British Museum blog

Once a warrior: from Plains Indians to the west country

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the PlainsRuth Gidley, Community Participation Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM), Exeter

In the modern world, war is broadcast on the TV news and Internet for everyone to see. So it’s rare for us to see first-hand accounts from soldiers expressed in more traditional art forms, such as battle exploits painted on animal hides. But art can still help to explain life in the armed forces to people who haven’t been there, and help to heal the deep emotional wounds of war

A group of modern UK servicemen and women, based in the west country, who looked in detail at Warriors of the Plains – a visiting British Museum exhibition about Native American warrior societies – were inspired to paint, write poems, make a film, and sew blankets, as part of an initiative here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Gallery in Exeter. One soldier turned the uniform he was wearing when he was shot in Afghanistan into a piece of art.

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

John McDermott, who spent 27 years in the Royal Navy before founding Aftermath PTSD, a group which uses art to help people suffering from combat-related stress, explained: “This is a way to let the public know about the military mind. And what happens to us afterwards, when eventually we take off that uniform.”

The west country is home to a significant military community, but civilians rarely know much about armed forces life. For us at Exeter’s RAMM (lucky enough to be named Museum of the Year 2012 by the ArtFund, the year after the British Museum won this accolade) hosting the British Museum exhibition was a chance to try to spark dialogue and build some cultural bridges.

Local veterans and serving soldiers found parallels with the ways and rituals of Native American warrior societies from the nineteenth century to the present. We recorded interviews and made them into a film, which also showcases the artworks made as part of the project, called Once a Warrior.

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Servicemen and women involved in the project – who had seen conflict in places ranging from the Balkans to Somalia, and done jobs as disparate as handling dogs for the Army and directing fighter planes for the Women’s Royal Air Force – found common ground in all sorts of practices. “There was definitely a connection between the army that I know, the modern army, and what we were learning about the Plains Indians,” said Captain Chris Gillespie, Queen’s Gallantry Medal and Bar (QGM), of 6 RIFLES, which trains Territorial Army volunteers for deployment to Afghanistan.

Whereas Native American warriors on the Plains used to decorate their clothing with patterns and human scalps to denote their society and status, today’s British regiments can be identified by their uniforms, mountain boots or special-issue knives. Wives of Plains warriors used to make them moccasins; now quilters’ groups sew blankets for the bereaved and injured.

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

A warrior might once have worn a bear-claw necklace to protect him from harm on the Plains, a vast area stretching from just above what is now the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Soldiers in the Once a Warrior film describe carrying a rosary, or family photographs, a pack of cards, and a beermat from a local brewery.

Lee French, a soldier, said guys still get together to tell battle stories. “We call it ‘swinging a lantern’, or ‘to spin a dit’ or ‘pull up a sandbag’.” But social media and TV news mean there is less of a need for warriors to write down their exploits or draw combat scenes. “Because it’s there and it’s plain for everyone to see if you want to go and look at it,” he said.

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

And whereas Native American warriors were – and still are – welcomed home with dances and pride, Royal Marines welfare officer Lisa Robinson said there was a chasm between military and civilian in Britain because of the nature of the wars in which its services were engaged. “Life is going on as normal whilst guys are being killed, injured, having traumatic, life-changing experiences halfway across the world,” she said.

Without enough support from the armed forces and the public, the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and trouble adjusting to civilian life is high. Will Means, who started experiencing terrifying nightmares and flashbacks years after leaving the Royal Marines, said it helped him to write poetry. “If you express it through art, writing, drawing or poetry, then you’re giving it to people in a soluble form that they can digest easily,” he said.

The group’s art was displayed at RAMM, two artists at a time, alongside the film and the exhibition that inspired it, 22 September 2012 – 13 January 2013. Once a Warrior – common bonds of combat, is on YouTube.

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