Ceremonial Imagery in Plains Indian Artifacts from The Trout Gallery’s Permanent Collection
Stephanie Latini

This essay considers six ceremonial artifacts from The Trout Gallery’s permanent collection: three pictographic cloths, two painted rawhide drums, and a painted rawhide shield. Although it is difficult to draw specific conclusions as to their origin, and in some instances, purpose as well, circumstantial evidence suggests that the objects came to The Trout Gallery from the Carlisle Indian School directly or by way of a third party. Unfortunately, records regarding their transfer to the college and ultimately to The Trout Gallery do not survive.

Despite poor documentation, a photograph taken of a classroom at the Carlisle Indian School provides a suggestive point of inquiry (fig. 13; cat. 46). In this photo, the back of the classroom displays a variety of native artifacts, including several Plains Indian garments. While it is known that students were required to exchange their clothes for a military uniform, it is not entirely clear what happened to the students’ native materials. As this photo suggests, in perhaps some instances, the items were kept at the school. As for the six artifacts in question, it is unclear whether the objects were made at the school or brought with the children from the reservation. At some Indian boarding schools, it is known that each student had a trunk in which they were permitted to keep some personal items. One Sioux girl, who attended boarding school in the early 1920s explains, “There was a place called the trunk room. That’s where we kept our steamer trunks.”1 Based on the evidence provided, however, it is possible that the six artifacts discussed here and others in the collection were brought to the Carlisle Indian School, either by the students themselves, or visiting relatives. Possibly, they were meant as gifts, to the students, to Richard Henry Pratt, the superintendent, or to the school itself. It is known that upon arrival, the students were forced to surrender their Indian way of life. This involved the cutting of their hair and the replacement of Indian dress with military uniforms. Such articles could have been included in this surrender. It is known that at some boarding schools, some of the students’ original belongings ended up in the possession of the school’s superintendent.2 In this context, it is important to note that Pratt amassed a collection of Indian artifacts, many of which passed through the family’s descendents to the Cumberland County Historical Society.3

On the other hand, some of the objects—namely, the painted cloths—could have been created at the school, since these works bear a resemblance to ledger drawings, which we know Pratt encouraged students to make. However, ceremonial objects with obvious native references—like the drums and shield—were certainly not made at the school under Pratt, since such native art-making techniques were not encouraged during his tenure.4 If the drums and shield were made before Pratt’s departure, then probably they were brought to Carlisle. There is also the possibility that the artifacts were created after Pratt’s dismissal, when Angel De Cora, an art instructor at the Carlisle Indian School, encouraged students to revive and to identify with their native artistic traditions.5 Although a documented connection to the Carlisle Indian School cannot be made for these objects, their arrival at Dickinson College at mid-century, their similarity with artifacts owned by Pratt, and their traditional association with the Carlisle Indian School suggest that such a connection is likely.

Cloth Painted with a Sun Dance Ceremony Scene
This large cotton cloth measuring 66 x 35 inches is painted with commercial dyes (fig. 14; cat. 52).6 The image has a circular composition, which occupies the center of the rectangular cloth. The main focus of the scene concentrates on a vertical pole, which divides the circle into two equal halves. Figures in the circle appear to take part in a ceremony and direct their attention towards the central pole. A group of females occupy the bottom left-hand corner, just inside the circle. Both male and female spectators appear at the entrance to the circle. To the right of this group is a horse-drawn wagon driven by a white man.7 A grouping of tipis fills each corner of the cloth.

The most important identifying features in the composition are two figures tethered to the central pole by lines that connect to their chests. This detail clearly identifies the activity as a Sun Dance ceremony.8 The ceremony was a celebration of prayer, sacrifice, passage into adulthood, and thanksgiving. In 1910, reservation agent James McLaughlin recorded such a ceremony:

…The Sun dance was the most baneful of the old-time practices of the Sioux people…It was held for the purpose of propitiating by personal sacrifice the Great Spirit, and placating the pernicious spirits of the earth. It was an obligation purely, the persons taking part desiring to show that they were willing to submit to personal suffering in the hope that the community would be blessed in the harvest, or in any undertaking in which they were about to engage.9

This ceremony was both a celebration and a rite of passage from boy to man, which insured the stability of Plains tribes. The Sun Dance lasted several days and climaxed in a piercing ceremony, which involved the Sun Dance pole. Typically, the pole was about twelve inches in diameter and twenty feet in length. It was referred to as the Sacred Tree. The pole was placed in the center of a circle, which most likely represented the sun. At each of the four compass points, flags were placed to determine the limitations of the circle. To the west of the tree was an altar consisting of a pipe rack and a buffalo skull. Tipis placed around the circle were designated as preparation tipis. Dancers participating in the ceremonies often carried a pipe, which they presented to the Medicine Man, who was keeper of the pipes. The Sun Dance ceremony reached its climax with the piercing ritual, during which a knife was thrust under and back out of the skin of a young warrior’s chest, to form a pair of parallel slits. A stick or eagle claw was then pushed through two slits in the skin and attached to a rope that was tied to the pole. During the ceremony the warrior worked his body in a direction away from the pole until the tether ripped through the skin. Small pieces of the skin were cut from the warrior’s body and offered in sacrifice at the altar.10

By comparing this description of the Sun Dance ceremony with the painted cloth, one can identify a number of common features. Apart from the pole, ceremonial dancers, and the tipis, which one finds easily in the composition, one also identifies warriors who appear tethered to the pole. Their actions clearly represent the events of the piercing ceremony. Within the circle and around the central pole one also finds pipe-wielding dancers and figures carrying circular shields decorated with buffalo heads.

Overall, the composition is symmetrical left to right and top to bottom. The forms are arranged parallel to the cloth and do not overlap, creating a two-dimensional effect. The painted colors are solid and unblended, which enhance the composition’s two-dimensional appearance. While the objects appear to be stacked from bottom to top, to suggest that those at the bottom are closer to the viewer than those at the top, the inverted placement of objects along the lower margin (tipis and wagon) indicates that the painter approached the surface from more than one viewpoint, perhaps even from the center out. Figures are drawn with head and body as two separate outlines. The arms are always attached and the legs are shown from the side. The faces, however, appear frontal with either blank or conventionalized features. There are no references to the surrounding background or setting (e.g. hills, trees). Although the cloth appears somewhat like a large ledger drawing since it is painted in a similar pictographic style (cf. cat. 50b, c), its overall concept is quite different. Ledger drawings often reflect the influence of Western painting style and follow a horizontal landscape format. The vertical orientation of this cloth and the inverted location of the tipis and wagon is closer to the native pictographic tradition as it appears on painted rawhides.

The association of this painted cloth to painted rawhide is relevant, since it is the most closely related traditional art. Skin painting was widely practiced by the Plains Indian warrior, who used it to depict war victories on hides as well as robes, tipis, and shields. The imagery served as a means of communication among members within the tribe as well as to members of different tribes.11 By the mid-nineteenth century, however, inter-Indian warfare and hunting declined to minor activity and the demand for rawhide painting diminished.12 As early as the 1840s, the hide robe was considered out of style for the majority of Plains Indian tribes.13 Even though buffalo hides were still abundant, warriors began to use the readily available commercially made materials for illustrating their pictographic history. The ledger drawings are an example of this change.14 It would seem that the Sun Dance painted cloth was produced under such changing circumstances. Like many ledger drawings, it may be that this painted cloth was made for sale.

Although the style of the painting is clearly rooted among the Plains Indians, it is difficult to assign the painted cloth to a specific group because many of the Plains Indian tribes share a common artistic style.15 Moreover, most of these tribes practiced a version of the Sun Dance ceremony, so one cannot isolate the painting on the basis of religious practices. With no known comparable painting on cloth and no precise context for its use, the exact function of this work is unknown. While the subject of the painting is certain, its purpose remains unclear.

Cloth Painted with a Horse Capture Scene
This cotton painted cloth measures 39 x 35 inches (fig. 15; cat. 53). Although smaller and of lighter weight fabric than the Sun Dance cloth, it is painted with commercial dyes in a similar style. Horse capture was a popular scene among Plains artists. Horses were vital to the Plains Indians, particularly in hunting and warfare, and the facility in capturing horses was an important asset to the tribe.16 There appear to be two scenes in this composition: in the center-left part of the cloth, two riders direct a herd of horses to the right. In order to denote a crowd, the artist draws only the horses’ heads, intended to stand for the whole animal. Below this scene and running across the lower third of the cloth are four riders.17 The two riders on the left appear to be pursuing a pair of riders on the right, one of which turns backward to fire his rifle at those pursuing him. The rider who appears second from the left carries a shield with a buffalo head motif. It is not clear if the riders and horses above and the four riders below are to be read together as one event or independently as separate events.

Unlike the Sun Dance scene mentioned earlier, the action moves from left to right and more closely resembles ledger drawing in the stylization of the figures and overall horizontal orientation. Also, unlike the Sun Dance image, the scene of horse capture was popular among Plains Indians and it appears frequently in rawhide painting.18 But like the Sun Dance painting, the circumstances regarding the production and function of this cloth remain unclear. Considering its similarity to the Sun Dance cloth, one wonders if they were made at the same place, under similar conditions. Perhaps it represents a particular hunt or recalls the tradition of the hunt in general.

Cloth Painted with an Outstretched Bird Motif
This cotton cloth measures 43 x 34 1/2 inches (fig. 16; cat. 54). It was painted with commercial dyes and decorated with ribbons and two small brass bells. Unlike the narrative scenes painted on the two previous cloths, this painting is emblematic in nature and represents a large bird with wings spread. A human head appears on either side of the bird, each wearing a feather. The central group is surrounded on the top and sides by a jagged band that connects a series of colored circles. The color is most vibrant in the two upper circles, which are a flat red. These red circles are decorated with a pair of brass bells and ribbons, which are stitched to the cloth. A jagged blue line connects the disks across the top of the composition. A pair of jagged lines connects the upper red circles to a pair of lower circles that are decorated with an hourglass design. These lower circles are painted in red and blue.

Although the bird may represent an eagle, which was important to the Plains Indians, it is also similar to a thunderbird motif that appears on a double-sided drum from around 1890. This could be the thunderbird, the Pawnee spirit of the Grass Dance.19 As for the jagged lines, they appear to represent lightning, which supports an association with the thunderbird.

Although its original function is unclear, the upper corners of the cloth indicate that at one time it was displayed on a wall or similar surface. The accumulation of adhesives in the corners suggests that it was used in this manner for at least some part of its existence. The bells stitched into the design, as well as the ribbons attached to the fabric, suggest that the cloth was fastened in such a way that allowed it to move freely. The ringing of the bells and the fluttering of the ribbons would have contributed to a ceremonial function. That it entered The Trout Gallery’s collection in conjunction with the other two painted cloths is curious and suggests that they may have been made or displayed in the same context. Landis suggests that this cloth may have been made at the Carlisle Indian School.20

Rectangular Drum and Bell-Shaped Drum
The rectangular drum measures 17 1/2 x 13 x 2 1/4 inches (fig. 17; cat. 55) and the bell-shaped drum measures 20 1/2 x 16 1/2 x 2 3/4 inches (fig. 18; cat. 56). Both are made of hide stretched over wood frames. Whereas the bell-shaped drum is shaped from irregular pieces of wood, the rectangular drum’s frame was once part of a commercial wood crate used for shipping seeds. The nails used in its construction are hand-forged and suggest that the wood crate was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century.21 The drums are painted on the front and rear with commercial and vegetal dyes. The rectangular drum has evidence of a bloodstain, which may have been added for ceremonial purposes. The bell-shaped drum has internal bells indicating that it could be both beaten or shook to produce sound. The two drums are in relatively good condition; however, the bell-shaped drum has warped considerably. A leather strap is fastened to the top of each drum, which suggests that they were probably hung when played and or when stored.

The front of the rectangular drum features a horned figure. The figure could be the actual animal (buffalo, bull), or a ceremonial dancer in the guise of the animal. Its face is blank except for two eyes and its body is flanked by what looks like wings. The figure is outlined in black and its body is red with black dots. The neck and wings are black, whereas the face is a pale yellow. It appears to represent a spiritual being or a ceremonial figure dressed as such. The space around the figure is painted deep red while a dark reddish brown band appears along the drum’s top edge.

The bell-shaped drum presents a horned figure as well, but it is flanked on either side by smaller, full-length horned figures. The figures are painted black with red faces, and carry catlinite pipes.22 Since they stand on two legs, they probably represent ceremonial dancers dressed in the guise of the buffalo or bull spirit. The main figure on this drum could denote a buffalo or bull, a popular motif among Plains Indians. The top part of this drum is painted black while the lower areas around the figures are painted a greenish-yellow. The main figure has a red mouth and red eyes as well. The backs of both drums are painted with a dotted pattern. The back of the rectangular drum back is painted mostly black with bands of white and red at the top and bottom. It is covered with rows of red and blue dots, some surrounded with white circles. The back of the bell-shaped drum includes only black spots on a red field.

It seems that both drums appear to depict spirits to which they intended to make sacrifices. The image of the buffalo, which makes a thundering sound as it runs, is appropriate for drum imagery. In what specific context these drums would have been used, however, is unknown.

Shield with Eagle and Buffalo Head Motifs
This shield measures 19 inches in diameter and is constructed of rawhide backing with cotton duck facing and was painted with commercial dyes (fig. 19; cat. 57). Rawhide was the material of choice because it could effectively block an arrow or spear. This shield appears to have been made from the skin of a buffalo’s neck, which shrank when heated.23 This may explain in part the presence of a buffalo head motif on the front. The shield includes a representation of an eagle in flight with talons poised. A jagged line creates a wedge shaped space that includes an image of a buffalo’s head on a yellow field. A small blood stain on the shield appears near the eagle’s right wing. It appears to have been added intentionally, as if it were the result of a sacrificial or ceremonial event. Around the edge of the shield, one finds strands of string stitched into the cloth cover. These strings were once used to attach feathers and/or other spiritual amulets.24 In its complete form, the shield and feathers represented the sun and imparted great spiritual power to its owner. Although the shield lacks its feathers, such decorations can be found in shields represented in the Sun Dance cloth painting, mentioned above.

The shield was one of the warrior’s most sacred possessions. It acted as a protective device from both physical and spiritual forces. The painted design was revealed in visions and dreams, and also acted as war medicine.25 Since shields symbolized the sun and were granted by the sky spirits, they were never allowed to touch the ground. Often older men of the tribe would construct shields for the newly declared warriors of the tribe. The precise meaning of the imagery was not revealed to the young warriors in order to retain the shield’s power.26 For the same reason, the design on the front of the shield was not meant to be exposed, except in battle. Most shield painting was intended to protect the warrior from enemy weapons while their symbolic decorations were intended to offer spiritual protection.27

Although evidence is only circumstantial, it does seem likely that these six artifacts can be associated with the Carlisle Indian School. However, for the purposes of this exhibition, the objects, particularly the cloth representing the Sun Dance ceremony, represent the “savage,” “uncivilized,” and “pagan” ways of the Native Americans that Pratt so fervently sought to eliminate.



1 David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience: 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 115.

2 Adams, Education for Extinction, 107.

3 Many of the artifacts at the Cumberland County Historical Society were donated by Nana Pratt Hawkins, daughter of Richard Henry Pratt.

4 Kathleen McWeeney, “A Kiowa’s Odyssey: Etahdleuh Doanmoe’s Sketches from Fort Marion,” in this volume: 9-13.

5 Kathryn M. Moyer, “‘Going Back to the Blanket’: New Outlooks on Art Instruction at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” in this volume: 30-34.

6 Geoffrey Landis, “A Catalogue and Description of the Dickinson College Indian Collection: Artifacts Recovered from the Carlisle Indian School” (n.p., thesis, Dickinson College, 1973), 12; on deposit at The Trout Gallery.

7 According to Karen D. Petersen, Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 294, a wagon with a cover and the horse’s harness was a symbol for whites.

8 Thomas E. Mails, Sundancing: The Great Sioux Piercing Ritual (Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1998), 2. In 1881, United States Government Reservation agents banned the Sun Dance ceremony because they regarded it as an “absorbing, flesh-piercing ritual.”

9 Mails, Sundancing, 4.

10 Mails, Sundancing, 4-13.

11 Linda F. Smith [Witmer], “Pictographic Drawings from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” Cumberland County History 5, no. 2 (Winter 1988): 100-107.

12 Norman Feder, Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 14.

13 Petersen, Plains Indian Art, 22.

14 On ledger drawings, see Kathleen McWeeney, “A Kiowa’s Odyssey: Etahdleuh Doanmoe’s Sketches from Fort Marion,” in this volume: 9-13.

15 However, all ceremonies did not involve torture rites, a feature that is certainly pictured in this pictographic cloth; see Mails, Sundancing, 13.

16 Gilbert T. Vincent, Sherry Brydon, Ralph T. Coe, eds., Art of the North American Indians: The Thaw Collection (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 2000), 104.

17 The tendency to group figures into horizontal registers is common in the pictorial arts of the Plains Indian. Christian F. Feest, Native Arts of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 52-53.

18 A much larger hide drawing entitled War Record (Museum of the American Indian, New York), provides a compelling comparison; see Vincent et al, Art of the North American Indians, 138-139. It appears that this hide was intended to display the warriors’ achievements.

19 Vincent et al, Art of the North American Indians, 123.

20 Landis, “A Catalogue and Collection,” 15.

21 Landis, “A Catalogue and Collection,” 8. This establishes a date after which the drum could have been made.

22 These drums are similar in imagery to ones discussed in Feder, Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art, 88. He attributes them to either the Assiniboin or the Sioux. The figure on the right of the bell-shaped drum appears to be holding a catlinite pipe, which was common among most Plains tribes. A pipe similar to this appears in the Sun Dance painting, mentioned earlier.

23 Landis, “A Catalogue and Collection,” 10.

24 Vincent et al, Art of the North American Indians, 160. A similar shield by the Crow Indians of Montana (c. 1860) can be found in the Museum of the American Indian (New York).

25 Vincent et al, Art of the North American Indians, 160.

26 Vincent et al, Art of the North American Indians, 160.

27 Nigel Cawthorne, The Art of Native North America (San Diego: Laurel Glen Publishing, 1997), 54.