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Pictorial Muslin (Sun Dance)

Northern Plains

ca. 1895

muslin, paint

height: 24"
width: 66"

Inventory # P4097


acquired by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME


Collected by Edward Ashley, an Episcopal priest, at the Cheyenne River Reservation in Dakota Territory 
Reverend Barbour
Dennis Lessard, Santa Fe, NM 
Richard Pohrt, Ann Arbor, MI


Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France, April 7 - July 20, 2014
Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO, September 19, 2014 - January 11, 2015
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, March 2 - May 10, 2015


The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky, Torrence, pl. 93, pg. 223

Contact with Euro-Americans introduced new media to warrior artists on the Great Plains. Having long recorded both personal and collective histories on hide robes and tipis, muslin, which could be bought by the yard from trading posts, soon formed the basis of narrative expression. Moved to reservations, families were cut from traditional sources of sustenance. In response, a number of artists painted scenes of Indigenous life to sell to outsiders. A recurring subject of such paintings was the Sun Dance. 

The Sun Dance is one of the seven sacred ceremonies among the Lakota. Having originated from a vision, it first emerged around 1820. The event pictured on the above muslin represents the climax of a multi-day ceremonial during which the community gathers together to dance, sing, pray and fast. The participants are adorned with body paint and ceremonial garments. High-ranking men are carrying decorated eagle staffs and fully feathered headdresses, while female participants are dressed in fine woollen blankets and hide robes, wearing intricately beaded breastplates and moccasins. In the centre of the composition, a man is attached to the Sun Dance pole, dancing as if in a trance. His pectoral muscles are pierced in a gesture of personal sacrifice for the benefit of the community. By shedding one’s blood, the Lakota show bravery and respect for the earth, heavens, and everything that inhabits them.

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