.

Imagine that.

All photos courtesy of myself. View my Flickr set (will be continually updated) or check out the Flickr group set up by NMAI for visitors to share their own photo captures.