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.
Belt (1944/1944)Wyoming State Museum
This belt was made by an Arapaho girl for her non-native classmate at Thermopolis High School in 1944.
Many tribes decorated items they planned to sell to non-natives with US flags because they sold well. Overall, this does not appear to be the case with the Lakota. Their work was made to be used by them.
Numerous theories surround the use of the flag motif, and unfortunately there is no historical record as to why Native Americans adopted this symbol. It is believed that the meaning and purpose behind the use of the flag changed over time from first contact, to open warfare, to the early reservation period, and into the present.
The artifacts in the Wyoming State Museum’s collection primarily date from the early reservation period, with a few examples coming from as late as the 1940s
Purse (1890/1904)Wyoming State Museum
Beaders were not worried about exact replication of the flag. Stars were usually represented by crosses.
Belt Belt (1890/1929)Wyoming State Museum
The canton (blue section) was often extended beyond its natural position.
While early on the flag itself was seen as a status symbol attained by a great statesman or an accomplished warrior, the early reservation period (1880-1910) saw the use of flag imagery take on new meaning. The fact that the Lakota, who bitterly resisted the US military, were the predominate users of flag imagery, while tribes such as the Crow, who generally sided with and scouted for the US military, rarely used flags in their personal belongings seems counterintuitive. The theory behind this discrepancy revolves around the flag being seen as a symbol of safety and compliance.
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.
Bag (1890/1904)Wyoming State Museum
Howard Bad Hand, Lakota said, “History shows that a conquered people will adapt something, a symbol or some material representation, from their captors to maintain a sense of being or identity that helps them survive.”
The flag was not the only federalist image used by Native Americans. Eagles, shields, and bunting were also used.
Vest Vest (1890/1904)Wyoming State Museum
Some believe that the rise of the “Wild West” show and its flair for glamour and patriotism helped increase the flag motif.
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.
Mantle, Horse (1890/1904)Wyoming State Museum
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.
Horse masks such as this were often made to be given away at 4th of July celebrations.
Horses were often highly decorated during 4th of July celebrations.
There was a tradition of making elaborate gifts for children and infants during these 4th of July celebrations as well, possibly accounting for the large number of children’s items decorated with flags.
The flag is currently seen as a reflection of the continued warrior society of the Native American people. This however, did not become the case until WWI when a large number of Native American men joined the military. Today, if a person is wearing an American flag on such things as dance regalia, it often means that he/she is serving or has served in the US military, or is the close family member of someone who has served.
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.