Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Painting Tradition: Black War Bonnet Pattern

Painting the Black War Bonnet Society motif. The pattern is penciled in, then painted. 
Wičhóȟ’aŋ Itówapi
The Painting Tradition

By Dakota Wind
BISMARCK, N.D. – The Black Warbonnet Society of the Thíthuŋwaŋ Lakȟóta people was an elite warrior society in the late nineteenth century. Members and especially the leader of this group would paint a special symmetrical and geometrical pattern that represented birth, the road of life, and death, within two concentric patterns of “feathers.” Owners, and sometimes wearers, of these extravagantly painted robes, believed that the pattern – even the execution of the pattern – was good medicine and protected the owner.

The major color scheme of the Black War Bonnet Society pattern is almost overwhelmingly black for a reason. Black represents west, the thunder beings, bravery, and death. Placing black patterned with white represented feathers in this headdress, but also a balance of life and death.

Members of this warrior society would also paint their pattern upon bison skulls and shields. Variations of the Black War Bonnet pattern could be found on the robes of other tribal nations too. 

The bison robe measures about 38 feet square. It is a winter bull hide; the fur side is full of soft thick fur. 

In the pre-reservation era, the pattern was associated with Woóhitika, the traditional Lakȟóta value of bravery. After the post-reservation era began, and into contemporary times, the pattern became associated with Wóitȟaŋčhaŋ, the values of leadership and service, though these values often went hand-in-glove with bravery.

The most popular execution of the Black War Bonnet design today on bison hides was featured in Thomas E. Mails’ “Mystic Warriors Of The Plains,” which in itself is based on an actual painted robe. It is often recreated in almost clinical detail on shields, bison skulls, and bison robes with little to no variation. 

This sundog appeared above the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in Fort Yates, N.D.

Early last year, my lekší Cedric, shared the wonderful story of the sundog, which the Lakȟóta call Wíačhéič’ithi, or “The Sun Makes A Campfire For Itself.” The Lakȟóta word, Wíačhéič’ithi, also refers to the ring that sometimes appears around the moon, which signifies a change in weather. 

"...a new interpretation of the Black War Bonnet design, one of hope and light..."

The story of the how the sundog came to be and the stories of the sun, who wore a fiery headdress, bring to mind a new interpretation of the Black War Bonnet design, one of hope and light, and I decided to paint one.

The Black War Bonnet Society design is nearly finished. 

The pattern calls for a "road" running between three medicine wheels. The medicine wheel represents the four cardinal directions, the four winds, four stages in life, and the four great Lakȟóta values: Wóohitike (Bravery), Wówačhaŋtognaka (Generosity), Waúŋšila (Compassion), and Wóksape (Wisdom). There are, of course, more than four virtues, and this is just an example. 

The three medicine wheels in this case represent birth, life, and death. The Black War Bonnet Society motif is arranged around the center wheel. The popular execution of the pattern involves using yellow. I've substituted red in place of yellow in this case. 

White has been added to the pattern. White is said to represent anything from purity of spirit to life, or the north direction. 

The two concentric tracks of feathers represent the headdress. In this re-examination of the pattern, the center medicine wheel represents the sun, the two flanking medicine wheels represent the campfires.

The painted hide is finished after a red border accents the edge. 

The entire pattern is flanked by eight "fans." A red border represents the life and wisdom. The entire project was carried out and finished over the summer of 2014. Each time I set up and painted in the back yard, I was blessed to hear songs from Tȟašíyagmuŋka (the Western Meadowlark) and Wakíŋyela (the Mourning Dove), and one morning in particular, a Tȟašíyagmuŋka landed next to my paint and sang, as if to ask, "Tȟaŋháŋši, taku huwo [Cousin, what are you doing?]?"

My experience of painting this bison robe is varied, from sitting at an improvised table in the golden light of an early summer morning, watching my paint dry on a hot mid-summer afternoon, to enjoying a cool cloudless windy evening under a dark azure sky. Through it all, birds shared their songs, and no matter the day or time, I was never once pestered by mosquitoes. I would do it again. 

Support an enrolled member of a federal tribe, support an artist. View it in person for yourself. It is on display at the Five Nations Arts in Mandan, N.D. 


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  2. What incredible talent you have as an artist and a writer. May God continue to bless you my young brother.