Warriors of the plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual

Supported by the Thaw Charitable Trust and the Sosland Family

7 January – 5 April 2010
Room 91

Warrior societies – close knit groups of interrelated men from a single band who would hone their martial skills through competitive and often dangerous war raids - were at the core of Plains Indians’ social and ceremonial organisation.

Plains warfare was governed by highly organised shared understandings of chivalry, honour and codes of behaviour. The warrior ethic that characterised these societies has survived into the 21st century through an active participation of Native Americans in the US army. This exhibition explores the understandings of honour, status and ritual amongst the indigenous peoples of the North American plains from 1800 to the present to highlight the relevance of the warrior legacy for contemporary Native American identity. The exhibition will display unique and fragile material from the British Museum collections for the first time such as weapons, military and ceremonial costume and accessories, painted hides and ledger drawings, but also modern dance regalia and military uniforms of contemporary Native American soldiers, or ‘modern warriors’. The exhibition makes full use of the British Museum’s large American collections and it also includes old photographs as well as a series of pictures of war dances among contemporary native Americans.

A blown up colour portrait of contemporary Assiniboine dancer Kevin Haywahe by Iroquois  photographer Jeff Thomas will greet the visitors alongside an old painted hide with battle scenes. The juxtaposition of these two items epitomise the continuity of the warrior tradition. Three rare lithographs by painter George Catlin (ca. 1830s) will be displayed to illustrate aspects of Plains warriors’ life and their appearances.

The first section of the exhibition will introduce the Plains Indians with a map of the plains detailing tribal names and their locations. It will look at ritual and ceremonial life through key objects such as horse gear, clubs and tomahawks, moccasins, blanket strips etc.

A second section will explore the ceremonial aspect of warrior societies, focusing on the link between ritual, tribal identity and war. Ceremonial rattles, dance gear, shirts, bangles, necklaces, and moccasins will illustrate three central themes: ceremony and ritual before, during, and after battle, animal protection and supernatural power, continuity and identity symbolised by a modern Pow wow costume.

The third part of the exhibition will look at warfare in more detail focusing on the warriors’ deeds, pictographic accounts of battles and hand-to-hand fights, scalp taking and coup sticks. Weapons and warriors’ insignia will be complement by contemporary items. The role of the warrior within the society, honour and prestige on the battlefield, changes and modern influences, will be explored through feather headdresses, weapons and military insignia, scalps, beaded military caps and badges. In the central cases will be displayed objects that represent diplomacy and peace treaties such as pipes that will be paired to items that convey ideas of bravery and honour such as clubs and pipe-tomahawks.

Assiniboine dancer Kevin Haywahe with face paint

Returning the Gaze.
Assiniboine dancer Kevin Haywahe with face paint, 2005.
© Jeff Thomas.


For further information or images please contact
Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 / hboulton@britishmuseum.org or
Esme Wilson on 020 7323 8394 / ewilson@britishmuseum.org

For online exhibition information