National Treasures

Enlivening exhibits of Native American art at the Peabody

Metal arm bands are neatly arranged by a pipe bag underneath a looming five-foot portrait of its owner: Sitting Bull, the former Lakota Sioux holy war chief who famously led the Lakota and Cheyenne troops to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Nearby, old arrows are suspended in mid-air—as if shooting out from a propped bow—under an airbrushed banner depicting “thunderbirds,” mythological messengers of thunderstorms revered by Lakota members as spiritual sources for energy in battle.

Last April, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University opened an exhibit called “Wiyohpiyata,” Lakota for “west,” which alludes to the tribe’s idea that thunderstorms originate in the west; to the cultural belief that thunderstorms fuel warfare; and to bloody Western expansion. The center of gravity for the exhibit is a ledger inscribed with the work of several Lakota artists. The ledger—which has been in the possession of Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s and was only discovered to be of artistic value five years ago—contains seventy-seven color drawings of Lakota war exploits, several of which are displayed alongside ancient artifacts and contemporary art pieces.

While each of these artifacts tells a story—in the case of one drawing, the tale of a Native American warrior who rescued his friend in combat—the exhibit itself is the product of an intricate interweaving of stories and cross-cultural negotiations. The product of a 30-year friendship between Peabody Museum Associate Curator of North American Ethnography Castle McLaughlin and Lakota tribe member Butch Thunder Hawk, the Wiyohpiyata exhibit explores the tribe’s culture and traditions with genuine Lakota perspective.

“Together we wanted to come up with the key Lakota concepts that would form the backbone of the exhibits and [decide] how to best express those concepts,” McLaughlin said.

SPIRIT IN EXHIBIT

While working on a reservation for blue roan horses—the decedents of original Lakota war ponies—in the 1980s, McLaughlin grew acquainted with Thunder Hawk, the tribal arts instructor at the United Tribe Technical College. The friendship between the two has served as the impetus for the current Wiyohpiyata exhibit, which they co-curated. Its planning required a large team of workers and over four years of conversations and brainstorming, according to Thunder Hawk.

“We wanted to design a Lakota-centric exhibit,” McLaughlin said, as she described the museum’s conscious effort to include a Native American in the process of producing the exhibit. “I was supposed to provide a non-[American] Indian perspective when necessary.”

To bridge the potential cultural divide, McLaughlin worked with Thunder Hawk to make the exhibit into a sensory experience that immerses the visitor in the sounds, images, and even smells associated with Lakota culture. “We thought about how people experience cultures,” McLaughlin says. “We decided that it had to be ambient and appeal to people’s senses—[to emphasize] not words and text but colors and shapes and sounds.”

Sounds of a thunderstorm fill the small L-shaped room. Out of sight, a scent machine pumps out the smell of white cedar. “We wanted to give the audience a sense of being in the element of a thunderstorm,” Thunder Hawk said.

The walls are alive with movement. Mounted video screens capture the undulation of the grass in a western plain, the nuzzling of two blue roan horses on a green hillside, and the neurotic twitching of a golden eagle’s head against a blue sky.

Underneath the video of the bird is a bonnet constructed of the feathers of a golden eagle. Pointing to the display, McLaughlin noted that the supernatural bond between creature and human creation empowered the Lakota warriors during battle. “Lakota think of warfare as unfolding as a storm—building in intensity,” McLaughlin says. “When that energy reached a certain pitch, [the warrior’s] amulets [representing this bond] would spring to life... opening the passage to the spirits.” Thunder Hawk agreed, noting that the Lakota people draw on these spirits to help them in both the rage of war and quotidian life.

Thunder Hawk’s own work adorns the gallery, including an effigy honoring the death of a blue roan horse that appears over fifteen times in the images inside the ledger. According to him, such effigies were created by Lakota warriors who lost their horses in battle, and these objects were later used in ceremonial dances. For Thunder Hawk, who learned his artistic skills from his grandparents, the exhibit was an inspiration; it exposed him to the art of the pictograph—the colored illustrations that fill the ancient ledger.

CROSS-CULTURAL CONVERSATIONS

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology houses more than six million cultural objects and 500,000 photographic records, constituting one of the oldest and largest collections of indigenous artifacts in the Western Hemisphere. Five hundred of the objects are on display in the permanent exhibit, called “The Hall of the North American Indian,” which was installed in 1990 and continues to be a home for academic research, along with educational and ceremonial programs. McLaughlin says that she carefully selected the artifacts for the Wiyohpiyata exhibit from among the museum’s vast collection of Native American pieces.

Founded in 1867, the Peabody Museum boasts a uniquely comprehensive array of cultural objects. Throughout its existence, the museum has seen dramatic changes in the relationship between museums seeking indigenous artifacts and Native Americans. The Peabody has not only been an influential player in the development of modern conceptions of Native American artifacts, but also an exemplary producer of the shifts in the relationship.

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