The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Exhibition Traces Evolution of the Narrative Tradition
Vibrant storytelling of society, war and peacetime, repression and expression is found within the historic narrative artworks of Native peoples of the Great Plains. “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains,” an exhibition opening Saturday, March 12, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center (located at One Bowling Green in New York City), presents rarely seen works by some of the most important figures to have used this style, including Bear’s Heart (Southern Cheyenne), Zo-tom (Kiowa) and Long Soldier (Hunkpapa Lakota). Their narratives exist along a continuum that carries tradition through to artists working in this style today.
“Unbound” celebrates these narratives with the debut of nearly 50 new works by contemporary Native artists commissioned exclusively for this exhibition. Often referred to as “ledger art” because of the many Plains artists who illustrated ledger notebooks in the 19th century, narrative art employs a dynamic range of imagery to express the ‘now’ of generations of Native people—voices too strong to be bound to any medium.
The narrative tradition takes root in warrior artists of the 18th century who recorded visionary experiences and successes in battle on buffalo-hide tipis, robes and shirts. Artists also began pictorially recording significant events from each prior year; these became known as “winter counts.” As trade with settlers broadened in the 19th century, new media and tools became available to artists, including pencils, crayons, canvas, muslin and paper.
The beginning of the Reservation Era (1870–1920) saw a transformation in narrative content. As policies set by the U.S. government encroached upon the Native identities of people of the Plains, pictorial drawings became a crucial means of addressing cultural upheaval. Many Native artists recorded their experiences in surplus government accounting notebooks, leading the style to be referred to as “ledger art,” which today is used interchangeably with “narrative art.” This style was revived in the 1960s, burgeoned during the American Indian Movement of the 1970s and continues in various media to this day.
Native artists selected for “Unbound” who are currently working in the narrative style confront modern and historic issues through a mix of approaches. Humorous illustrations by Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota) offer societal commentary on everyday Native life, a reflection of self-described personal sensibility similar to entertainer Stephen Colbert. Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho/Seneca), an attorney and chief operating officer for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, uses his art to explore Native identity and the influence of tradition on contemporary life. Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet) reflects his heritage and culture through vivid illustrations of Blackfeet history. Other notable artists include Ronald Burgess (Comanche), Sherman Chaddlesone (Kiowa), David Dragonfly (Blackfeet/Assiniboine), Lauren Good Day Giago (Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree), Darryl Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), Juanita Growing Thunder-Fogarty (Assiniboine/Sioux), Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa/Pima), Chester Medicine Crow (Apsáalooke [Crow]), Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota), Joel Pulliam (Oglala Lakota), Martin E. Red Bear (Oglala/Sicangu Lakota), Norman Frank Sheridan (Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho) and Jim Yellowhawk (Cheyenne River Lakota).
“When we look at American history that involves Native Americans, especially as it is frequently taught in schools, too often the narratives that come forth are from the viewpoints of non-Native people,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the museum. “The artists showcased in ‘Unbound’ reflect nearly two centuries of Native self-expression and with that, a fuller, vastly more contextualized view of the indigenous experience, regardless of the time period.”
Support for “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains” is provided by Ameriprise Financial.
A diverse and multifaceted cultural and educational enterprise, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is an active and visible component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. The NMAI cares for one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native artifacts, including objects, photographs, archives, and media, covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.
The National Museum of the American Indian operates three facilities. The museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., offers exhibition galleries and spaces for performances, lectures and symposia, research, and education. The George Gustav Heye Center (GGHC) in New York City houses exhibitions, research, educational activities, and performing arts programs. The Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, houses the museum’s collections as well as the conservation, repatriation, and digital imaging programs, and research facilities. The NMAI’s off-site outreach efforts, often referred to as the “fourth museum,” include websites, traveling exhibitions, and community programs.
Since the passage of its enabling legislation in 1989 (amended in 1996), the NMAI has been steadfastly committed to bringing Native voices to what the museum writes and presents, whether on-site at one of the three NMAI venues, through the museum’s publications, or via the Internet. The NMAI is also dedicated to acting as a resource for the hemisphere’s Native communities and to serving the greater public as an honest and thoughtful conduit to Native cultures—present and past—in all their richness, depth, and diversity.
Curator’s Talk: Exhibition curator, Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) offers insight about the development of “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains” and will be joined by several of the featured artists for a meet and greet in the exhibition gallery. A longtime curator for the National Museum of the American Indian, Her Many Horses is an award-winning artist who creates contemporary beadwork and dolls. The “Curator’s Talk” will be held Thursday, March 10, at 6 p.m. in the museum’s Diker Pavilion; admission is free.
Women’s History Month Program: Though historically associated mostly with male artists, many women are now known for their fine ledger art. “Crossing Lines: Women and Ledger Art” examines the historical role of women artists within the narrative tradition by welcoming Giago, Growing Thunder-Fogarty and Wakeah Jhane (Comanche/Blackfeet/Kiowa) as they illuminate their own unique backgrounds and motivations as storyteller artists. The event coincides with the exhibition’s public opening Saturday, March 12, and takes place from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the museum’s Rotunda; admission is free.