The Great Plains of North America was once a vast open landscape, a seemingly infinite expanse of earth and sky. The region was rich in natural resources, and immense herds of buffalo roamed the prairies.
For thousands of years, the land supported Native Americans. Bands of hunter-gatherers came first, followed by small nomadic groups who hunted buffalo on foot. Later, migrating tribes settled along rivers in permanent farming villages. With the introduction of the horse by Europeans and the broad diffusion of the animal on the Great Plains after 1680, nomadic life flourished.
Beginning in the mid-1500s and continuing into the 1700s, European explorers came to the region in increasing numbers. Their presence irrevocably altered Native life. Along with horses, Europeans brought weapons and disease. Subsequent European and American settlement resulted in the destruction of the buffalo, the transformation of the land, and the creation by the U.S. government of reservations for the confinement of Native peoples.
The Plains Indians' story is ultimately one of survival and adaptation, and their arts reflect the loss, persistence, and renewal of traditions. In the absence of written language, early Plains peoples recorded histories and communicated cultural and spiritual meanings through utilitarian and ceremonial art. As Plains life changed in response to colonization, artists persisted in giving representation to the beliefs that sustained, directed, and ordered their lives. At the same time, new forms and meanings emerged. Today, Plains artists respond to, and sometimes depart from, their heritage to create a wide range of artistic expression.
The evolution of Plains aesthetic traditions over four centuries is traced in this exhibition through more than 150 works drawn from public and private collections. These objects reflect profound connections to both the natural and the spirit worlds—to the forces of earth and sky.
Six panels located throughout the galleries chronicle the compelling story of Plains peoples. The voices of a historian, two scholars of Plains heritage, and the exhibition's curator appear in dialogue. They invite you to view the works of art through the lens of history, memory, and experience.
Oglala Lakota artist, independent scholar and educator
Custer, South Dakota
Colin G. Calloway
John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies
Hanover, New Hampshire
Emma I. Hansen
Pawnee Curator Emerita and Senior Scholar
Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Curator of The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky
and Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, Missouri