Courtesy Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Dwight and Maie Heard were crazy about art and roamed the world in the early 20th century purchasing and collecting ancient and contemporary art. The wealthy and prominent Phoenix residents had a special affection for Native American art and culture.
Their passion grew into the Heard Museum, which they started in 1929 in Phoenix in a relatively small building designed to hold some of their treasures. Today, the Heard Museum encompasses 130,000 square feet as one of the finest museums of its kind in the United States.
The Heard Museum is one of dozens of American art museums that showcase remarkable galleries of Native American art.
Opening the window
“We’ve purchased contemporary and older native pieces for years. In our archives is a 99-and-a-half-percent-complete history of contemporary American Indian and native art,” said Debra Krol, communications manager at the Heard Museum and a member of the Xolon Salinan tribe. “The bulk of it is from 1895 to 2011.”
The Heard has thrown open the window to Indian communities to show the world what it is like to live on Colorado River tribal lands or a Navajo reservation. The galleries combine personal stories of American Indian people with the beauty of art to bring meaning to the artifacts sitting behind glass.
The museum stresses “the continuum of culture” or the preservation of basic patterns, techniques and art forms that were handed down for thousands of years.
For example, a landslide in Washington State exposed a Makah tribal village buried for more than 3,000 years. “They recovered artifacts because the cold mud had preserved them. They pulled baskets and found that today’s work is virtually the same as was produced thousands of years ago,” said Krol.
The late artist Allan Houser, a Chiricahua Apache who is considered an important 20th-century artist, is featured prominently at the Heard. Krol defends Houser and other native artists, whom some dismiss.
“We have native artists of the same caliber as Picasso, Michelangelo and Rodin, and the only thing different is their time frames,” said Krol. “Rodin responded to what was going on in Europe in the late 1800s. Houser responded to Native American events in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”
One of the first
One of the best Native American collections in the United States is at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, one of the first museums in the nation to launch a collection of Native American material. Previously, only natural-history museums did that.
“It’s the most visited part of the museum and one of the reasons people come,” said Bruce Guenther, chief curator. “It’s a reflection of the complexity and beauty of native cultures in an America raised on images of cowboys and Indians.”
The Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection of 3,000 objects from nearly every tribal culture of North America forms the body of the Native American collection.
The museum also contains the historically important Axel Rasmussen Collection of 800 objects, primarily from the Northwest Coast and Arctic regions and representative of the Northwest’s indigenous cultures.
Guenther said the “blow your socks off” pieces that transfix visitors are the transformation masks from the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. “The masks resemble ravens, storks or cranes, and when a string is pulled, the mask literally flies open, and there’s another character visible inside,” Guenther said.
The museum displays a series of masks side by side in progressive stages, from closed to open.
“We commissioned a contemporary Native American artist to create a costume to be worn in winter dances with transformation masks, from the stilts they walk on, resembling giant bird claws, to the black-and-white cape that opens to reveal a lining of feathers. It’s an amazing costume,” said Guenther. “With the stilts, it’s almost eight feet high and a delight to see; children always respond.”
In Indianapolis, the respected Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art boasts of Native American works from all regions of North America, the Southeast to the Arctic. The museum features pieces from nearly every tribal group, with particular attention to works by natives of the Plains and Southwest.
Every year, the museum purchases masterful artwork from native artists. “We’re best known for contemporary native art. Our collection is regarded in some art circles as the best in the world,” said Anthony Scott, communications manager.
Eiteljorg also enjoys a partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and its vast collection of a million-plus objects, some of which are displayed at the Eiteljorg.
“It really adds depth and breadth to our collection that we could never do on our own,” Scott said.
Scott said the museum strives to teach that Native Americans are not of one culture. And its galleries are organized that way. There are strong influences from many diverse cultures across North America.
One piece that holds special fascination for Scott is a wonderful bear claw necklace, a vivid example of using a part of an animal for decoration.
“When a native killed an animal, it is said the hunter assumed the spirit of that animal,” said Scott. “So the person wearing the necklace would have had the spirit of many bears. There are fascinating stories in that one piece.”
Another colorful piece is the museum’s full-size replica of a native totem pole that was originally located in Indiana. Curators found a photo of the old totem pole.
“We worked with the great-grandson of the original carver to create the replica,” said Scott. “Every totem pole has a story, and this one actually told of a bad mother-in-law who never liked her son-in-law.”
A cultural window
In the small town of Howes Cave, N.Y., the Iroquois Indian Museum uses art as a window to understanding Iroquois culture.
“Iroquois people are not relics of the past. They’re a vibrant culture,” said Erynne Ansel-McCabe, museum director.
The Iroquois’ long, rich history includes peacemaking, understanding and collaboration. They realized that warring was detrimental and formed the Six Nations of the Iroquois: Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk and Cayuga. Their art reflects their beliefs.
The museum is especially proud of the work of internationally exhibited Iroquois sculptor Stan Hill, an expert bone-and-antler carver.
“We had an exhibition of his work, and it was the most organic feeling walking among all of his pieces,” said Ansel-McCabe with reverence. “Stan always said that the animals left their antlers for him to find. Isn’t that beautiful?”
This year, the museum will feature in its contemporary gallery the Iroquois story of creation, which will include geese suspended from the ceiling.
“The creation story mentions a spirit woman falling from the sky and landing on geese that gently set her down on Mother Earth. We have new commissioned art to help express the creation story,” said Ansel-McCabe.
Next year, the focus will be on lacrosse, which is more than a game to the Iroquois, with special meaning as a centerpiece of their culture. Modern lacrosse sticks are mostly plastic. However, Iroquois lacrosse sticks are wooden, “more art than sticks,” said Ansel-McCabe.