This is a picture of true angst and anguish. Miller has portrayed a scene of helpless despair in which Indian wives watch a battlefield below, observing the course of a melee and, for the unfortunate ones, seeing their spouses or loved ones injured or killed. They gesture and stare or buckle over with grief at the sight of the distant action.
Plains Indians were noted for their bellicose cultures. The Sioux, for example, proudly considered themselves a warrior society, and practiced inter-tribal warfare as a normal course of life and livelihood. The men gained stature for their success as soldiers and the women were pawns in the established martial order.
Miller evidently did not find this theme to be particularly appealing to his patrons. No finished works are known to have resulted from this sketch. It has been equated with works like Last of Their Race by Miller’s contemporary, John Mix Stanley, which suggest that all Indians are doomed to extinction. (Conrads, 130)
Peter H. Hassrick
Plains Indian Warfare:
Some Plains Indian tribes were more warlike than others though most maintained traditional enemies. For example, the Crow and Blackfeet, or the Arikara and the Sioux, were perpetual adversaries who conducted many battles over the centuries. At the time of Miller’s painting, the Snakes were at war with the Eutaws, Crows, and Blackfeet, so it is quite likely Miller received the idea for this canvas from some of the Snake Indians he met in 1837. The women in this painting are positioned with a good vantage point to observe the carnage of the battle.
There were two reasons for warriors to venture into enemy territory; one was a raiding party with the sole purpose of stealing horses, the other was a war party with the goal to avenge some perceived wrong inflicted by an enemy tribe or just to keep an enemy weak and at bay. The leader of a raid or war party was known as the pipe holder. This pipe carrier would have been a veteran of several raids, familiar with the enemy’s territory and land marks. Once the war party met the rival tribe, the two respective leaders would ride out to taunt each other while the main bodies formed battle lines behind them. Such provoking might go on for hours before the first blow was rendered. Once engaged, the first round was usually firing at a distance followed by a clash of forces in which hand-to-hand combat ensued. Each warrior rode into to fight singing his sacred war song and rendering a war hoop.
Quill and Bead Embroidery:
Most of the women seem to be wearing traditional buckskin dresses, and the women at the center appears to have a beaded or quilled disc decorating the center of her dress. The two women with their heads hidden are also cloaked with red and blue blankets.
Unique to Native Americans, the art of quill embroidery developed as a method to decorate clothing and other dearly held items. Quills used were primarily taken from porcupines, however occasionally bird quills were also used. This craft was performed exclusively by women and designs used came to these quill workers via dreams. Thus, the designs used in quill work were thought of as personal property and not allowed to be copied. Porcupine quills varied in size with the largest ones coming from the animal’s tail. Most of the Plains tribes preferred to work with these larger quills, using a variety of vegetable and mineral substances to make dyes. Before dying, the barbed end of the quill would be snipped off. This allowed the dye to penetrate the quill’s hollow body. After being washed, dyed, and sorted, quills were stored in containers made from animal bladders or rawhide. The techniques used to embroider the quills include wrapping, two thread sewing, and weaving. By the time Miller visited Native Americans of the Rocky Mountains, glass bead embroidery was gradually replacing quill work. Trade beads were readily available in the mountains by 1837 and were offered in various sizes and colors. The women of each tribe eventually developed certain preferences as to bead size, color, and shape. This led to styles, patterns and bead colors unique to each tribe so that the tribal origin of a beaded garment could often be determined by the colors of the beads and patterns used.
For Further Reading:
Hail, Barbara A., Hau, Kola!
Mails, Thomas E., Mystic Warriors of the Plains
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013