The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art’s Steel Ponies Exhibit Opens


You might wonder what do steel ponies, otherwise known as motorcycles, have to do with American Indian culture? It turns out, quite a lot, hence Indianapolis’ fantastic Eiteljorg Museum’s new exhibit.

Starting today and going until August 5, Steel Ponies will explore “the art, history and cultures that have developed around the motorcycle,” the museum’s website states. One such steel pony, the famous 1972 Harley-Davidson XR 750 stunt bike that daredevil Devel Knievel crashed in an attempt to clear 13 buses at London’s Wembley stadium in 1975 will be on display.

IndyStar.com makes the point that in many casees, motorcycles replaced the horse in Western culture. Many brands co-opted Indian names for their models—the Chief, the Princess and the Scout are examples the website uses.

"Say what you will about the stereotypical imagery or the fashion in which Indians promoted their products, there are still Indian people . . . who love and ride Indian motorcycles," said White Wolf James, a Pomo Cherokee who hails from Mendocino County, California to IndyStar.com.

James is the Eiteljorg's assistant curator of Native American art, history and culture. He told IndyStar.com that the exibit is about the intersection between American Indian culture and the emergence of the motorcycle in the 20th century as an iconic means of self-expression.

Featured in the exhibit will be bikes such as the bike built by Troy Vargas of Lakota Choppers that incorporates hide, wood and stone, or the board-track racer built by Daniel Sanchez, Apache, that will be unveiled at the exhibit. Sanchez will be at the museum on April 14.

Anthony Scott of the Eiteljorg told us about another bike on display, built by Lakota Customs called The Great Spirit. "This bike features a headdress made of fabricated metal around the fuel tank, dream catchers for the wheels among many other unique tribal imagery," he said.

And for real motorcycle enthusiasts, you’ll recognize the name Paul Teutul Sr. (on the popular “American Chopper” television show) who will be showcasing a bike he built that was commissioned by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Nation.

"They wanted a bike that would represent who they are and also how they have evolved as a culture," Teutul told IndyStar. Traditional wigwams "served as inspiration for the gas tank and color scheme," Teutul continued. “We were also inspired by the intricate work that was put into their clothing, tools and baskets. This is best seen on the basketweave seat and the dream-catcher wheels of the bike."

Along with the motorcycles, the exhibit will also display eight original pieces of ledger art featuring motorcycles by the wonderful Lakota Sioux artist Jim Yellowhawk.

It’s a fascinating look back at the 20th century’s love affair with the motorcyle, and how these steel ponies were often inspired, or created by, American Indians and their culture. To learn more about the exhibit, visit the Eiteljorg’s website at www.eiteljorg.com.