Art of the Apsaalooka
The horse evolved millions of years ago in North America and migrated across the Bering land bridge (now the Bering Strait) into Asia and beyond. But around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age, horses became extinct in North America. Not until the 16th century did they reappear, brought by Spanish explorers who hoped to conquer the New World.
Horses escaped from the explorers and ran loose, multiplying and spreading across the continent. Native American tribes on the Great Plains, who were using dogs to pull their loads, quickly saw the value of horses and began to tame them. This new animal would change their way of life.
KEY IDEA ONE
A New Era on the Plains
A woman at an Apsaalooka campsite with horses.
The Apsaalooka were nomads, traveling from one campsite to another as they followed the buffalo, their main source of food. Hunting buffalo on foot was slow and difficult work. On horseback, tracking and hunting the buffalo that sustained their lives was easier. With horses, the Apsaalooka traveled farther and faster, expanding their territory and defending it. Before they had horses, they used dogs to help move their possessions from place to place. Using horses to carry things, the Apsaalooka were able to acquire more belongings. And they developed and refined the arts for which they are celebrated: horsemanship and beadwork.
Apsaalooka men on horseback.
Apsaalooka woman on horseback overlooking a campsite
KEY IDEA TWO
Honoring the Horse
A horse with traditional Apsaalooka tack and trappings.
Horse tack is the gear used for horseback riding. It includes the saddle and bridle and various straps. A strap called a crupper, attached to the saddle, loops under the horse’s tail to keep the saddle from slipping forward. Another strap, the martingale, prevents the horse from throwing its head back. The Apsaalooka often adorned these items with beadwork.
Horse trappings are decorative coverings of various kinds. Carefully designed and skillfully made trappings were created for special horses. The forehead ornament was a tribute to the horse’s courage. Shaped to resemble a human figure, it represents the success and bravery of the horse in time of war. Apsaalooka horse trappings are heavily ornamented with beadwork, bells, and other decoration.
Horses often carried objects used in hunting or traveling. Lance cases held a hunter’s spears. A cradleboard could be attached to the saddle to hold a baby during the tribe’s travels. A wedding blanket, given at the time of marriage, kept the rider warm and provided portection in bad weather. Traditionally, the Apsaalooka decorated many of these items with exquisite beadwork and natural materials like wood and animal hair.
This forehead ornament honored the courage of the horse that wore it.
Wedding blanket decorated with beaded stripes and bells
KEY IDEA THREE
Traditions through Time
Typical bead colors and designs in Apsaalooka work
The geometric patterns, color combinations, and beading techniques used by the Apsaalooka give their work a unique style that sets it apart from beadwork by other Plains tribes. The Apsaalooka are known for choosing shapes such as the triangle and using pink, light blue, and green beads. They are also famous for creating beaded white outlines that make their designs look three-dimensional.
Apsaalooka women use a technique called spot-stitch. Working on fabric or leather, they use two threaded needles. They string one thread with several beads and lay it in position on the cloth or hide. With the other, they stitch the beaded thread in place. Stitches are made at even intervals, every few beads. The result is a beaded surface so smooth you can’t tell where the beads are attached. This technique is also good for creating large areas of solid beadwork.
Spot-stitched beads lie flat and smooth. White outlining makes the design on this forehead ornament stand out from the yellow background.
History of the Horse
Learn more about the origins and history of the horse at the American Museum of Natural History’s site The Horse.
Life As We Know It
What events or conveniences have changed the way we live our everyday lives? (Cars, grocery stores, telephones, computers) What kinds of inventions or improvements can we expect in the 21st century? How will they change our daily lives? Write about what you think the future might hold for us.
The Arts of Native America
Search Mia’s website to see the diverse range of Native art from across the continents of North and South America. Take a closer look at the art of the Plains. What are some recurring themes? Compare your favorite Plains artwork with a Native American artwork from another area of North America. Come visit the museum to see Native American art, including many artworks by contemporary artists. Want to come as a school group? Request a tour using our online form.