Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Treasures of the National Museum of the American Indian
Native artists of the Americas honor, preserve, exalt, and commemorate their universe through the works they create. On two continents and the Hawaiian Islands, over thousands of years, these artists have developed forms of expression for indoor and outdoor spaces, warm and cold climates, hard and soft surfaces, loud and quiet ceremonies, public and private events. Their arts are visible and invisible—the beaded clothing, glazed ceramics, and carved wood, stone, and ivory Illustrated in this book, and the music and dances we envision as we look at the musical instruments and ceremonial dress shown here.
Material creations, such as those in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and other public and private collections, offer a particular, limited window on Indian cultures. Even photographs often present idealized images of Native subjects. The fact that few objects made of perishable materials survive means that archaeological evidence of the Native peoples is incomplete. However, many things made of pottery, stone, and metal have been found, some of them decorated with images of everyday and ceremonial life. More is known about the meaning and use of Native household and ritual objects after European contact—from explorers’ diaries and drawings, from the work of anthropologists and collectors, and, most important, from the words of Indian Elders who keep and pass on their peoples’ histories.
The objects Illustrated in this book reveal the wealth of the natural world that surrounded their makers and reflect the special relationship many Indians feel with certain plants and animals. A Chilkat Tlingit tunic (page 168) incorporates a Bear design that reflects a family history. A basket decorated with a rattlesnake design (page 102) commemorates the importance of that animal to the Cahuilla. A Kwakiutl button blanket (page 173) reflects the sacred importance of the cedar tree for Northwest Coast people. Even some of the materials used to make objects hold their own cultural significance, such as the sedge root, bulrush root, redbud, and willow in Pomo baskets, the various clays used to form Southwest pottery, and the wool in Navajo weavings.
Some objects trace the impact of trade on Native life and creativity—the exchange of goods and ideas among indigenous cultures before the Europeans came to this hemisphere and, later, between Natives and non-Natives. Tuscarora and Mohawk hats (page 45), Ojibwe bandolier bags (pages 88-91), Crow moccasins (page 10), and many other objects were beautifully decorated with European trade beads. A Teton Lakota parasol (page 145) and Huron pincushion (page 140) are whimsical examples of the use of traditional materials, such as quills and moosehair, to create objects influenced by European styles. Northwest Coast button blankets (page 173), Kuna molas (page 65), and Seminole clothing (pages 24, 59) use nontraditional materials such as mother-of-pearl buttons and trade cloth in designs that are grounded in centuries-old family, clan, and tribal histories and traditions. These and other objects influenced by contact and trade bear witness to the resilience of Native cultures in the face of change and to the vitality of Indian communities today.
Many objects illustrated here reflect the important role that music and dance have played for centuries in the social and spiritual lives of Indians. These arts sustained traditions and a sense of place within a cultural continuum that is still very evident. Native musicians, both past and present, have accompanied songs and dances on rattles, drums, rasps, flutes, whistles, and strings. Rattles made of deer hooks, turtle shells, and cocoons were used by Native people throughout North America, as were rattles made of shells along the coast and wooden rattles and forested regions (page 179). Today, dancers sometimes wear leg rattles made of tin cans and metal saltshakers, rather than turtle shells or hollow gourds (page 177). Carvers in Mexico and Guatemala made large wooden drums (page 176) whose echoes can still be heard in Central American music. Ceramic, wooden, and cane whistles and flutes have been played throughout the Americas for centuries.Some are escapes into animal or human figures (page 182); some contain water to imitate the sounds of birds. Musical bows found in both North and South America argue for the existence of stringed instruments before European contact, as does the skill and enthusiasm with which many Native cultures adopted and adapted European guitars and fiddles. Apaches, for example, make fiddles from agave stalks (page 181).
Much of the material in the museum's collections reflects the maker’s personal vision, representing emotions or beliefs within a cultural or religious context. Plains Indians often used powerful imagery on shields (pages 232-35) to protect warriors from enemy arrows and lances; Oto Warriors used effigy clubs (page 229) representing animals who would give them strength in battle. In many Indian cultures headdresses were sometimes designed using animal horns that imparted the animals’ characteristics—speed, strength or courage—to the wearer. Feather headdresses illustrate the beliefs of Native cultures and the spiritual of protective power of birds—particularly eagles. Pictorial art depicting ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Snake Dance, war and hunting exploits, and community events not only illustrate the artists’ personal creativity and vision but also honor the past and reinforce cultural identity and values.
I hope that, through their wonderful craftsmanship and great beauty, and through the power of the personal visions many of them represent, the treasures illustrated here tell something about the makers’ reverence for the world. I cannot express this better than the Ponca/Osage dancer and storyteller Abe Conklin, who said, “Every object that we made—from the smallest doll and the dice and dice bowls, to the leggings, shirts and headdresses—was made with prayer.”
It is hard to imagine life as it might have been hundreds of thousands of years ago, when people saw the night sky without the interference of city lights or smog, when thousands of species of birds filled the world with their music. I hope that the images in this book will help you picture the wonder of that world and stimulate your curiosity about the people who live there and the traditions they handed down to their descendants in Native communities throughout the Americas.