The American flag may seem to be an odd choice of imagery to be used by tribes that clashed violently with the American government for years, but the use of flags in plains beadwork became a common sight beginning c. 1880. Almost forty tribes from various areas used the flag in their work. However, from 1880-1910 at the height of flag imagery, the Lakota produced the overwhelming amount of items with US flag motifs.
The Lakota, who fought against the flag, now used the image of the flag on their belongings to show that they were no longer a threat, but peaceful people. By wearing the flag, it is believed that there may have been a subconscious link of solidarity that non-natives would make with the Native Americans who were wearing the flag, thus hopefully preventing even more mistreatment and mistrust by the non-natives to the Natives.
Another reason for the increased use of the flag may have had to do with a bit of “sleight of hand” distraction on the part of Native Americans. During the early reservation period virtually all traditional cultural practices were discouraged or banned outright. However, during the increasingly popular 4th of July celebrations, these rules were relaxed and Native Americans were allowed to once again practice some of their traditional dances, feasts, giveaways, battle recreations, etc.
It may have been that the more “patriotic” the non-natives saw Native Americans being, i.e. wearing and displaying the flag, the less threatened they were by traditional practices being conducted out in the open. In this way the flag could act as a show of assimilation, while also acting as a distraction from Native Americans keeping traditional aspects of their culture alive. Flags were prominently featured on objects that were made specifically to be worn or given away during 4th of July celebrations.
Organized by the Wyoming State Museum.
Artifacts from the permanent collection of the Wyoming State Museum.
Dukin, Peter J. “The American flag tipi honoring the past.” Whispering Wind, July 1, 1987.
Herbst, Toby, and Joel Kopp. The Flag in American Indian Art. University of Washington Press, 1993.
Kelley, Tina. “The View From/Ledyard; The Flag Shows Up in American Indian Art.” The New York Times, November 28, 1999.
Logan, Michael H.; Schmittou, Douglas A. “The changing symbolism of flags in Plains Indian cultures.” Whispering Wind, March 1, 2008.
Logan, Michael H.; Schmittou, Douglas A. “Fluidity of Meaning: Flag Imagery in Plains Indian Art.” American Indian Quarterly,Vol. 26, No.4 (Autumn, 2002): 559-604.
Powers, William K. “The American Flag in Lakota Art: An Ecology of Signs.” Whispering Wind, August 31, 1996.