The dragonfly motif in Plains Indian art.
The Indian peoples of the North American Plains lived a life in close communion with the natural world. Each manifestation of Nature had a special significance in their ceremonial and religious life, and even the most inconspicuous of creatures was accorded a place in their traditional worldview.
To many Plains tribes, even the insect world was regarded with awe and respect. To the Sioux, dragonflies were seen as one of the many wakan or mysterious elements of the creation. [Walker: 101]. Referred to in Lakota language as susweca, (pronounced 'sus-way-cha'), they were respected for their lightness of body and swiftness in flight, and are difficult to kill. Moreover, as they hover close to the ground they form a cloud of dust, obscuring them from view. [Maurer: 140]
Interestingly, the old-time Cheyenne considered dragonflies and other winged insects to be species of birds rather than insects. They observed the way in which blue dragonflies would gather to hunt for food in summertime, forming vortex-like swarms, likened to a whirlwind. According to Cheyenne tradition, the power of the whirlwind was invoked to confuse the mind of an enemy. For this reason, the Cheyenne word for the dragonfly, tewo'witus (alternatively spelt hevo'vetas), is the same as for a whirlwind. [Grinnell: 112). To the Cheyenne, still water symbolized death. Because the dragonfly nymph emerges from still water and takes to the air, dragonflies symbolized protection from death.
Understandably, the physical and spiritual attributes of the dragonfly were thought of as desirable by warriors when facing the enemy in warfare. In old times, some warriors painted their bodies, as well as their war ponies, with stylized representations of dragonflies, the protective power of this creature thus enabling them to move swiftly and escape enemies' bullets and arrows. Similar designs were also painted on the bodies of certain male participants in the Medicine Lodge, the Cheyenne midsummer Sun Dance.
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A whole range of items associated with warfare was also decorated with painted dragonfly motifs--from shields and shield covers to warbonnet trailers. Some Cheyenne men wore special cut-out rawhide amulets as part of their war medicine. These were fashioned in the shape of a dragonfly, or alternatively a butterfly, and were tied in the hair, at the back of the head. German silver hair ornaments and even earrings were also made in the form of dragonflies.
Additionally, domestic articles such as tipi covers and painted rawhide parfleches were painted with representations of dragonflies. These vary in form from the extremely simplistic to the naturalistic. The simplest of examples, as shown in Diagram 1a, consists of a double-armed cross--a long, narrow vertical line, representing the body, with paired shorter horizontals, suggesting the dragonfly's double set of wings. In other cases, the head is represented as a circle or an oval, the body terminating in a bifurcated tail. (Diagram1b). More complex variations even depict antennae to the head, and so-called 'heart lines' within the body, reflecting the creature's great power. (Diagram1c).
The second half of the nineteenth century, when Plains Indian peoples were forcibly settled on government reservations, saw an efflorescence of beadwork art among many Plains tribes, including the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Whereas representational painted designs were the preserve of men, often connected with warrior exploits, beadwork was almost exclusively produced by women.
Maintaining the conventional symbolism of the dragonfly motif, Native women from these groups began using dragonfly designs on a range of beaded articles such as tobacco bags, dress yokes, vests, leggings and moccasins. Dragonflies and other winged insects are a common design feature on fully-beaded Sioux dress yokes, the solidly beaded blue background symbolizing the sky, against which the creatures were represented in flight. Men's buckskin leggings were adorned with beaded dragonfly designs, often in combination with circles, another common protective device. On beaded moccasins, the dragonfly motif presumably ensured stealth and surefootedness in battle, or on the dance ground.
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As in the case of painted versions, beaded dragonflies vary in their level of complexity. The simplest of representations takes the form of the double-armed cross, consisting of a slender linear body, (generally suggested by a single lane of lane-stitch), crossed by two shorter lanes suggesting the four wings. (Diagram 2a). More complex renditions involve the addition of a circular, oval, square, triangular or diamond-shaped head, a bifurcated tail, or crescent-shaped paired wings.
Such designs formed part of a rich and evolving repertoire of pictographic designs which became popular with Central Plains beadworkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Harking back to an earlier tradition of painted depictions of warrior exploits, the beaded versions, born out of a nostalgia for the old warrior days, were used in combination with an equally complex range of geometric units. In addition to mounted horsemen, large mammals, warrior society figures, pipes, horse tracks etc, they also include protective and otherwise symbolic motifs such as lizards, spiders, spider webs, butterflies and moths.
Painted versions of these pictorial designs, including dragonflies, again became popular when, in the late 1880s, the Sioux and several other Plains groups took up the Ghost Dance cult in a frustrated attempt to bring about a return of the old buffalo hunting ways. This messianic movement, introduced to the Plains via a Paiute prophet named Wovoka from Nevada, involved the wearing of muslin shirts and dresses, painted with protective devices which would render the wearers immune to the white men's bullets. (Fig. 2). Muslin shields, also associated with the Ghost Dance, were decorated with the same style of painted protective designs.
The beautifully made beaded hair barrette illustrated in Fig. 5 was made by the Northern Cheyenne beadworker, Rachel Magpie. Made in the form of a dragonfly, it is worn at the back of the head by contemporary female dancers as part of traditional powwow regalia, and bears testimony to the survival of traditional Plains Indian symbolic art forms to the present day.
The author would like to thank Nico Strange Owl of Allenspark, Colorado, for kind permission to use the photograph of the beaded hair barrette (Fig. 5) made by her aunt, Rachel Magpie.. Also, Peter Bowles of Los Angeles, California, and Peter Durkin of Houston, Texas, for their valuable assistance in researching examples of Plains artifacts decorated with beaded dragonfly motifs in U.S. museum collections.
This article is reprinted from 'Of Wings and Things', published by the Bead Society of Great Britain, 2005.
Durkin, Peter. (1999). "Dragonfly Symbolism Among the Cheyenne and Dakota", Whispering Wind, 30:1, pp.4-10.
Grinnell, George Bird. (1972). The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life, (vol.II). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. (Reproduced from the first edition published by Yale University Press, 1923).
Maurer, Evan M. (1992). Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Walker, James R (1980). Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.