The dramatic elliptical space that was once a storage area under the grand rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House has been transformed into a wonderful exhibition area. The museum, named in honor of Charles and Valerie Diker, the George Gustav Heye Center’s founding co-chairs, is a multiuse facility that allows for performance, education and exhibition space.
As a division of the Smithsonian Institution and with its many resources to choose from, one might well ask how Gorelick managed the daunting task of selecting only 77 items to display in the comprehensive exhibition.
Within large vitrines set into the cherry paneled walls of the new exhibition area are ancient and contemporary native arts and crafts from at least 55 indigenous cultures, all of which attest to the immense richness of the everyday objects that Native people made and used. Whether tools created to fulfill mundane tasks, games for leisure and ceremonial times or intricately worked items of respect and honor — each of the items on display makes a creative statement worthy of note.
The exhibit “will challenge commonly held ideas about Native expression and Native work,” Gorelick said, understating the dramatic effect of the huge bronze sculpture at the entrance of the pavilion. It is the first thing visitors see and the place where school groups frequently convene. Fittingly, the sculpture references the rearing of children by grandparents, an issue of particular sensitivity in Native cultures where children have traditionally been revered.
Titled “From the Mad River to the Little Salmon River,” or “The Responsibility of Raising a Child,” the sculpture by Rick Bartow (Wiyot, b 1946) was inspired by the artist’s work with the Oregon Youth Authority and is infused with ancient references. Bartow states that there is a “jarring dissimilarity” between his work and the beaded vests, buckskin trousers and Mayan tapestries in the glass cases. “If you go deeper, you find that the philosophy hasn’t changed in 1,000 years,” he said. “The same philosophy, the same love and the same spirit that goes into those antique pieces within the Diker Pavilion really pervade my bronze.”
Cast with funding from the Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the sculpture epitomizes the Smithsonian’s initiative to support the work of living artists. “It’s a very bold move for Richard West [founding director] and the museum,” Bartow remarked.
Throughout the exhibit, smaller, more traditional-looking items consistently bespeak the museum’s commitment to living artisans. Unlike the anonymous art of decades past, many pieces in this show bear the maker’s name. Beaded wrist and leg ornaments, called Wini, for instance, were made by Clementine Rivera, Kuna Indian, Panama, and commissioned with duplicates — one set for display, another for the “Discovery Cart” that provides viewers the opportunity to handle the artifacts. Even the bows and arrows from South America on view are contemporary.
While these works of art show how detail and artistic flourishes lovingly applied continue to be an important element in the daily lives of Native peoples, their artistic significance is far greater. Gorelick explained, “As with any type of art, there is growth. And this is what you see in all the contemporary pieces.”
Yet the Smithsonian is known for its trove of antiquities, and the National Museum of the American Indian for the rapport it has cultivated with Native peoples. Consequently, the exhibit contains many precious antiquities, items that might not be accessible at a museum of lesser stature.
Among the oldest of the objects is an intricately carved Cempoala-style Huastec conch shell trumpet from Panuco Vera Cruz, Mexico, circa 900–1500. Used first as a source of food, the shell later became a musical instrument. A “gustoweh” (headdress) of leather, wood splints, silver, wampum beads, eagle and turkey feathers, circa 1890, from the Seneca, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy who occupy aboriginal lands in New York State, is indicative of the honor and respect heaped on community leaders.
Given the enormity of the mission with which the National Museum of the American Indian is charged — to represent the works of native peoples of all nations in the Western hemisphere — the show is remarkably complete. Gorelick has carefully selected works that exemplify the vitality of indigenous life, past and present, from the heartlands to the farthest reaches of the Americas.
For instance, from Point Barrow, on the arctic slope of Alaska, the northernmost tip of America, comes an Inupiaq high-kick ball of sealskin, moss and sinew, circa 1910, which stresses the importance of recreation and pastimes at all stages of life. From the southernmost point —– Tierra del Fuego, Argentina — Gorelick has included a Yamana (Yahgan) fish “tolon” mask, circa 1910, made of bark, paint and plant fiber that illustrates the universal quest for vehicles of transformation.
Included in the mix of objectives that drove this project are icons that tweak the public’s collective sense of imagination. They are used as impetus to explore the underlying messages of honor, respect and identity.
An unusual Flathead man’s headdress, circa 1915, from the Jocko Reservation, Montana, is a case in point. The wool felt hat features iconic eagle feathers with an unexpected shock of peacock feathers and is worked with glass beads and colorful silk ribbons. It is far more than what one would normally expect from an eagle feather headdress and begs questions that lead the viewer to understand that such headdresses are tributes, symbols of service to the community or an inherited position of honor. For Plains Indians of the Nineteenth Century, a bonnet of eagle feathers indicated a man’s exceptional abilities or courage in battle.
Equally metaphorical is a pair of ankle-high Huron moccasins, circa 1820, from Quebec, Canada. Made of hide, their bold floral decorations crafted of dyed moose hair contrast with the dark background. The shoes identified the wearer as a prominent member of the Wyandot community.
Indicative of the respect lavished on children are examples from cultures separated not only by hundreds of miles but by contents as well. Taos Puebla girl’s moccasin boots, circa 1930, were worn on social and ceremonial occasions by young women who had gone through a coming of age ceremony. A Quechua girl’s outfit, 1940, from Peru is worn by young female dancers in contemporary Quechua ceremonies. Both mimic adult forms.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear at this exhibit is the pride of heritage and culture vested in objects. Whether “containing culture,” as the category of containers and bags so deftly suggests, or a Chilean Mapuche woman’s “tarapelakucha” (chest ornament) of German silver in the “Elegance of Presentation,” almost all of the items relay comments on community and status that are internal as well as external communications — visual portfolios that command attention and respect.
Ceremonial objects carry perhaps the most profound of messages. These include not only magnificent effigy rattles with the power to communicate with the supernatural world, but instruments that appear to be simplistic until played by virtuosic interpreters of ancient chants or summoners of the supernatural.
A beautiful Lakota drum with a drawing of a warrior on a blue horse and its accompanying stick, both circa 1870, reflect the heartbeat of Mother Earth when played. An Aymara “charanga” (guitar), common among the Andean peoples, made from the shell of an armadillo, is said to contain the animal’s spirit. And a Tlingit rattle, circa 1880, carries depictions of a bear and hawk that signifies the spirits its shaman owner solicited to help cure illness.
Dancers often used the trappings of performance to create high art. Looking at a pair of Walla Walla man’s leggings, circa 1880, one can only imagine the way in which the fringes swayed in sync with the dancer’s movements. Similarly a Karuk woman’s skirt emblazoned with abalone and clamshells clattered in perfect musical accompaniment to the music. The items demonstrate that ornamentation on clothing often proves to be incorporated not merely for beauty derived from an artistic perspective, but also as beauty for the sake of ritual.
Beauty, whether naturally occurring, inherent of form or added by human hands, can also be seen in functional objects. A set of “celts” — stone axes — used by the Carib peoples to carve canoes from ceiba trees are smooth as a whisper and shaped like mighty arrowheads. An 1880 Odawa (Ottowa) carved bowl of maple with an animal head and what could be interpreted as the tail of an otter is an early blending of form and function. Remarkably, bowls of this period used by peoples of the Great Lakes regions were personalized. Each person used his or her own bowl and spoon. More elaborately, in North America, Native women stitched designs of porcupine quills on tool cases and iron knives. In Brazil, young Bororo boys still make arrows ornamented with the feathers of sacred birds, a charm said to attract animals during hunting.
“Beauty Surrounds Us” will be open through September 2008. The George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is at One Bowling Green. For information, 212-514-3700 or www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.