Think of Native American art and one usually thinks of the past, conjuring up images of artifacts dating to the 1800s, their stories and makers forgotten by most. The rich traditions and aesthetic passed down generation after generation are also very much alive in the Native American art made today by contemporary artists. Embracing past and present, the Native American collection at the Hood Museum of Art possesses both surprising depth and diversity and contains some world-class gems.
As the fourth in a series of exhibitions focusing on the museum’s permanent collection, which kicked off with American art in 2008, “Native American Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art,” is on view through March 11, the fruits of a three-year undertaking. The museum celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, when this exhibition was originally planned to debut.
“One of the most important things we are doing with this exhibit is incorporating both historic and contemporary materials,” said curator Karen S. Miller. “We thought it was important to show the formal and conceptual links that exist between the historic material and the contemporary. The explication of that is very meaningful and very powerful.”
The exhibition speaks to the story of Dartmouth itself and highlights an idiosyncratic collection that grew as the college did. Dartmouth’s relationship with Native Americans goes back to its roots when Eleazar Wheelock founded an Indian charity school in 1754 in Lebanon, Conn., that later moved to Hanover and became a chartered college in 1769. Although the college’s mission was to educate “Indian” youth, its initial student body did not reflect that until the 1970s, when Dartmouth rededicated itself to this mission and now boasts a large Native American student population.
Thanks to generous donations over the years and thoughtful purchasing, the museum has amassed an interesting collection of Native American art and artifacts representing key cultural regions: the Arctic, Northwest Coast, the Plateau and California, the Plains, the Southwest, the Woodlands and the Southeast.
Organized by cultural regions, the exhibition showcases both the museum’s holdings as well as the history of collecting at an institution. The objects seen here reflect not just the curator’s eye, but the varied collecting histories of donors, only a few of whom were Native Americans. Some donors collected items on whaling trips in the Nineteenth Century or during the reservation period at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and more than 200 artifacts came through the hands of Twentieth Century American collectors fascinated by Woodlands and Plains art.
Many parties have lent their expertise to this exhibition, especially guest curators George Horse Capture Sr, Joe Horse Capture (an associate curator of Native American art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art) and Joseph Sanchez. In the accompanying catalog, a dozen essays address such topics as symbolism in art and basketry, as well as the cultural regions. An exhibition often has a strong, singular voice, usually its curator’s. In this case, the Hood employs multiple voices to offer varied interpretations, abetting a deeper understanding and admiration for the works presented here.
The varying geographical conditions where early Native Americans lived as well as their migratory nature dictated the kind of art for which an area became known, especially where each item often served multiple purposes. The harsh conditions of Nevada, for example, kept the Paiute people in constant search for food, leaving little time for art. Their artmaking mainly comprised baskets from the abundance of natural materials there and the ancient petroglyphs with which they decorated their homes.
On the other hand, the Tlingit and Northwest Coast peoples had an abundance of food from the sea and forest, so they could spend hours carving wonderful figures from wood or argillite, as well as shaping intricate baskets that visitors in the late 1800s eagerly bought as this area became a tourist destination, with people seeking handmade crafts as an antidote to the industrial modernization sweeping the country.
The Plains people excelled at making sure their possessions multitasked: they painted their tepees with colorful and symbolically rich designs and their beautifully decorated moccasins embodied utilitarian art.
Artistic links from one generation to another are clearly seen in a Crow cradleboard, circa 1880, that also speaks to the roles gender played in artmaking. While men made many of the paintings and drawings in the Hood’s collection of Plains art, women finished many of the objects, showing their prowess at beadwork, quillwork and abstract painting.
Made of tanned deer or bison hide with wood, glass beads, sinew, paint and thread, the cradleboard uses a design of colorful triangles on the board as well as the straps showing links to earlier art forms, such as abstract parfleche painting and quillwork. Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote notes these influences in her catalog essay, but also points out the artist’s individual stamp through her unique style of beadwork and color choices.
“Though the artist has incorporated some light blue, a color that many Crow women prefer, she prefers yellow in the design and green as a background, thereby illustrating her own individual style and taste. Her skill would have earned her a great deal of respect and recognition within her community, and perhaps would have allowed her to influence the beadwork of others as well,” Tone-Pah-Hote writes.
Native American painter T.C. Cannon, Dartmouth’s summer artist-in-residence in 1975, is represented with a color woodblock print “Collector No. 5” from one of his most famous paintings. It depicts a Native American man, an art collector, dressed in all his finery, sitting on a chair. Hanging on the wall behind him is Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field,” demonstrating the concept of art as a bridge linking peoples across different cultures and periods. Also in the exhibit is “Cloud Madonna,” which he painted during his residency and is a promised gift to the museum. One can imagine the artist, missing his home in Santa Fe, painting this work while perched among the green hills of New Hampshire.
Baskets are well represented in the exhibition, and each piece has its own story to tell about the culture from which it hails, the weaver who made it and his or her connections to ancestors. Synonymous with Native American art, baskets range from highly utilitarian to elegant and ceremonial.
A highlight of the museum’s Arctic collection is a fine rye grass lidded basket, about 1750, from the Aleutian Islands by an unknown maker in the Unangan area. Clearly made for personal or domestic use versus for the trade, the basket has a design of alternating red with green and green with blue, perhaps inspired by summer berries.
Among the most well known Native American basketmakers were Elizabeth Conrad Hickox (1872‱947) and her second daughter, Louise Hickox (1896‱967), both from the Karok area in northern California. Both are renowned for their tightly woven baskets that were sublime in form, technique and surface design. A lidded basket, about 1925, made of wild grape root with a zigzag design running down its side, is a distinctive piece in the exhibition and is attributed to one of the two women.
Western Apache basketmakers were noted for including human and animal figures in their designs. A Western Apache basket bowl, about 1900, is another standout here. The 36-inch-diameter coiled bowl interweaves bold geometric designs with tiny animal forms in the darker brown of devil’s claw against the lighter background of willow, creating a masterpiece design.
Baskets were predominant in early Native American settlements, but by the year 700, handmade, coiled ceramics found favor. Ancestral Pueblo ceramics are often painted black on a white or gray ground and geometric designs were most popular. A circa 1250‱300 ladle has a bowl where black pigment has been heavily applied in geometric patterns all around the bowl except for a square in the center of the bowl, which remains unpainted. “Unpainted or reserved centers inside bowls or ladles may represent the emergence for the Pueblo people from the underworld into this world,” notes Joyce M. Szabo in her catalog essay on Southwest artifacts.
Another Acoma Puebla standout in the exhibition is a water jar (olla) that depicts a macaw or parrot, overarching flowers and a double rainbow. The circa 1900 jar was given to the museum by Frank and Clara Churchill, who gifted many fine examples of Native American art to the museum. Colonel Churchill (1850‱912) was a special inspector in the US Indian Service. The couple visited more than 100 tribes from 1899 to 1909. They traveled throughout the Southwest and their collection grew to include nearly 400 objects just from the Pueblo region. They also collected beaded work from the Plains groups and almost 200 Arctic objects. After relocating to Lebanon, N.H., and opening up a museum, Clara Churchill bequeathed her Native American collection to the museum in 1946.
The Hood’s Woodlands collection also features many fine works. Bandolier bags are well represented, and a standout is an example made by an anonymous Anishinaabeg artist on the White Earth Reservation, Minnnesota, circa 1890. The bag was made for the market and features a design of flowers and leaves, using glass beads, cloth and velveteen.
Other not-to-be-missed objects in the exhibition are an owl effigy bottle, about 1450, in the Mississippean tradition that is the earliest Southeastern object in the collection and a Haida (Northwest Coast) pipe carved of argillite, circa 1840‶0, in the form of a steamship cabin with an eagle in the stern and a man and dog in the bow †an artistic statement on new arrivals to the territory.
The exhibition is also noteworthy for its presentation. Instead of hiding the objects behind Plexiglas cases, the museum has set up platforms within the galleries, protecting the objects from handling but not keeping them separate from visitors. “We’re hoping this makes a more powerful and intimate experience for visitors,” Miller said.
The Hood Museum is on the Dartmouth College campus off Wheelock Street. For information, 603-646-2808 or www.hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu .