Lakota Exhibit at the Peabody Museum (Harvard)

From the Crimson:

Metal arm bands are neatly arranged by a pipe bag underneath a looming five-foot portrait of its owner: Sitting Bull, the former Lakota Sioux holy war chief who famously led the Lakota and Cheyenne troops to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Nearby, old arrows are suspended in mid-air—as if shooting out from a propped bow—under an airbrushed banner depicting “thunderbirds,” mythological messengers of thunderstorms revered by Lakota members as spiritual sources for energy in battle.

Last April, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University opened an exhibit called “Wiyohpiyata,” Lakota for “west,” which alludes to the tribe’s idea that thunderstorms originate in the west; to the cultural belief that thunderstorms fuel warfare; and to bloody Western expansion. The center of gravity for the exhibit is a ledger inscribed with the work of several Lakota artists. The ledger—which has been in the possession of Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s and was only discovered to be of artistic value five years ago—contains seventy-seven color drawings of Lakota war exploits, several of which are displayed alongside ancient artifacts and contemporary art pieces.

While each of these artifacts tells a story—in the case of one drawing, the tale of a Native American warrior who rescued his friend in combat—the exhibit itself is the product of an intricate interweaving of stories and cross-cultural negotiations. The product of a 30-year friendship between Peabody Museum Associate Curator of North American Ethnography Castle McLaughlin and Lakota tribe member Butch Thunder Hawk, the Wiyohpiyata exhibit explores the tribe’s culture and traditions with genuine Lakota perspective.

“Together we wanted to come up with the key Lakota concepts that would form the backbone of the exhibits and [decide] how to best express those concepts,” McLaughlin said.

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