Perhaps the greatest image to emerge from the picturing of the American West, and certainly Bodmer's most famous, this highly-charged portrait of Péhriska-Rúhpa ("Two Ravens") presents the warrior and chief of the Hidatsa in way that encapsulates the vanished era of the Plains Indian. The portrait has a great sense of immediacy, intensity, of noise and movement. A moment in time is captured—when we look away, the Dog Dance continues. Péhriska-Rúhpa dances in his regalia as a principal leader of the Dog Society of his village. The white tips on the glossy black feathers of the headdress indicate the attachment of a tiny down feather to the point of each plume. The central vertical plume is painted red. Dyed horse hair floats from colored sticks attached to the shafts of the turkey feathers. All this will shortly be in motion again as the dancer resumes his movement to the cadence of drum and the rattle (made of small hooves or claws attached to a beaded stick) held in his right hand.
The Dog Society was one of seven such societies among the men of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes. They were one of the main tenets by which Hidatsa society lived. As an individual progressed through life, it was necessary for him to purchase his entry into successive societies, starting with "the foolish dogs" at about ten to fifteen years of age and graduating to the society of the black-tailed deer for men over fifty. The Dog Society was the fourth of these progressions. Each society had a set number of members, so that an individual from a lower society could only buy entry to the higher society if there was a member of that society who was himself ready to move to the society above his. They all had individual rules, rituals, dances and regalia. All this information was carefully recorded by Prince Maximilian during the travellers' winter stop-over at Fort Clark in 1833-1834. This portrait, Bodmer's masterpiece, was painted in March 1834 towards the end of this stay.
Karl Bodmer's images show great versatility and technical virtuosity and give us a uniquely accomplished and detailed picture of a previously little understood (and soon to vanish) way of life. Swiss-born Bodmer was engaged by Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867) specifically to provide a record of his travels in North America, principally among the Plains Indians. In the company of David Dreidoppel (Prince Maximilian's servant and hunting companion), the men traveled in North America from 1832 to 1834. Well-armed with information and advice, the party finally left St. Louis, on the most important stage of their travels, aboard the steamer Yellow Stone on April 10, 1833. They proceeded up the treacherous Missouri River along the line of forts established by the American Fur Company. At Bellevue they encountered their first Indians, then went on to make contact with the Sioux tribe, learning of and recording their little known ceremonial dances and powerful pride and dignity. Transferring from the Yellow Stone to another steamer, the Assiniboin, they continued to Fort Clark, visiting there the Mandan, Mintari and Crow tribes, then the Assiniboins at Fort Union, the main base of the American Fur Company. On a necessarily much smaller vessel they journeyed through the extraordinary geological scenery of that section of the Missouri to Fort Mackenzie in Montana, establishing a cautious friendship with the fearsome Blackfeet. From this, the westernmost point reached, it was considered too dangerous to continue and the return journey downstream began. The winter brought its own difficulties and discomforts, but Bodmer was still able to execute numerous studies of the villages, the dances and especially the people, who were often both intrigued and delighted by his work. The portraits are particularly notable for their capturing of individual personalities, as well as forming a primary account of what were to become virtually lost cultures.
David C. Hunt, "Karl Bodmer and the American Frontier," Imprint, Spring 1985, p.18.
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