Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World

By Sundstrom, Linea | Plains Anthropologist, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World


Sundstrom, Linea, Plains Anthropologist


Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World. By JANET CATHERINE BERLO. George Braziller in association with the New York State Historical Society, New York. 2000. 189 pages, figures, appendices, notes, references cited, index. $65.00 (Hardback, ISBN 0-8076-1465-3).

A hazard of being from a literate society is that one may never develop a fall understanding of how information is communicated in nonliterate societies. The unfortunate term 'preliterate' suggests that our way is the norm and that other societies would have developed phonetic writing systems if only they had evolved more fully. This outdated attitude ignores the efficiency and beauty with which information can be passed from one person to another through pictures, sign language, and speech. Pictures and signs allow communication between people with no shared spoken language. Their importance among historic Plains Indians reflects the need for universal forms of communication among the highly mobile groups occupying the region. That anthropologists have largely ignored these communication systems reflects our ignorance, not those of the people who developed them. Through the years, a handful of researchers, including Janet Berlo, have understood the information potential of Plains Indian pictography. Her latest volume is a milestone in the study of Plains Indian art and art as ethnography.

Focusing on the work of a single artist, Black Hawk, Berlo treats the drawings as works of art and as "visual ethnography." Her approach deftly combines anthropology, art history, and art criticism. The first chapter, "Black Hawk and the Lakota World," sets the cultural and historical stage for the interpretations that follow. This chapter succinctly gives readers an appreciation of the complexities of Lakota lifeways and philosophies, as well as Black Hawk's own struggle to adjust to reservation life. Black Hawk exchanged each of the drawings for 50cents in trade at William Caton's trading post: enough to keep his extended family from starvation through the hard winter of 1880-- 81. The drawings thus symbolize Black Hawk's survival on several levels: his immediate physical survival, his people's cultural survival as reasserted in the drawings, and his historical survival as artist, historian, and ethnographer, as ensured by this publication.

The second chapter presents color plates of each of the 76 drawings. Berlo groups these by subject: vision experiences, ceremonies, combat or coup scenes, buffalo hunting, and natural history (drawings of plants and animals). Berlo's text draws attention to the salient details of each drawing without becoming mired in the minutiae of each item depicted. Her interpretations are based on the anthropological literature, as well as discussions with contemporary Lakota historians, and reflect a solid understanding of the complexities of visual symbolism among Plains Indian groups.

The vision and ceremony drawings, especially the rare images of the girls' puberty ceremony, are gems of art and ethnography. Detailed drawings of body paints and costumes used in the Sun Dance, girls' puberty ceremony, and Elk Dreamers dance provide significant new information about the symbolism of these important ceremonies.

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