BRUNSWICK — A painting can say so much and leave much more to the imagination. That’s certainly the case with a painting of a Lakota sun dance ceremony recently acquired by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and on view in a small and uniquely American exhibition, “Art from the Northern Plains.”

The centerpiece is a painting called “Sun Dance” by an unknown Lakota artist from South Dakota, who made the painting in the late 1800s when the U.S. government, fearful of unrest and eager to continue its expansion West, herded the Plains Indians onto reservations and began outlawing religious ceremonies among the tribes.

This pictographic painting captures a relatively rare view of the sun dance, which involves a community gathering, ceremony and sacrifice over the course of several days. When this painting was made, likely around 1895, according to museum research, the ceremony would have been held at the summer solstice and involve dozens of men who danced around a tall pole, tethered by a rope attached high on the pole on one end and to a peg on the other pierced clear through the skin of each dancer’s chest.

The dance would last four days, testing the dancers’ endurance and their willingess to sacrifice for their community. It’s a sacred ceremony, and even today it is considered disrespectful to photograph it.

This painting shows the gathering of community around a cut pole – a cottonwood tree, to be precise – which is ceremoniously placed in the ground and around which the sacrifice and ritual revolves. It is attended by men and women in regalia and on painted horses, and accompanied by drummers. Painted on muslin, the image remains in good condition, its colors soft but robust.

Very likely, the painting was created for the non-Native market, and a confirmed early owner was an Episcopal missionary on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. It was owned by another church figure before entering a private collection several decades ago. The museum purchased the painting last year to bolster its holdings of Native American art, said Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin Museum.


As he and other curators looked over the museum’s holdings, he was surprised that the collection was “relatively thin” on Indian art. “Among several priorities, we realized we needed to commit to Native American art and creative expression, both locally and nationally,” he said. “It’s important that the great variety of artists in our midst are represented here at the museum.”

Untitled, by Francis Yellow, 2015, pigmented ink.

The museum decided to add “Sun Dance” to the collection because it’s an interesting painting that depicts an important time in the history of the country and offers an opportunity to discuss how the government treated indigenous people and tried to curtail their religious and cultural expressions, Goodyear said. He declined to say how much the museum paid for the painting.

While its holdings of Native art are limited, the museum has enough to build a show around “Sun Dance,” albeit a small show with a dozen or so pieces. Two of those pieces, by contemporary Lakota artists Dwayne Wilcox and Francis Yellow, were given to the museum after it acquired “Sun Dance,” Goodyear said.

A museum goal remains to bolster the collection with the work of Indian artists from Maine.

This spring is a particularly good time to see Native American art in Maine and across New England. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is showing painting, prints and poetry by the late Indian artist T.C. Cannon, who also is represented in the Bowdoin show with the print “Big Soldier.” Bowdoin acquired the Cannon print a decade ago as a gift from the late print collector David Becker. Cannon, who died in 1978 at age 31, was a painter and poet and Vietnam veteran, and a member of the Kiowa Tribe. He grew up in Oklahoma and thrived as an artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The print at Bowdoin shows the artist in a pose of Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader and warrior whose death in December 1890 on the Standing Rock reservation led directly to the death of Big Foot and his followers at Wounded Knee later that month near Pine Ridge, South Dakota.


From May 18-20, the Abbe Museum will hosts its first Indian art market and fair, a three-day show and sale in downtown Bar Harbor that will bring together about 100 artists from Maine and around the country. “Art from the Northern Plains” will remain on view at Bowdoin through July 8.

“Sun Dance” is alluring because of its mystery and detail. It’s a large rectangular painting, 24 inches tall, 66 inches wide and packed with information. It is primitive, more folk art than fine art, a visual recording of a time and place.

The artist places us on the hot plains in late June, when the community gathers to bear witness and give thanks. Traditionally, the sun dance coincides with the summer solstice, when people align themselves with the larger forces of nature. The sacrifice is a rite of passage and test of endurance, said LaRayne Woster, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who teaches Native American studies and language at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

“It still occupies that reverential place that it once did,” she said. “The feeling of strength and sacrifice and energy around a sun dance is almost unexplainable. I can’t speak for how it was 150 years ago, but today it’s still there.”

The painting speaks where words cannot.

We see men in war regalia, their hands raised to the sky as they sing and dance around the pole, from which small effigies of man and bison hang. Some of the men wear buffalo-horn and eagle-feather headdresses. Some are shirtless, painted blue and yellow. Horses are painted for war.


The men painted yellow for ceremony will pierce their pectoral muscles and attach themselves to the pole, dancing until they rip their bodies away in sacrifice and align themselves with the power of the sun.


The sun dance is still practiced across the Northern Plains, Woster said. As with any rite or ritual, practices differ among tribes, but central to the ceremony are songs and dances that travel among generations and include drums, praying with a pipe, fasting, sweats and other forms of purification and sacrifice.

Traditionally, the gathering lasted 12 days, with four days of purification, which involved preparing the grounds and nightly sweat lodges. The dance itself lasted four days, marked from when the tree went up and until it came down. And for four days after, there were nightly sweats to ease back into balance and routine.

All of that is either portrayed here directly or implied through the knowledge of history and contemporary practice.

Also implied in the painting, and further portrayed with other art in this exhibition, is the fear the sun dance represented to the United States government. To those in charge in Washington, D.C., the sun dance was an uprising to be squashed and further evidence that tribal people had to be contained and discouraged from traditional practice and ritual.


The government banned the dance in 1883, and the ban wasn’t lifted until the 1970s. It remains sacred. Lakota elders have asked non-indigenous people to stay away, and photographs during the four days of dancing are vigorously discouraged, Woster said. Drawing a picture or making a painting is different than taking a photo, she said, because a drawing or painting represents an interpretation of a sacred event and not an attempt to capture it. Such an event transcends one’s ability to truly preserve it, she said. “It’s such a beautiful place to be, in every sense of the word,” she said.

“Two Horsemen,” by an unidentified Lakota artist, ca. 1890, graphite and colored pencil.

The rest of the exhibition provides context for the times of the painting, as well as a contemporary glimpse of indigenous art from the Plains. It includes works by historic and contemporary Lakota, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne artists, including Cannon, Yellow and Wilcox, along with historic depictions by artists of European descent. The exhibition presents both perspectives around the theme of westward expansion or invasion, Goodyear said.

There are historic and contemporary ledger book drawings, diaristic renderings of men on horses in combat and hunting. The drawings present a modern history of Native American pictographic art and its resonance today, Goodyear said.

There also are prints by Euro-American artist George Catlin and French-Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, dating to the Northern Plains in the 1830s.

As a tease to contemporary Indian art, “Art from the Northern Plains” includes that single self-portrait print by Cannon, whose accomplishments and influence are given thorough review in “At the Edge of America” at the Peabody Essex Museum, 100 miles from Portland in Salem. This is the first comprehensive look at Cannon’s paintings since 1990, and the first survey of his work across media. Cannon made no more than 50 to 60 major canvases in a career that began in the 1960s, when he served in Vietnam, and ended in 1978 when he died in a car accident. Thirty-one of those paintings are hanging in Salem.

“Woman of the Snake Tribe, Woman of the Cree Tribe,” by Karl Bodmer, 1839, hand-colored aquatint, etching, mezzotint, roulette. Photos courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

From the Peabody Essex, the show will travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Cannon grew up, and to the National Museum of the American Indian-New York, where Cannon was discovered in 1972. “This exhibition represents a full circle, back to New York,” said Karen Kramer, curator of Native American art at the museum. “It’s nice that he’s getting the kind of New York museum exhibition that he deserves and didn’t have while he was alive.”


There’s a mystery to Cannon’s art that echoes in the Lakota painting of the sun dance from South Dakota in the 1890s. They share a spiritual connection to a greater, deeper truth that’s conveyed in pigments, dramatic and subdued. We know from history what befell the subjects in both of these paintings. But in their moment, these artists expressed their hope for the future and a sacred, spiritual faith.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: