About the Work of Art:

Seth Eastman (18081875)
Ballplay of the Dakota on the St. Peters River in Winter, 1848
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Oil on canvas
Acquisition in memory of Mitchell A. Wilder, Director, Amon Carter Museum, 19611979
1979.4

 

Seth Eastman (1808–1875), Ballplay of the Dakota on the St. Peters River in Winter, 1848, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, acquisition in memory of Mitchell A. Wilder, Director, Amon Carter Museum, 1961-1979, 1979.4

 

 

Seth Eastman’s painting Ballplay of the Dakota on the St. Peters River in Winter depicts one of the most exciting games played by the Santee Dakota Sioux. The painting ranks among the best of his depictions of the West and was painted at the height of his artistic powers. The subject of Eastman’s painting, a game now called lacrosse, originated among the native peoples of the northern Plains. This aggressive and dangerous contact sport was played by both men and women occupying, as it did, much of their leisure time. The game also served as a training method for Sioux warriors.

Although played by tribes throughout North America, rules varied. In her book The American Aboriginal Portfolio (1853), Mary Eastman, the artist’s wife, describes the general rules of the game, which she and her husband frequently observed close to their base at Fort Snelling, Minnesota:

The time appointed has come, and the men are assembled on both sides. Two marks are set up on the ice about half a mile apart. The game is to commence at a point halfway between these points. Each side has its limits, and the object in this game is for the combatants on one side to get the ball beyond the limits of the other. Whichever side shall accomplish this will be entitled to all the prizes that are displayed to induce emulation. The ball is caught up in a bat-stick three feet in length, curved at the end so as to form a hoop, three or four inches in diameter. Through this hoop a few thongs of raw hide are drawn, so as to form a kind of net, which holds the ball when it is caught. One of the Indians, catching it in his net, throws it towards the boundary of the other party; it is caught by one of that party, and thrown back again; and so on. The utmost strength and agility are exercised, and often with little effect; for the ball is often kept going from one side to the other all day without exceeding either boundary. Sometimes the game continues several days, the parties stopping to eat and sleep a little, and then arousing, with a double energy, to renew the contest.

In the same chapter, “Ball-Play on the Ice,” Mary Eastman elaborates on the game her husband depicts in Ballplay of the Dakota on the St. Peters River in Winter:

I saw the game played on the St. Peter's River, in the depth of winter. The surrounding hills were white with snow, and the ice, dark and heavy-looking in some parts, glistened like the sun in others. The scene was inexpressibly wild. The long, gaunt boughs of the trees, leafless, and nodding with the wind towards the dark, heavy evergreens among them; the desolate appearance of nature contrasted with the exciting motions and cries of the Indians. It was impossible even for the mere spectator to be unmoved; he must feel an interest in the game, until the ball has been at length thrown beyond one of the limits, and the tired and hard-breathing men receive the prizes awarded them.

More frequently played in warmer months, the game shown here is played on the frozen St. Peters River (now called the Minnesota River). Eastman was intrigued by this winter version of the game and its surroundings: bare trees, a rosy-gray sky, and the Dakota sliding on the frozen river. The players are shown testing their strength and endurance while competing for prizes. Scholars suggest that the buffalo robes, trade cloths, pots, spears, arrows, quiver, and medicine bundle in the lower left corner of the painting are items wagered on the outcome of the game. For some contests, entire villages were at stake.


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