“Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Beyond Feathered War Bonnets”

The following is an excerpt from Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote’s “Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era”. In this in-depth interdisciplinary study, Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote reveals how Kiowa people drew on the tribe’s rich history of expressive culture to assert its identity at a time of profound challenge. Examining traditional forms such as beadwork, metalwork, painting, and dance, Tone-Pah-Hote argues that their creation and exchange were as significant to the expression of Indigenous identity and sovereignty as formal political engagement and policymaking. These cultural forms, she argues, were sites of contestation as well as affirmation, as Kiowa people used them to confront external pressures, express national identity, and wrestle with changing gender roles and representations.

Tone-Pah-Hote’s “Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era” was featured recently on our Native American Heritage Month reading list.

Figure 2 shows a man and a women riding together with a pack animal saddled with a parfleche container. Though subtly rendered, this image focuses on warfare, a subject frequently depicted by Kiowa men in the late nineteenth century. Details within the drawing itself illustrate that warfare touched the lives of both men and women. At times, women traveled with their husbands on military expeditions. Sometimes a woman left to go on a war party with a paramour to escape a heated situation at home, especially if she was married, a scenario that commonly caused discord among individuals and families. Yet, Michael Paul Jordan, an anthropologist, found that other women joined war parties “to avenge a relative who died at the hands of the enemy.” The figures in the drawing are prepared for combat. The man is armed with a bow quiver made of cloth or a dark hide with the fur side showing. The woman carries a gun tucked into the girth of her saddle. Women had good reason to be armed on such excursions because they could be casualties or captives taken in war.

The goods and objects the artist renders in this drawing emphasize the fruits of warfare and exchange, men’s prerogatives in nineteenth-century Kiowa society. During the nineteenth century, as Candace Greene has pointed out, a Kiowa man’s “only route to status and success was the war path.” Military expeditions were the way that men generated the wealth and horses to facilitate trade and exchange. Warfare certainly had economic elements, but it possessed greater significance as well. During the nineteenth century, Kiowa people lived in a region that was an ever-changing landscape of political and military alliances that shifted over the course of the century. They fought to protect their families as well as the herds of horses they raised, traded, and raided for. In the words of the historian Brian DeLay, in the 1830s and 1840s, both Comanche and Kiowas “were fighting to win honor, avenge fallen comrades, and grow rich.”

The woman depicted in figure 2 mirrors the man’s style and pose in the saddle, and her clothing provides important clues for her social standing and context in this image. She wears a red-sleeved dress, which marks her high social position. Cloth dresses became all the rage before the 1870s, and her dress reflects the ability of her family to acquire the cloth she wears. The red and black contrast with the white edge of her sleeves. She wears boots painted in yellow, red, and green pigments that Kiowa women often featured in their regalia before and after the reservation era. Her fine clothing is another indication that this drawing focuses on warfare. As Jordan found, women wore their best clothes for war. The pack animal follows the couple bearing a parfleche bag, which would have been painted by a woman who began to cultivate her talent for abstract painting as a young person, learning from an expert teacher how to make and paint parfleche.

Anonymous Kiowa drawing of man and woman riding horses and leading a pack animal that is carrying a parfleche, ca. 1875–1877. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NAA INV 0867900.
FIGURE 2 Anonymous Kiowa drawing of man and woman riding horses and leading a pack animal that is carrying a parfleche, ca. 1875–1877. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NAA INV 0867900.

They are a well-dressed couple, suggesting their wealth and power in Kiowa society. Kiowas participated in trade networks that stretched the breadth of the continent—networks that encompassed many Native and non-Native peoples. The drawing also offers us a glimpse into a material world derived from a state of achievement and plenty, prior to the reservation era. Both horses wear German silver bridles that emphasize the riders’ status. The riders use Western-style saddles, indicating the vast number of Western objects that Kiowas circulated and incorporated into their lives by the 1870s. He wears painted leggings, with blue tabs and lines suggesting the maroon mescal beans that often adorned buckskin clothing in the nineteenth century. These leggings display the skill of the woman who possessed the knowledge and ability to sew, paint, and outfit him in this grand manner. He wears a bone breastplate, common in men’s dress. A hair ornament and feathers complete his outfit.

The man who made this drawing emphasizes women’s skills even as the content of the drawing relates to warfare. The artist renders the prerogatives and paths to prestige in Kiowa society, which were complementary. The drawing illustrates and is evidence of gendered art production. A woman painted the parfleche bag and completed the beadwork that both wear. Women tanned and sewed hides from animals that men hunted. For women, “industrial skill,” including the arts, was a source of respect. Drawings on hide or paper, however, reflected the events and accomplishments of Kiowa warriors. Men made representational drawings that rendered their own stories on hides, and later on paper. The narratives of a man’s exploits in war and love belonged to him alone, though he might choose another with a fine hand to render a drawing of his accomplishments. Painting and drawing of representational images belonged in the domain of Kiowa men, who shared their exploits with brothers, friends, and others in public spaces and in the more private domains of military society gatherings.

Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote (Kiowa) is assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.