The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City is celebrating a new exhibit entitled “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains.” The collection of pieces that date as early as 1840 to more recent years, include a wide range of art depictions, including Spongebob Squarepants, traditional regalia and contemporary war conflicts on similarly diverse mediums.
Arguably the most contemporary of the pieces is A Cruise Through Bikini Bottom, drawn by Native American artist Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho/Seneca), which depicts SpongeBob Squarepants and Squidward riding on seahorses through Bikini Bottom in Native regalia.
Given the ‘bird on your head” look made infamous by Johnny Depp’s Tonto, perhaps the artist is making a statement on the contemporary and comic portrayal of Disney’s Lone Ranger.
According to curator Emil Her Many Horses to the Smithsonian Insider, “the show demonstrates the long continuum of Plains narrative art and how it has been carried forward into the present.”
Many pieces at the exhibit include portrayals of battle scenes, such as the war deeds of White Swan, a 19th-century scout for General Custer, and Lauren Good Day Giago’s artwork depicting her grandfather Blue Bird’s experiences in the Vietnam War.
“One might paint their buffalo robe, their personal robe, with war deeds,” Her Many Horses told the Insider. “I compare that to a modern military uniform with ribbons, so this was their record of who they were and their accomplishments in battle.”
On some occasions, the medium itself is telling, such as in Chris Pappan’s 2012 Break From Tradition, 21st Century Ledger Drawing No. 58, which shows a delegation of 19th-century Osage tribal members who visited Washington, D.C. to discuss land and treaty rights with the government. The artwork was created on paper that had been used to record a real estate transaction.
Lauren Good Day Giago’s A Warrior’s Story: Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird, is a painted dress that honors her grandfather. Departing from custom - as a woman would have sewn the dress and only male tribal members would have painted it - Giago is making another contemporary statement.
According to the Insider description: Giago’s dress shows her grandfather in green fatigues, surrounded by images of modern and traditional American warfare: rifles, bows and arrows, a hatchet, flags. Blue Bird wears a sacred eagle plume given to him by Chief Drags Wolf, a leader of the family’s Hidatsa tribe, which would protect him as long as he carried it. During a heavy firefight, Blue Bird lost the plume along with his helmet, and was restrained by his fellow troops from retrieving it. At home in South Dakota, Blue Bird’s father dreamed of Drags Wolf, who delivered the plume and told him that as the feather is returned to the tribe, so Blue Bird will also be returned safely.
“The plume came back in the dream, and my grandfather did too,” Giago said to the Insider. “The dress depicted everything he was: his warrior story, the right to make war bonnets and his different personal stories of being a rancher. I put all of that on the dress.”
Some of Giago’s other contributions to the show depict women in brightly colored dresses—a subject that was rarely, if ever, shown in traditional narrative art.
“I left it up to them to come up with what they wanted to depict,” Her Many Horses said of the artists who were invited to contribute to the exhibition. “For a while, this tradition died out, but these artists have revived it. They’ve brought out the contemporary issues of today while still showing the continuum of the culture.”
The breadth of the narrative art on display at the Heye Center “shows who we are as a people,” Giago adds. “We’re these native people, but live in a living, thriving, breathing culture.”