Great Plains and Plateau

The Plains, Prairie, and Plateau cultural region is an area of more than one million square miles that is defined by the Mississippi Valley to the east, the Rocky Mountains to the west, Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the north, and the Mexican border of Texas to the south. The Plains are vast grasslands with occasional hills and forested enclaves in the river valleys. Plains peoples farmed and hunted in and around their villages until Europeans displaced them from their ancestral lands beginning in the 1600s, ushering in a nomadic period that lasted from about 1750 to the late 1870s. The buffalo hunt was of central importance during this time. By the 1870s, the US government had begun to forcibly confine Native Americans to reservations, internment camps, and boarding schools. The reservation period between 1880 and 1960 was marked by social and economic hardship for Plains and other Native peoples.

Horse Mask

Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) or Cayuse, Idaho, Oregon, or eastern Washington, Horse Mask, 1875–1900, trade cloth, glass beads, brass buttons, horsehair, mirrors, red-shafted flicker feathers, silk ribbons, cotton, hide, ermine, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor.

For centuries, beautiful garments and ornate objects have held a deeply spiritual meaning for the Plains people, reflecting a belief that an individual can be protected by sacred forces invoked by the materials and imagery of the outfit he or she wears. Among some of the outstanding examples in this section is a Horse Mask, decorated with zigzag-patterned eyes that perhaps symbolize lightning. On the Plains and the Plateau, horses wore masks and other elaborate regalia during prewar processions and were considered to gain the powers represented in the mask’s imagery. After warfare ended in the 1880s, horse masks were used during celebrations and parades.

Gallery Panorama

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