Warriors of the Plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter (22 September 2012 to 13 January 2013)

Curated by the anthropologist Max Carocci (Birkbeck College) this wonderful exhibition looks at the warfare and ritual of Native North American Plains culture. Using a variety of ceremonial objects and costumes it shows the importance of warrior society to the men and women of these communities, from 1800 to  the present. Each of these warrior societies was a social, political and ritual group that engaged in warfare and organised ceremonial life and the exhibition includes feather headdresses, shields, moccasins, painted hides, scalps, pipes, tomahawks, and traditional and contemporary dress. Exeter has one of the best collections of this material in the U.K. (examples are on permanent display in the ‘World Cultures’ galleries) and it was very appropriate that the British Museum chose to work in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and bring this exhibition to a West Country audience.

Inter-tribal conflict was suppressed by the U.S. government which, of course, fought its own wars against Native peoples west of the Mississippi throughout the 19th century. One might have presumed that the warrior societies and the ceremonial activity they supported would die away once the west was ‘won’ and along with them the ritual and deep spirituality that had sustained them. But in fact they have endured into modern times and now support those who have served with U.S. forces in the world wars and more recent conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This continuation of a long-standing tradition is a very good example of what the Native American (Anishinaabe) scholar and activist Gerald Vizenor has termed survivance – the word is a combination of ‘survival’ and ‘resistance’- by which he means not merely the retention of Native American culture against the odds but also, and just as importantly, a means of escaping the stereotypical understanding of the American Indian as a victim of colonial oppression, whose culture is marked today only by absence, powerlessness and historical tragedy. Survivance, instead, highlights the Indian’s contemporary presence, the articulation of indigenous character and culture in new contexts and, insofar as current social and political contexts permit it, a readiness to assert tribal values in the contemporary world.

A section of the displays, Once a Warrior, added specially by RAMM, was produced by servicemen and women based in this region. Their recorded voices and artwork reflect on the parallels between Native American Warrior Societies and their own military experience.