In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art of the Plains Peoples

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Magazines
  • Studies of Individual Plains Cultures
  • Art, Warfare, and Warriors
  • Women’s Art
  • Art and Diplomacy
  • Art and Spirituality
  • Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Artists
  • Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Artist Monographs
  • Philosophy and Criticism

Art History Art of the Plains Peoples
Steven Leuthold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0076


Plains Indian art is a varied subject with a long history of scholarship and collecting both by private individuals and institutions. As such, the literature on the subject is rich and, especially recently, is strong in its visual presentation. Newer publications include large, crisp, colorful photographs that draw the viewer into the aesthetic splendor of the art created on the Plains. Earlier publications, by contrast, focus on the contextual interpretation of artworks (more specifically understood as ethno-historical artifacts at the time), mostly from an anthropological perspective. These anthropological approaches to Plains Indian art began in the early 20th century, and they remained the dominant perspective in the discipline at least until the late 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s a tension arose between more “aesthetic” and anthropological frameworks of understanding art created by Native Americans. In the present, the tendency is toward an attempt at a balanced approach and, sometimes, an attempt at synthesis between the two. The study of Native art of the Plains, then, brings us not only to the artworks themselves and to the people who made them, but also to questions of framing and interpretation. This bibliography hints at some of these interpretive issues while being primarily concerned with the classification of sources according to their approach to the subject. These include general studies of Plains art and its relationship to culture; prominent among these more general studies are exhibition catalogs, which can be the work of a single author but more often contain several essays, each of which deals with a different aspect of the exhibition. Exhibitions are often organized around a group of works collected by an individual; thus, the motives of collectors and the history of collecting are an important aspect of writings about Plains Native art. A few studies focus on individual tribes of the Plains region. Others consider the relationship of art to important aspects of culture such as diplomacy or practices in warfare. A larger number of books delve into a specific medium or genre: ledger drawing, for instance, or tipis. These books allow for a comparative study of an artistic medium throughout the various regions of the Plains and across time. Finally, there is the discussion of both 20th-century and contemporary Native artists of the Plains, though these books are fewer in number. The emphasis in the literature, then, tends to be on art forms from the 19th century and earlier. From rock art to ledger drawings, there have been important studies of Native art of the Plains that have appeared only recently.

General Overviews

There are a number of broad histories of Native American life on the Plains. Though not immediately concerned with art, these books will orient readers to the lifeways and historical changes in this vast, open region. Robert Harry Lowie’s book (Lowie 1982) is an early example of this type. Lowie was trained as an anthropologist so the book reflects that discipline; there is much detailed information on diet, kinship, and other general topics. Lowie is considered one of the founders of anthropology. He did his doctoral research on the Shoshone but became closely tied to the Crow through subsequent research; he wrote four books on that tribe, including one on their art in 1922. Lowie published on Native cultures from 1914 to his death in 1957 and, as a student of Franz Boas, reflects the formation of the discipline of American anthropology. A sweeping historical account of Native life prior to the 19th century, Calloway 2003 demonstrates that Native cultures were in a constant state of change. The book incorporates archaeology, anthropology, and oral history and produces compelling reading that is broadly synthetic in its approach. Calloway emphasizes the importance of the 18th century in relation to change in Native ways of life. The book traces the trade routes of the West and the importance of trade itself, both prior to and after the arrival of Europeans. Geographically, it spans the Appalachia region to the Pacific. The approach taken in Mails 1995 differs from the offerings by Lowie, the anthropologist, and Calloway, the historian. The book is a product of spiritual discovery by its author, Mails, a California-born artist who was drawn to the study of Native spiritual traditions. He had studied for the ministry in Minnesota and served three congregations over a period of eighteen years. The University of Oklahoma has published a collection of essays by the important Plains art scholar, John Ewers, that were published in periodicals from 1968–1992. Together, these treat a number of themes and media in Plains and/or Native American art and function as an overview of the field. Ewers pioneered the application of ethno-historical methodology to Plains art, combining data from ethnography, archaeology, and archival materials in order to address important questions about the relationship between Plains art and culture. Ewers 2011 consistently addresses the relationship of material culture to communication systems.

  • Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

    Demonstrates that migrations in response to variations in climate and other ecological conditions were the norm. The Mississippi is treated as a conduit through Native regions rather than as a dividing line between the Woodlands and the Plains. The book is a major accomplishment and should appeal to any serious reader, though a consideration of a more introductory source first may be useful.

  • Ewers, John C. Plains Indian Art: The Pioneering Work of John C. Ewers. Edited by Jane Ewers Robinson. Introduction by Evan M. Maurer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

    Ewers pioneered the use of fieldwork, archival research, and archaeology in the study of Plains art. He focused on the art’s communicative functions. These essays are collected in a single location for the first time and accompanied by more than 100 illustrations selected by Ewers himself. The volume is well designed and beautifully illustrated. The preface is by Candace Green, who was a colleague of Ewers at the Smithsonian Institution.

  • Ganteaume, Cécile R., ed. Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. New York: Harper, 2010.

    Focuses on the way that objects reveal a history of contact and change between peoples of the Americas. Includes sections written by specialists on each region of the Americas. The book includes images from NMAI that are published here for the first time. The book accompanies the exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center.

  • Hansen, Emma I. “People without Borders: Natives of the North American Plains.” In Visions of the West: Art and Artifacts from the Private Collections of J. P. Bryan, Torch Energy Advisors Incorporated and Others. Edited by Melissa Baldrige, 4–49. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1999.

    These objects are part of a large private collection with a focus on objects related to Texas. The Bryan collection is quite varied in its inclusivity of art from varied ethnic groups. The essay by Hansen emphasizes an ethos of Native self-affirmation on the Plains in the late 19th century, partly in resistance to assimilation.

  • Johnson, Michael G., and Bill Yenne. Arts & Crafts of the Native American Tribes. Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2011.

    A broad survey of Native arts, organized by culture area and, following that, by medium. It is intended to be a primary and thorough reference work on Native art. The illustrations, both photographs and line drawings, are of high quality. The authors produced Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America in 2007, and this is intended as a complementary reference work.

  • Lowie, Robert Harry. Indians of the Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

    Contains a small section on art, but also chapters on Plains architecture and dress, which are often discussed in relation to art. This is an older work, first published in 1954, and some of the language, e.g., “primitive peoples,” may be objectionable to some readers. Lowie’s approach is historical, emphasizing the idea of cultures in flux. Written at the end of his career, the book synthesizes a lifetime of study in clear language.

  • Mails, Thomas. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains: The Culture, Arts, Crafts and Religion of the Plains Indians. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.

    Written by an artist, this is an in-depth sympathetic portrayal of the great horse cultures of the Plains. Originally published in 1972, the book is quite comprehensive with many maps and illustrations and has become one of the most influential popular books about Plains Indian life and belief.

  • O’Brien, Greg. The Timeline of Native Americans: The Ultimate Guide to North America’s Indigenous Peoples. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay, 2008.

    A well-illustrated and useful chronology of Native peoples. Part of the World History Timeline series. Aids in gaining a sense of the temporal depth of Native experience, which stretches back many thousands of years.

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