The Sioux were considered one of the most powerful and prosperous tribes on the Plains in Miller’s day. One of the things that brought them such prominence was their wealth in horses and their skill at gathering that resource either through stealth and theft, or by raiding wild herds for fresh mounts. The Sioux proved to be masters at both pursuits.
Miller shows a chief, a trailing feather bonnet adorning his head, organizing a horse-hunting party. He waves his right arm as if directing the other riders which direction they should travel to find the desired quarry. A large pine tree separates the hunting party from the females who are caring for a baby.
A couple of odd elements introduced to this scene by the artist suggest that the picture and the title are not a good match, however. One is the feather bonnet itself. Such a garment would have been used for ceremonial purposes and certainly would not have adorned a gatherer of wild horses. The other is the shield worn by the rider on the left. There would be no use for either that or the quiver full of arrows in such an enterprise.
Peter H. Hassrick
Capturing Wild Horses:
By 1837, the welfare and prosperity of the Plains Indian tribes depended on the mobility provided by their horse-oriented culture. Consequently, ownership of horses equated to wealth and prestige. When it was time to acquire replacement stock the men could either form a raiding party to steal horses or organize a wild horse capturing mission. In this painting Miller depicts the latter scenario. The drawing shows four mounted Sioux (also known as Dakota) warriors gathered in front of a tipi. It is rather curious that Miller elected to show the two more visually prominent warriors carrying bow and arrow quivers rather than lassos or ropes. A warrior wearing a full feathered war bonnet to a horse capturing trek also seems doubtful.
Eagle Feather Bonnet:
In the summer of 1833, Prince Maximillian of Wied traveled up the Missouri River to Fort Union under the auspices of the mighty American Fur Company. During this trip, Maximillian encountered most of the tribes living along this route and recorded many of his observations regarding their customs and cultures. He made these comments after visiting a “Dacota” village: Like all North American Indians, the Dacotas have an especially high regard for bravery … for which reason they wear symbols of their heroic deeds all over their bodies … Anyone who touches a slain enemy under hostile fire sticks a feather horizontally into his hair. For truly outstanding bravery, they receive the big [feathered] war bonnet with buffalo horns, which at most, two men in a village wear.
Lying on the ground in the lower center of the painting is a wooden war club with a spike emanating from the ball head. Just about every Plains warrior carried a club when on a raiding party. The older styled clubs were made with wooden handles and often incorporated knife or lance blades. A wooden ball headed club was used by some Plains tribes but was far more popular with Eastern Woodland tribes. By 1800, warriors were making clubs in a greater variety, usually following the images seen in a vision.
The warrior on the left is holding a shield in his left arm. One of a warrior’s most valued possessions was his shield which typically occupied a place of prominence such as on a tripod in front of the tipi door or on a pole over the place of honor within the lodge. Shields were made from the thickest part of a buffalo bull’s hide. In order to thicken the shield, the rawhide was shrunk by placing it in a pit of hot stones, then pouring water over it. This process was repeated enough to cause the rawhide to double its thickness. Only men who had fasted and received proper instruction were allowed to make a shield. Plains Indian rawhide shields were so effective against arrows that the French called the hide Pare fleche, meaning deflecting arrows.
Mails, Thomas E., The Mystic Warriors of the Plains
Morrow, Mable, Indian Rawhide an American Folk Art
Witte, Stephen S. and Marsha V. Gallagher, eds., The North American Journals of Prince Maximillian of Wied, Vol. 2
LR: Sioux Setting out on an Expedition to Capture Wild Horses
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