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8.4-8.5.7 Indian Utensils and arms

Illustrations by Karl Bodmer of objects collected by Prince Maximillian to accompany the text of his atlas documenting their travels.
Bodmer, Karl
Circa 1836-1841

Bodmer, Karl, Indian utensils and arms, VAULT oversize Graff 4649, Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection, Newberry Library,

Karl Bodmer (1809 – 1893), a Swiss-French artist, accompanied Prince Maximilian of Wied, a German prince and explorer, on a journey up the Missouri River in 1832 – 1834. The expedition followed the route Lewis and Clark had taken nearly three decades earlier. As the artist hired by Maximilian, Bodmer captured towns and cities, rivers and other natural features, and the Native Americans whom the expedition met. This is one of Bodmer’s most highly regarded paintings from the journey, entitled Indian Utensils and Arms. 


As you examine the Native objects in the painting, keep in mind how they might have been viewed differently by Native Americans and by Europeans like Bodmer and Prince Maximilian. To European eyes, these objects might have appeared to be “artifacts” — implying something that is old, or a “dead” historical relic, however interesting. But for Native Americans, the same items could likely possess spiritual meaning. They could be everyday objects with practical uses, yet at the same time have sacred meaning and require the humans who use them to treat them in particular ways.


What Native American–crafted objects can you see here? 

All of these objects were essential to the way of life and/or culture of Great Plains Native Americans. How would you go about learning about their uses and cultural importance — including who made the objects, and who used them? Would you look to written sources? Talk to current members of the tribe? If the latter, how might you build a relationship, such that the person would be willing to teach / share information with an outsider to their culture? What barriers to such an effort might exist?


The transcription for this source — taken from the website of the Newberry Library in Chicago — lists the objects in the painting. Bodmer apparently blended objects from different Native American cultures here: the Sioux, the Mandan, and the Iroquois (whose homeland is in the Northeast, not on the Great Plains).

We do not know the particulars of how Maximilian collected the objects, or how he communicated with the Native American people from whom he obtained them. Did they have interpreters? Did Maximilian pay — or barter — what Natives would have regarded as fair compensation for these beautiful objects? We do know that the Maximilian / Bodmer expedition spent a significant period of time among Native people, and possessed genuine interest in their cultures. For example, during their expedition up the Missouri River, the Europeans spent the winter of 1833 – 1834 at Fort Clark, a fur-trading post north of present Bismarck, North Dakota. While there, Maximilian met elders and warriors of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and interviewed them. Likely he acquired/purchased at least some of the objects pictured here (and in other Bodmer paintings) that winter, and at other stops during their 14-month journey west of St. Louis (March 1833 – May 1834). 

In addition to considering the questions posed in the student section, students might examine cultural bias in the painting. German culture held a fascination for Native American peoples from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, often idealizing them — particularly Great Plains tribes such as those Maximilian met — as simple “noble savages” who resisted the incursions of European and American settlers. Coming from a European perspective, might this work of art have any limitations or blind spots about how it views Native American cultures? Would the painting be a fuller portrayal of the Indigenous cultures Maximilian met if it included people? (However, these issues may be difficult for students to discern from the painting alone.) 



Illustration by Karl Bodmer from Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America, published in Germany in 1839-41. Maximilian, a German prince and explorer, commissioned Swiss artist Bodmer to accompany him on an expedition up the Missouri River in 1832-34.
Depicts a variety of objects acquired by Prince Maximillian from Great Plains Indian communities. Objects include Sioux and Iroquois moccasins, quill-decorated otter skin, bows, an eagle-feather war bonnet, a double-goose-bone war whistle, a hair roach, a Sioux pipe, painted rawhide storage bag, a Mandan hoop-and-pole game item, a lance, a pipe temper, ceremonial drum, pipe with eagle feathers, cloth, horsehair and woodpecker bills, a stone knife and an elaborate warshield, and medicine bundles.