A Pow-Wow of Art: 19th Century Chiefs

May 29– June 27, 2010 —

The 19th century was a period of geographic expansion for the “new” United States, greatly impacting the native peoples. Starting in 1821, various tribal Chiefs were invited to Washington, D.C. with a two-fold purpose: to impress them with the power of the Federal government and to negotiate land treaties. Thomas McKenney, the government’s Superintendent for Indian Affairs and their champion, feared that the Native Americans’ way of life was changing and envisioned a portrait gallery of these tribal leaders along with artifacts, biographies, and stories that would be available for future generations. He engaged well-known artists of the day – notably Charles Bird King – to paint from life portraits of the Chiefs during their visits to Washington. Between 1821 and 1837, over 140 images were painted of these tribal representatives.

During the 1830s and ‘40s, these paintings were taken in hand by lithographers and the images were rendered as handcolored lithographs. These prints were published in three volumes: one each in 1836, 1838, and 1844. Included was text telling the story of each of the personages depicted – written by newspaperman and author James Hall from the information collected by McKenney. Entitled The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, the publication was bound in folios, now known as the folio size. Between 1848 and 1870, smaller editions were printed in the octavo size, which refers to the size of the paper: one large sheet cut into eight smaller ones.

The original paintings were eventually transferred to the newly established Smithsonian Institution. Seven years later in 1865, a fire consumed the building where they were displayed, and essentially all were lost. The lithographs thus are the only remaining records of these portraits, and form a lasting legacy – as envisioned by McKenney.

A Pow-Wow of Art: 19th Century Chiefs presents 13 Indian portraits from the McKenney and Hall publication from the following tribes: Chippewa (1), Fox (1), Iowa (6), Omaha (1), Pawnee (2), Sauk (1), and Sioux (1). Also included is an 1836 map showing the location of the tribes. These 19th century lithographs have been generously lent from the collections of Merle Stalder, Falls City, and Jerry and Janet Fox, Kearney, along with two from MONA’s collection donated by Gary Zaruba and Bruce R. Lauritzen.

The stories of these individuals reveal their characteristics and lives, often bringing to mind the similarities among cultures throughout time. The following are excerpts from the text.

Moanahonga, An Ioway Chief

Moanahonga, which signifies Great Walker, was an Ioway brave. This name was conferred upon him…on account of his great muscular strength, which enabled him to endure the toils of the chase, and to lead war parties over a vast extent of country, without appearing to be fatigued. Moanahonga was of a morose and sour disposition; the result, doubtless, of his having been the descendant of obscure parents, which circumstance much impeded his advancement to the higher honors, to which his bravery, skill, and talents entitled him. He was emulous of glory, but found himself always held in check by the lowness of his origin. There was nothing which he valued so highly as the honors and dignity of a chieftain, and to this elevation he constantly aspired; seeking ardently, by daring exploits, to challenge the admiration of his nation, and in the midst of some blaze of glory, to extinguish all recollection of the meanness of his descent. As was natural, under such circumstances, he was envious of distinction in others; and the more exalted the incumbent, the more he disliked him.

Wanata, Grand Chief of the Sioux

Although the Sioux are divided into several tribes, governed by different leaders, this individual, in consideration of his paramount influence, is called the grand chief. His dress exhibits an air of state and dignity which is often assumed by the aboriginal chiefs, but is seldom so successfully displayed. It consists of a long robe of the skin of the buffalo, skillfully prepared by the Indian women, by a laborious process, which renders it at once soft and white. Figures are traced upon this material with paint, or worked into it with splinters of the quills of the porcupine, dyed with the most gaudy colors. The plumage of the bird is tastefully inter woven; and the whole is so disposed as to form a rude, but appropriate dress for the powerful ruler of a savage people.


A decade after this portrait was painted Colonel McKenney called it “a perfect likeness of the wife of Mahaskah…She has also been called ‘The Beautiful Female Eagle that Flies in the Air’…by the chiefs and braves of the nation, on account of her great personal beauty. ”

General Andrew Hughes, General William Clark’s subagent in St. Louis, who knew Flying Pigeon, told McKenney she was completely devoted to her husband and was chaste, kind, and generous. Hughes also claimed she was “mild” in nature, but this appears a cavalier’s touch by the agent; from Mahaskah’s experiences in Washington, Flying Pigeon had her wifely moments.

Mahaskah, or White Cloud

As the Iowa chief later told Colonel McKenney, he would never forget his visit to Washington. It was not because of his talk with the Great Father, his awe of the white man’s city, or the vivid memories he had of the foundry where the cannons were made, but only because of the trouble he had with his wives. He had several, more than any one man could manage – even an Iowa warrior and leader of a great Indian nation.

It started a hundred miles from the Iowa village. Rather than take all his wives, Mahaskah had decided he would journey alone to St. Louis where he would meet General William Clark and the rest of the Indian delegation. His family affairs had been hectic since Rantchemaime, or Female Flying Pigeon, had become his latest, youngest, and prettiest wife. The other women resented Flying Pigeon, and there had been so many battles between the women that Mahaskah had to take a club to all of them – including Flying Pigeon.

He had killed and skinned a deer near the Des Moines River and made camp. As he later told Colonel McKinney, he was bending over his cook fire when someone hit him with a branch across the back of his neck. He spun about, drawing his knife, expecting to find himself confronted with a Sioux or an Osage warrior but it was only an indignant Flying Pigeon who berated him for leaving her behind. Mahaskah, who knew what would happen if he only took one wife and left the others, made Flying Pigeon prepare his food, then he pulled her up behind him on the horse, and they returned to the village. The next day the chief again set out for Washington, this time with all his wives.

The Iowa chief had a satisfying visit with President Monroe and returned home inspired by what he had seen. He built a “double log-house” and cultivated his land. Flying Pigeon became the real love of his life, but the other wives stayed on. She gave him a son, who would be known to frontier history as Mahaskah the Younger. Then suddenly one day their peaceful, serene life was shattered when Flying Pigeon was killed by a fall from her pony. The stunned chief carried her slender body miles across the prairie to his village, his infant son clinging to his back. After the burial ceremonies Mahaskah slipped into a deep depression. He fasted for long periods and disappeared for weeks on solitary hunts. Time – and perhaps his other wives – dulled his grief and he returned to the administration of his nation.

Excepted from The McKenney-Hall Portrait Gallery of American Indians
by James D. Horan, 1972