Turtle and lizard images in Lakota art: a case study in interpretation



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Texas Tech University


By analyzing Lakota images of turtles and lizards as elements of a sign system that produces cultural meaning, this study examines the status of the images, interprets multiple meanings they convey, and investigates the role they play in relation to sodal organization. A broad definition of art accounting for both product and praxis is proposed. To justify the methods used, the study critically reviews assumptions govenung art historical and museological interpretations of Lakota art. Established interpretive methods (i.e., material culture studies, iconography, and semiotics) are employed within a poststructuralist framework that posits meaning as a sodal and cultural construction. Lakota ethnohistory and creation myths are suimnarized briefly to establish contexts in which Lakota imagery can be explicated. Although often explained as a protective motif invoking the turtle's assodation with female physiological concerns, mythic, folkloric, and ceremorual traditions support interpretations beyond gynecological protection. For both men and women, the turtle also connotes wisdom, longevity, good, evil, and resistance to death. Lizards are linked to turtles in mythological accounts and in the case of umbilical amulets. With the exception of wisdom, lizard images convey the same meanings as do turtle images. Examination of gender-spedfic artistic practices and behavioral ideals illuminates the relationship of Lakota art and Lakota sodal practice, espedally with regard to gender, ethnidty, and power. Finally, a catalog of thirty-nine examples of Lakota art (or stylistically related northern Plains Indian art) in the Museum of Texas Tech University appears as an appendix, and provides an overview of Lakota styles, techniques, and forms.