Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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Artist

Lakota (Teton Sioux), North or South Dakota

Title

Sun Dance

Creation Date

ca. 1895

Century

late 19th century

Dimensions

24 x 66 in. (61 x 168 cm)

Object Type

painting

Creation Place

North America, United States, North or South Dakota

Medium and Support

muslin, pigments

Credit Line

Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund, Laura T. and John H. Halford, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund, Jane H. and Charles E. Parker, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund, Barbara Cooney Porter Fund and Greenacres Acquisition Fund

Copyright

Public Domain

Accession Number

2017.16
Lakota paintings on muslin traditionally hung inside tipis or log cabins in order to shield living spaces from cold winds. This ambitious and exceptionally well-preserved work, however, was likely created for the non-Native market. A confirmed early owner was an Episcopal missionary on the Cheyenne River reservation who would have appreciated the detailed description of a religious ceremony that holds great significance for Native communities throughout the Great Plains. The Sun Dance is an annual rite of renewal, when humans place themselves in spiritual alignment with the forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. In 1883 the government banned the Sun Dance, implicitly acknowledging its crucial importance and instigating a conflict that further escalated with the growth of a new Native religion, the Ghost Dance. These tensions led to armed conflict in 1891, when the U.S. military decimated the Lakota at Wounded Knee. Scholar Janet Berlo describes the scene represented here: “The painter of this exquisitely detailed muslin has portrayed the ceremony within the enclosure erected from cut poles, with shaded areas sometimes of cloth or hide, or simply cut leafy branches. Some twenty standing figures wear war regalia, and most raise their right hands to the sky as they sing and dance; some wear the buffalo horn and eagle feather headdresses of the most esteemed and valorous warriors. Three horses within the enclosure are painted for war. Many of the men are shirtless, and some are painted blue, while others are painted yellow for ceremony. These men have elected to perform the most sacred and painful act of piercing their pectoral muscles and attaching themselves to the central pole, finally ripping their bodies away in an act of blood sacrifice that aligns them with the potent powers of the sun. The center pole is cottonwood, from a tree cut at another location, ceremonially carried here and planted. A cloth banner hangs from the top, and leafy cut branches are placed in the crook of the pole. Small effigies of a man and a buffalo—both fashioned from buffalo hide—hang from these branches. Still within the enclosure, at right, are five seated figures and one standing. They smoke the sacred pipe and pray for those who will undergo the blood sacrifice. At left, another pipe holder watches over a large drum circle. At far left and far right are vignettes of people, mostly women, riding or walking toward the ceremony; their garments range from traditional quilled and painted hides to Navajo chief’s blankets, wool trade cloaks, and wool dresses embellished with elk teeth.”

Object Description

AS WRITTEN ON THE PROPOSED ACQUSITION FORM SEPTEMBER 2016:
Janet C. Berlo, professor of art history at the University of Rochester and a leading scholar of late nineteenth century Native American art, wrote the following short essay about this painting in the recent exhibition catalogue The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky (2014):

The Sun Dance is an annual rite of renewal practiced all over the Great Plains, when humans place themselves in spiritual alignment with the forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. According to Lakota artist and scholar Arthur Amiotte, “The Sun Dance is probably the most formal of all learning and teaching experiences. Inherent in the Sun Dance itself is the total epistemology of the people.”

The painter of this exquisitely detailed and well-preserved muslin has portrayed the ceremony within the enclosure erected from cut poles, with shaded areas sometimes of cloth or hide, or simply cut leafy branches. Some twenty standing figures wear war regalia, and most raise their right hands to the sky as they sing and dance; some wear the buffalo horn and eagle feather headdresses of the most esteemed and valorous warriors. Three horses within the enclosure are painted for war. Many of the men are shirtless, and some are painted blue, while others are painted yellow for ceremony. These men have elected to perform the most sacred and painful act of piercing their pectoral muscles and attaching themselves to the central pole, finally ripping their bodies away in an act of blood sacrifice that aligns them with the potent powers of the sun.

The center pole is cottonwood, from a tree cut at another location, ceremonially carried here and planted. A cloth banner hangs from the top, and leafy cut branches are placed in the crook of the pole. Small effigies of a man and a buffalo—both fashioned from buffalo hide—hang from these branches. Amiotte points out that the male figure, said to represent the enemy in warfare, is also a reminder of a man’s flaws that can cause him to be his own worst enemy. Still within the enclosure, at right, are five seated figures and one standing. They smoke the sacred pipe and pray for those who will undergo the blood sacrifice. At left, another pipe holder watches over a large drum circle, where the music that sounds like the heartbeat of the earth itself accompanies the ceremony. At far left and far right are vignettes of people, mostly women, riding or walking toward the ceremony; their garments range from traditional quilled and painted hides to Navajo chief’s blankets, wool trade cloaks, and wool dresses embellished with elk teeth.

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