Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 131-45.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


It may seem but a short leap from the earliest red, white, and black markings on rock walls to the sophisticated abstract expressionism of contemporary Native American art, and only a small· step from geometric designs painted on hides to hard-edge geometric forms on canvas, but the development of Plains Indian painting from prehistoric times to the twentieth century is a journey from the Stone Age to the Nuclear Age, from tribal to urban society. Plains Indian painting reflects the historical and geographical diversity of the region as well as the pluralistic culture of modern Native Americans. It is an interesting commentary on American attitudes toward Indians, however, that more attention has been paid to paintings produced and used in tribal society than to contemporary Indian art. Differences in tribal painting styles have been identified and described, but little attention has been directed toward documenting current differences in regional art styles. The reasons for this neglect are many, but perhaps the greatest is a belief that modern Indian art is so Euro-American in form and content that it has lost its distinctive identity as Indian. Certainly, Native Americans who have moved into the national urban art scene produce pictures that are almost indistinguishable from the work of their non-Indian contemporaries, but these individuals represent only a small proportion of Indian artists. Contemporary painting, as it is practiced by artists who live on or near reservations in the Great Plains, is a complex synthesis of tribal traditions, Euro-American influences, and individual visions that cannot be categorized simply as modern. Although general trends in Plains Indian painting can be identified, different events and varied traditional cultures have produced an art with considerable temporal and geographical diversity.


Rock art, consisting of painted or engraved human, animal, and symbolic figures dating from prehistoric to early historic times, is found throughout the periphery of the plains, wherever there are boulders or rock surfaces large enough to serve as easels. It is difficult to date rock art with any accuracy, but comparisons to hide paintings, analysis of overlapping figures, observation of weathering and erosion, and the presence of horses and guns in some works help to provide some idea of the temporal progression of styles. One rock art motif, the shield, which occurs from prehistoric to historic times, shows changes in size and decoration, and the way in which the human figure is depicted becomes more skillful with the passage of time.

For the most part, studies of rock art have been concerned with recording examples and establishing relative chronologies, but a few scholars have noticed that rock art painting styles differ from place to place. A particular form of human figure with a V-shaped body from which a long neck topped by a round head emerges is widespread in the northern. plains, while the shield-bearing warrior motif has a more limited distribution in Montana and northern Wyoming.

Some characteristics of rpck art, such as a lack of perspective, the treatment of the rock surface as a series of individual canvases with figures superimposed on each other, little concern with relative size or scale, and an emphasis on a.ctivity, continued into recent times. The purpose of these paintings is not known, but it seems likely that some were religiously motivated and others served as a means of communication. Abstract forms may relate to vision quests or hunting magic, while some of the animal scenes may indicate places where game could be found or the location of hunting camps. In later plains art, the message-bearing aspect was very important.