Lost Art Hits point of pride for native americans

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Lost Art Hits point of pride for native americans

Postby mach1 » Mon Nov 15, 2004 11:08 pm

and reveals haughty pre-eminence of reverered European art. If you don't mind: my own choice of words.

Prepare to be stunned.

    "What I'm talking about
    is a cultural phenomenon similar to that of ancient Mesopotamia,
    but somehow it doesn't figure in our concept of history."

Art Institute unveils trove from early Indian tribes

November 14, 2004

BY KEVIN NANCE Staff Reporter

We know, or feel that we know, a good deal about Native
American art. Pressed for examples, most of us conjure
pictures of totem poles, Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry
from the Southwest. But we tend to draw a blank when
asked about the art of the tribes who, before their forced
removal by way of the infamous Trail of Tears, populated
the South and Midwest for thousands of years before the
first European settlers arrived.

Unless we're archaeologists or art historians, we probably
have only the vaguest notion that a vast body of Native
American art from the region -- a complex and mystical art
created by a highly developed early civilization in what is now
a stretch from Illinois to Florida -- even exists.

That's why "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian
Art of the Ancient Midwest and South," opening Saturday at
the Art Institute of Chicago, may come as a surprise. Curated
by the Art Institute's Richard F. Townsend, the exhibit gathers
300 stone and wood sculptures, embellished ceramics,
implements and ritual objects created between 5000 B.C. and
1600 A.D., all essentially unknown by the American public,
including many Native Americans


    When: Saturday through Jan. 30

    Where: The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

    Tickets: $7-$12 (suggested)

    Phone: (312) 443-3600

"What I hope people will mainly come to understand about
this collection of art is its very existence, because many people
are just utterly unacquainted with the fact that such a thing
ever happened here," Townsend says. "What I'm talking about
is a cultural phenomenon similar to that of ancient Mesopotamia,
but somehow it doesn't figure in our concept of history. It seems
to be disjoined from the sense of what peoples have accomplished
here over the centuries."

The reasons for this ignorance are rooted in the flawed mythos
of the American wilderness. The idea of a pre-Columbian landscape
of virginal forests and rolling prairies without a cultural past has its
seed in the decline of the region's town-dwelling cultures, which
suffered from the spread of disease -- especially smallpox -- brought
by European settlers; some native populations were reduced by as
much as 90 percent.

"But it was more than that, too," Townsend says. "It was the
readiness on the part of Europeans to see all the indigenous
societies as 'the other,' to see them as part of the forest and
the mountains and the natural state that could be taken over."

Then came the early 19th-century relocation of the tribes, mostly
to Oklahoma, and the subsequent suppression of their languages,
religion and culture that continues, some argue, to this day -- all
of which helped to consign their art to obscurity. (Southwest Indian
art, by contrast, profited from tourism promoted by railroads.)

"Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," then, is designed to throw off
the cloak of invisibility that has shielded the work from view.

Prepare to be stunned.

"The art expresses a religious system practiced by the Native
Americans that is second to none, that ranks among the great
religions developed by anybody at any time and at any place,"
says F. Kent Reilly III, a professor of anthropology at Texas
State University in San Marcos. "In its complexity, in its sense
of cosmological order, it ranks up there with the religions of the
ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians."

Reilly, who served as a consultant on the project and contributed
an essay to its handsome catalog, makes another fundamental observation:
"The art itself is simply exquisite. And frankly,
about time to treat this as art, not just as natural history, and
let people see for themselves the enormous quality of the work.
A lot of the pieces are small, but my goodness, the excellence
their execution. The masterpieces are masterpieces for anyone."

Townsend's title for the exhibit reflects the three main themes
among the pieces, most of which were excavated (and sometimes
looted) from the familiar "moundbuilder" sites in the region --
especially downstate Cahokia, Moundville, Ala., and Etowah,
in northwestern Georgia -- or dug up via agricultural activities.
(All of the pieces are on loan from a variety of museums and
private collectors.)

The first theme, and perhaps the most important, is that of the
hero, a central figure in the interlocking system of myths, legends
and sagas that made up Native American cosmology and spirituality.
The hero, in many of the ancient stories -- he made regular journeys
into the spirit world and back, waged fierce battles against enemies,
took fearsome trophies and cheated death -- was called Morning
Star or Red Horn, so named for the braid of hair that framed his

Perhaps the exhibit's most striking image of this hero is a
flint clay figurine found in Spiro, Okla., depicting a resting warrior
with Red Horn's distinctive braid and earrings in the shape of
human heads. Two of his most definitive adornments are a cap
carved in the image of a vagina -- a symbol of earth and of
ownership -- and, on his curving back, a cape of scalps.

"In every society we have heroes, from Hercules to Superman,
as models for the performance of heroic deeds," Townsend says.
"The Native Americans in ancient times had the idea of the hero
as a person who brings back fire, or brings back the seeds that are
going to provide plants, or who leads the people in ways that benefit
to humankind. It was the way in which the people poetically told the stories
that connected them to the time of genesis and the time of
the beginnings, a way of explaining all that which is
otherwise unexplainable."

The exhibit is also full of animal imagery, including several
depictions of humans transforming into animals or vice versa.
Native American mythology embraced the world of animals,
viewing them as creatures with supernatural properties who live
an outer world beyond that of living humans and therefore closer
to the
greater powers of nature, the earth, rain and lightning, the sun
and moon. As such, the animals -- including serpents, turtles and
fantastic creatures known as "underwater panthers" -- were intermediaries between humankind and the outermost world
of powerful and sometimes dangerous forces affecting fertility,
the seasons, the weather and the afterlife.

Perhaps no animal was as important to ancient Midwest and
Southern tribes as the hawk. Its image -- in the form of effigy
pipes, or carved on whelk shells and other objects -- soars
majestically through the exhibit, sometimes in realistically
depicted forms and, at other times, as the anthropomorphic
(or perhaps transmogrified) Birdman.

But the exhibit's most mysterious emblem is the open-hand
image, which appears engraved on plates, discs and palettes;
it also takes spectacular form in several mica cutouts such as
one found in Ohio, created between the first and fourth
centuries A.D. With its outstretched fingers and hooked
thumb, it is interpreted by scholars as a symbol of greeting,
perhaps of ownership, but also of communication between the
worlds of humans and spirits.

"The fingers are much longer than ordinary," Townsend says.
"They rise up, and there's a sense of aspiration to them, an
abstract elegance that lifts one's sensibility in a way that's
completely unlike how an anatomically recognizable image might
remind you of a hand. This has an expressive value more than
a reference to the physical plane."

Other hand images in the exhibit are even more clearly
an eye set into a palm -- a reference, probably, to what we
as the constellation Orion (a cluster of stars seen by the
Indians as
a hand containing an eye). "When this sinks toward the
Townsend says, "it becomes a kind of portal for the souls
of the
departed to go into the underworld and then to rise up
and become part of the Milky Way, the home of the ancestral

It took five years to mount "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," in part
because of painstaking process of consulting with tribal leaders,
especially in Oklahoma, and the vetting of each piece in accordance
with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
of 1990, which gives the tribes right of approval over display of
native art and artifacts. (The exhibit contains no human remains
or objects used by the tribes in modern religious practices.)

Townsend and his collaborators insist that the exhibit is intended
to be seen by all Americans regardless of their ethnicity.

"It isn't just Native American material, it's American material,"
Reilly says. "It's ours, it belongs to us and to our past. I tell all
my students: 'This is your past, and you need to celebrate it.'"

Even so, everyone associated with the exhibit is fully aware that
it will be experienced in different ways by Native American and
non-Indian viewers. For many Native Americans descended from
the Southern and Midwestern tribes, the exhibit may be both a
welcome recognition of their artistic heritage and a painful
reminder of loss.

"I'll have, I guess you would say, mixed feelings," says
Jeraldine Redcorn, a Caddo woman from Norman, Okla.,
who will
be demonstrating traditional Caddo pottery at the Art
Institute as
part of the exhibit's opening-week activities. "It's a sign that
we lost
the lands, and that we lost the ability to make the art that
ancestors made. On the other hand, I think it becomes a matter
pride for me that the world will know more about our art from
thousands of years ago. They will look upon us with greater

Stacey Halfmoon, also from the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma
and a
consultant on the exhibit, agrees. "Seeing these objects will be a
sword because they're signs of the loss of our culture -- a culture
that our
country has failed to illuminate. But it's also very powerful that
getting to re-adopt some of it and to educate the larger public."

Perhaps Townsend's greatest regret is that, despite making
numerous inquiries with art museums in Oklahoma, he was unable
to find a home for the exhibit in that state, where most of the
descendants of the artists now live.

"He tried every institution in the state," says an angry-sounding
Reilly. "A lot of the problem was that they weren't large enough
to house the exhibit, but Dick is too much of a gentleman to tell
you that he was also given the old story: 'I don't think we can
take that -- but do you have a Renoir exhibition? We'd be glad to
take that.'"

Which suggests the possibility that for all its beauty and
fascination, its artistic and historical significance, "Hero, Hawk,
and Open Hand" may fail to draw the huge crowds that often turn
out for Art Institute exhibits of the Impressionists and other
European masters. But the museum's new director, James Cuno,
is undaunted.

"We have an obligation to present the public with works of art
they know they already like, but also to present them with works
of art of a kind they don't yet know they might like," Cuno says.
"We mean to bring our intellectual and art-historical expertise to
them by means of the new and unexpected as well as the familiar.
This falls into the case of the new and different and unexpected."

For Townsend, the exhibit is the culmination of a quest to bring
people together with a project whose emotional impact goes far
beyond the usual.

"It's a very gripping experience, when you're looking at these
objects -- there's an immensely affecting dimension to it," he says.
"It's true that I acted out of a [desire] to bring people together,
to make a contribution toward an issue that has been so

After all, he muses, a fundamental mission of the art museum
is a civic one. "It's not just a place where privileged people meet.
It's a great public place where we learn about different forms
of civilization -- in this case, a civilization whose accomplishment
needs to be acknowledged as part of human history and
achievement. Much has been lost, but much also remains, and
can be recovered."
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