The Brooklyn Museum Turns Tipis Inside Out

03/02/2011 4:00 AM |

The tipi is unique in architectural history, a nomadic dwelling whose one room served all family and community functions in modular, overlapping cycles. In Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains (at the Brooklyn Museum through May 15), curators Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller posit the iconic, conical structures as the only stable sanctuary for Native Americans of the Great Plains during a 200-year period that saw all their communities displaced and land stolen. Covering a vast region between the Mississippi and the Rockies from Texas to Alberta, from early 19th century artifacts to contemporary art, the 
exhibition boasts as centerpieces three new full-sized tipis commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum (in the Blackfeet, Lakota and Crow styles) and a Southern Cheyenne tipi from 1904, each displayed according to its differing functions for men, women and children.

Though marked as sites of matriarchal power—women traditionally owned all the tipis—they also served to display male warriors’ achievements. Tipi liners painted by 19th century Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face, and Vietnam vet and Southern Cheyenne Harvey Pratt, point to tipis’ double role as places to display pride and admit vulnerability. While men were accorded the privileged areas inside tipis, the spaces’ functioning was generally structured around the needs of women and children. Their roles as sites of play, learning and production take up the bulk of the exhibition: most of its 150 or so objects were made by women, from tools like hide scrapers to ornate cradles and intricate creations like the incredible late-19th century Sioux dress studded with over 3,000 tiny shells—symbols of great wealth for land-locked Plains tribes. Children’s activities in and around tipis were similarly gendered, with girls given dolls and small tipis with which to rehearse their mothers’ roles, while boys learned sports and games. Contemporary pieces problematize such functions, like Mary Lou Big Day’s “Crow Dolls” (2008), made to be sold through a gallery rather than handed to a child. Recent works like these punctuate the historical displays, drawing a vital link between tradition and present-day tribal culture.

However, the structures themselves are the main attractions in Tipi, which draws heavily on the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive and rarely displayed collection. It also comes at a moment of renewed interest in Native American art—the Denver Art Museum recently made headlines after reorganizing its collections by artist, like museums of Modern and European art, rather than by region or period as in most anthropological collections. This exhibition falls decidedly into the latter tradition, placing today’s chiefly ceremonial tipis in dialog with buildings that, 200 years ago, housed entire cultures and their ways of life.

(images courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)