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Ever since Captain William Clark, along with his partner Meriwether Lewis, wrapped a newborn Sioux baby in an American flag on July 4,1803, the Native American has had a fascination with the symbol of this new republic.
American flags and the stars and stripes motif can be seen on the artifacts of many tribes across the nation, displayed in beadwork, quillwork, basketry, woven into blankets, and even painted on par fleche.
Flags were often given as gifts of respect and appeasement, or were captured in battle and used as prizes of war. Some of these flags were believed to contain the power of the U.S. government which could be transferred to its new Native American owner. Other flags were treated as sacred objects and kept in medicine bundles. Still others were used as articles of clothing including shawls, shirts and dresses, breechcloths, and even diapers.
To the Lakota, or Western Sioux, the American flag held many complex meanings and uses. Being the greatest producers of “flag art” during the late 1800’s-early 1900’s, the Lakota show the often tenuous and ambivalent relationship that developed between the U.S. and their once sovereign nation. During this reservation period many Sioux traditional ceremonials and dances were banned in an inept attempt to assimilate native peoples into the American culture. One celebration however, that was not only allowed but encouraged, was the Fourth of July celebration. These Fourth of July jubilees were one of a few times when some banned traditional religious practices were tolerated, and became a blending of old and new. Lasting as long as six days, these celebrations included traditional dances, parades, feasting, “Giveaways,” and mock battles between full-blooded Sioux versus mixed bloods and Indian Police. Yet, they also encompassed white contests and activities such as speeches, tug-of-war, potato races, and the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Some theorize that these Fourth of July parties took the place of the outlawed Sun Dance which was usually held in the summer months and featured many of the same traditions that found their way into the Fourth of July event.
However it took root, to the Lakota the Fourth of July became one of the times that they could return to their native ways and as such, the Fourth and its symbol, the American flag, became well respected parts of their life and culture. The more they participated in these types of celebrations that embraced white culture and white symbols, the more these practices were sanctioned by white government.
This strange blending of culture and ideals can be seen in the horse’s mask, covered with flag symbols. Adding a surreal and spectacular quality to the horse, masks of this type many times had ritual connotations, representing religious concepts. They also portrayed the owner’s wealth and were even meant to honor the specific horse wearing it.
As often happened by design, both horse and owner would be decorated with the same motifs showing the importance of the relationship between horse and rider. Here the symbols are the American flag and the hand motif. Both were symbolic references to war and power and bravery. The blue-green and yellow pigment on the warrior’s shirt as well as the scalplocks, signify that the owner is a Lakota Shirt Wearer and is thus a counselor to the acting chiefs and their society police. Some theorize that these shirts, decorated with American flags, showed allegiance to the United States and signified the Shirt Wearer’s authority and ascension to power within both the American and Lakota systems of government.
Today the Lakota still place great importance on the role of the warrior, and preserve this tradition by the only legal way – serving in the U.S. military. When asked why the Lakota carry the American flag in their ceremonies alongside the Eagle Staff and tribal flags, Lynn Burnette, Sr., the founder of the National Native American War Memorial and a member of the Lakota nation replied, “…because we have fought for and died for it. Carrying the flag also shows honor and respect for those men and women who have died for it.