Like all cultures, we Americans fill our lives with adornment, colorful items and things that express our individuality and creativity. Whether it is the color of our couch, the design on our handbag, or the detailing of our automobile, each expresses our individuality and personality. In our modern society, we are not limited by the resources that surround us, but rather we draw on raw materials from around the world. Earlier peoples, especially those indigenous to America, were limited by the resources and materials at their disposal. Their surroundings dictated their tastes and helped them choose their day-to-day as well as their ceremonial items. On the Northern Plains, life changed continually. Natural materials were at everyone’s disposal, but new items were introduced through trade. Decorative materials changed, bringing about new fashions and styles.
Most all of the items exhibited here show some sort of decoration. Elaborate designs were created by tribal groups using three main methods: painting, quilling, and beading. These methods evolved over time and were often combined to create items of striking craftsmanship. Each, however, is distinctive, and required its own skill set. An object could be decorated in a way that would give it a distinctive look and would not only produce a stunning product, but could identify its maker, owner, and even the owner’s tribal affiliation.
Feathers were an important part of the arrow. The bird feathers attached to the end of the shaft of an arrow are called fletching. The feathers of the turkey were preferred, but feathers of other birds such as goose, hawk, and eagle were also used. An arrow shaft was made of a straight shoot of a tree such as ash, basswood, dogwood, or chokecherry. Using a sanding stone and bone wrench, a shaft could be shaped and straightened. Both the fletching and the point were secured to the shaft using wrapped sinew. Stone or bone points were exclusively used prior to contact with whites, after which time metal points were substituted.
The iconic feather headdress is what comes to mind when one thinks of the Plains Indian. Headdresses were made using a skull cap with a beaded sweatband, side pendants of fur, hair, or ribbon, and a crown of eagle feathers. This headdress used a felt hat with the brim trimmed off as the cap. A warrior could create as many as four of these headdresses in his life.
Based in what is now New Mexico, the Zuni tribe is known for their ability to make quality pottery with colorful designs and figures. The pottery was created from clay and then was smoothed with a scraper and polished with a stone. The main purpose of the pottery was for storage of food and water. These Zuni pieces were obtained by South Dakota Senator R.F. Pettigrew when he traded petrified wood with the Smithsonian Museum.
An American Indian family typically had 8 to 15 horses. Of these horses, eight were used as pack animals, two for buffalo hunting, one as a war horse, and the others as general riding horses. Horses typically bred by the Plains Indians were fairly small by modern standards; their horses usually stood about 14 hands, or 56 inches tall and weighed about 700 pounds. They were bred to be fast and agile with the stamina to travel up to 80 miles a day. Plains tribes adorned their horses with painted symbols in their own battle colors and also used decorated masks and head ornaments for their horses.