Art of the Apsaalooka

Lance Case

Apsaalooka (Crow)
Horse trappings
19th-21st century
Minneapolis Institute of Art


The horse evolved millions of years ago in North America and migrated across the Bering land bridge (now the Bering Strait) into Asia and beyond. But around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age, horses became extinct in North America. Not until the 16th century did they reappear, brought by Spanish explorers who hoped to conquer the New World.

Horses escaped from the explorers and ran loose, multiplying and spreading across the continent. Native Americans on the Great Plains, who were using dogs to pull their loads, quickly saw the value of horses and began to tame them. This new animal would change their way of life.

Key Idea One

A New Era on the Plains

The arrival of the horse greatly benefited the Native Americans of the Great Plains and quickly changed their way of life. One tribe that made the horse an especially important part of its culture was the Apsaalooka. The name means people of the black-beaked bird, and the Apsaalooka are also known as the Crow. Today the Apsaalooka still live on the northern Plains, in south-central Montana, and the horse remains central to their traditions.

The Apsaalooka were nomads, traveling from one campsite to another as they followed the buffalo, their main source of food. Hunting buffalo on foot was slow and difficult work. On horseback, tracking and hunting the buffalo that sustained their lives was easier. With horses, the Apsaalooka traveled farther and faster, expanding their territory and defending it. Before they had horses, they used dogs to help move their possessions from place to place. Using horses to carry things, the Apsaalooka were able to acquire more belongings. And they developed and refined the arts for which they are celebrated: horsemanship and beadwork.

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A woman at an Apsaalooka campsite with horses (Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana)

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Apsaalooka men on horseback (Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana)

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Apsaalooka woman on horseback overlooking a campsite (Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana)

Key Idea Two

Honoring the Horse

The Apsaalooka valued horses not only for the work they could do, but also as members of the tribe, companions, and friends. To honor their horses, the Apsaalooka crafted beautiful horse tack and ornamental horse trappings.

Horse tack is the gear used for horseback riding. It includes the saddle and bridle and various straps. A strap called a crupper, attached to the saddle, loops under the horse's tail to keep the saddle from slipping forward. Another strap, the martingale, prevents the horse from throwing its head back. The Apsaalooka often adorned these items with beadwork.

Horse trappings are decorative coverings of various kinds. Carefully designed and skillfully made trappings were created for special horses. The forehead ornament was a tribute to the horse's courage. Shaped to resemble a human figure, it represents the success and bravery of the horse in time of war. Apsaalooka horse trappings are heavily ornamented with beadwork, bells, and other decoration.

Horses often carried objects used in hunting or traveling. Lance cases held a hunter's spears. A cradleboard could be attached to the saddle to hold a baby during the tribe's travels. A wedding blanket, given at the time of marriage, kept the rider warm and provided portection in bad weather. Traditionally, the Apsaalooka decorated many of these items with exquisite beadwork and natural materials like wood and animal hair.

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A horse with traditional Apsaalooka tack and trappings (Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana)

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This forehead ornament honored the courage of the horse that wore it.

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United States, Ranita Hill
Lance Case, 2000
Animal hide, beads, felt, pigment, wood
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Wedding blanket decorated with beaded stripes and bells

Key Idea Three

Traditions through Time

The Apsaalooka decorate clothing and everyday objects and also their horses tack and trappings with beautiful beadwork. Traditional beadwork is done only by women, who have passed down their skill and knowledge through many generations.

The geometric patterns, color combinations, and beading techniques used by the Apsaalooka give their work a unique style that sets it apart from beadwork by other Plains tribes. The Apsaalooka are known for choosing shapes such as the triangle and using pink, light blue, and green beads. They are also famous for creating beaded white outlines that make their designs look three-dimensional.

Apsaalooka women use a technique called spot-stitch. Working on fabric or leather, they use two threaded needles. They string one thread with several beads and lay it in position on the cloth or hide. With the other, they stitch the beaded thread in place. Stitches are made at even intervals, every few beads. The result is a beaded surface so smooth you can't tell where the beads are attached. This technique is also good for creating large areas of solid beadwork.

White outlining makes the design on this forehead ornament stand out from the yellow background. Typical bead colors and designs in Apsaalooka work. Spot-stitched beads lie flat and smooth.

Related activities

History of the Horse

Learn more about the origins and history of the horse at the American Museum of Natural History’s site The Horse.

Life As We Know It

What events or conveniences have changed the way we live our everyday lives? (Cars, grocery stores, telephones, computers) What kinds of inventions or improvements can we expect in the 21st century? How will they change our daily lives? Write about what you think the future might hold for us.

The Arts of Native America

Search Mia’s website to see the diverse range of Native art from across the continents of North and South America. Take a closer look at the art of the Plains. What are some recurring themes? Compare your favorite Plains artwork with a Native American artwork from another area of North America. Come visit the museum to see Native American art, including many artworks by contemporary artists. Want to come as a school group? Request a tour using our online form.

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