Art of the White Clay People


Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Joe Horse Capture has the unusual distinction of curating a show that features his own great great grandfather.

Joe Horse Capture is the Associate Curator of African, Oceanic and Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Horse Capture has been continuing the work of his father to track down all of the artifacts of his tribe – the A’aninin (the White Clay People) – now scattered to museum collections around the world. Some of the results of his search are now on display at the MIA. Horse Capture says it was a moving experience.

It is a way for me to connect with my ancestors – which happens rarely. And I’m really lucky to be in this position to make those connections.

I stayed pretty objective throughout this entire exhibition, dealing with the objects my ancestors created…until the objects started showing up. This is the first time I’ve seen all of these objects together, out in the open. These used to be ours. And in a certain sense they’re still ours – we don’t have the title, but we have the intellectual property and the emotional connection.

Horse Capture is working on creating a database of all the objects he found, which he plans to copy to cds and send back to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in North Central Montana.

The tribe will be able to see the objects their ancestors created. Because many people don’t ever get to see them – they’re all gone, in museums. So part of this project here at the MIA is we’re not only featuring this exhibition on the White Clay people, but we’re also giving back to their community.


Moccasins, c. 1880-1910

Animal hide, beads

A’ani/Nakoda (Gros Ventre/Assiniboine)

Because the A’aninin are a very small tribe, Horse Capture says their art was influenced by many other tribes they encountered, creating a style that is unique to the region. The exhibition is divided into two rooms – objects created by women, and objects created by men, or for men. Much of the exhibition features moccasins with richly colored beadwork.

I have a real affection for moccasins because as native people were being forced to convert over to western clothing, that’s the last thing they hung onto. You look at these historical photographs – they’ll be wearing these suit coats, and pants and hats, but if you look at their feet, they’re wearing moccasins.


Detail from muslin teepee liner. Image courtesy of the MIA.

Covering one wall of the gallery is an 8′ x 14′ muslin teepee liner decorated with pictographs documenting the feats of warriors. In a rare turn of luck, Horse Capture was able to locate a key made for the pictographs created by the man who originally purchased the piece back in 1903.

Scenes are labelled “F3” or “C2” – the letter corresponds to a person, while the number corresponds to a battle or deed. It’s the scenes G1 and G2 that are of particular interest to Joe Horse Capture.

This is where it gets a little bit kooky…these two are pictures of my great great grandfather Horse Capture. I’ve always seen him in sepia-toned photographs (taken by non-natives) and to now see him as his own people saw him, based on his accomplishments…it’s nice to see those two things come together.

The images depict a warrior in yellow body paint charging on the enemy amidst a hail of bullets. It’s quite different from the stillness in this portrait by Edward Curtis.


Edward S. Curtis, American, 1868-1952

Horse Capture – Atsina, 1908, Photogravure

Joe Horse Capture is a bit of a rarity in that he’s a second-generation Native American museum curator. But he hopes more Native Americans will choose his career path.

One way we can continue our tradition is to care for the objects our ancestors created. I like to think projects like this will encourage young Native American people to think about working in museums. Because in the past we’ve always had non-native anthropologists interpret our ways. And now as we’re incorporating more native people in museums we’re able to tell our own stories. I think this exhibiiton is a good example of that.

“From Our Ancestors: Art of the White Clay People” runs through March 7 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.