Traces of Our Past: Artifacts by the First Nebraskans

August 26 – December 7, 2008 —

For the first time at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA), an entire exhibition is devoted to the state’s Native American heritage in Traces of Our Past: Artifacts by the First Nebraskans. Generously on loan from a private collection and never before shown publicly, this exhibition offers a vitally important window into 19th century history of a culture that inhabited the Plains region long before the advent of white people. Primarily utilitarian in nature yet created with a purposeful aesthetic, these 74 objects speak of the daily life of a people and the already-occurring and quickly-coming changes brought about by westward expansion. When revisiting this history, it is not possible to exclude the difficulty, loss, and even horror that occurred for the Native Americans during Euro-American development. Yet Traces also speaks of an on-going fascination with Native American culture, and is the beginning of a long-term focus at the Museum to research, highlight, and collect objects of this other, yet central, history of Nebraska.

The region of the Plains entails a swath of land that stretches east to the Mississippi River; west to the Rocky Mountains; north to the upper Saskatchewan River in central Alberta, Canada; and south to the Rio Grande River in southern Texas. In the 1800s, the tribes represented in Traces of our Past who inhabited this area were the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Cree, Crow, Sioux, and Winnebago. When thinking of the romanticized “Indian,” the nomadic tribes of the Plains come to mind as they were the individuals who rode horseback, followed bison, and lived in tipis. This way of life influenced the objects that were crafted. Comparatively smaller than works created by Native Americans of the coasts, the “art” objects of the Plains Indians had to be compact and portable: beaded knives and sheaths, ceremonial tomahawks, quilled and painted bags, and carved and twisted pipes, among other items. While in Native culture there is no word for “art,” the works were nonetheless crafted with an aesthetic that successfully recognized formal elements: pattern, color, symmetry, etc. The objects were also extensions of a holistic view within the tribe, and point to some or all aspects of the tribe’s inner workings such as spirituality, connection with the land, or sense of community and family.

The parfleche, a stiff colorfully painted bag used to carry various items, is an example of efforts from both the men and women of the tribe and the community’s dependence on and use of the bison. The word parfleche is derived from the French, parer − to defend, and fleche − arrow. The primary source for the parfleche before 1880 was bison hide. Men obtained the skins through hunts and the women fashioned them into bags. Although methods of creating a parfleche varied from tribe to tribe, the general process involved fleshing (removing the muscle and tissue), staking the hide to the ground which would ensure stretching, washing (by throwing water on the hide while staked, then scraping it off), and scraping the hide to an even thickness before it was fully dry. Sizing by means of a thin glutinous wash applied to the flesh side of the skin was done only when the hide was dried to just the right stage. Then, and only then, was paint applied to the hide in colorful and geometric patterns.

In early parfleche, paint pigments were derived from the land and created by hand by the women; later, after trading occurred, the pigments utilized were commercially produced. The parfleche were folded into shapes that included envelopes, flat cases, cylinders, boxes, and trucks as well as knife sheaths and quivers. While some early parfleche had representational imagery, most were primarily non-objective, utilizing geometric designs, lines, and patterns with a reliance on bold color. The parfleche is also a signifier of the eventual change that occurred on the Plains and in the way of life for the Native American. With the mass destruction of the bison herds in the 1870s and a soon-after life on a reservation, parfleche were later primarily created from the hides of domestic cows

While this exhibition holds additional examples of a way of life for the Native American of the 1800s and the ensuing transformation of their culture, it also offers an alternative, the “other”, perspective. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer, journalist, poet, and publicist, had an ardent belief when speaking about the “other:” “genuine individualism – the recognition of self-hood – can only be brought about by contact with and recognition of the “Other,” the being who is external with oneself and yet a reflection of oneself.” This exhibition allows for such and, in turn, provides for an even greater understanding of not only the visual history of the state, but its history as a whole.