Exquisite Art of American Indians

"Arrows of the Spirit: Art Treasures of American Indian Heritage" at the Mingei Museum was conceived as a celebration of American Indian art.

Martha Longenecker, the Mingei's director and this exhibition's curator, said the museum wanted Native American art to speak for itself during this quincentennial year of Columbus' discovery of America. They wanted to inform people that Native American art "is unsurpassed, and belongs to the mainstream art world."

Native American art definitely deserves the same type of appreciation accorded to other art forms, but the show's too-broad premise and lack of background information keep the viewer from fully appreciating the works.

Though such shortcomings make the exhibition frustrating, it is an exhibition well worth seeing. All of the pieces are exquisite.

The show spans about 1,000 years and includes tribes from across the United States. Adding to the problem of the large scope is that the collection is neither in chronological nor regional order and there are no explanatory texts. Consequently, an uninitiated viewer could assume that all tribes are alike, when in fact they are highly individual.

The museum should at least have included a wall map of the locations of tribes and an explanation stating that these tribes are no more alike than the French, English or Spanish.

And the delicate issue of how the Native Americans were treated by Europeans when they arrived in North America is ignored. The fact that Native Americans were exterminated, subjugated and removed from their lands has made the quincentennial celebration problematic for many people.

The Mingei Museum never addresses this issue, but the arrival of the white man surfaces in various objects. Thus it probably should have been pointed out because the interlopers affected both native lives and art. For example, the U.S. flag was added to Indian imagery. Several items in this show depict the flag. These include a Santee Sioux vest (circa 1890 in which four American flags are surrounded by floral work) and two pair of Sioux moccasins from roughly the same date. However, we aren't told what the U.S. flag means. Were the tribes trying to be patriotic or was the flag somehow forced into the Sioux work.

The exhibition also includes a beaded ration-ticket pouch from 1880. The viewer is given no explanation of why the Cheyenne or Kiowa Plains Indians would have needed a bag to carry the ration coupons, but it can be assumed that it was instigated by the U.S. government.

But, despite the logistic shortcomings, the museum should be commended for its selections.

The first items seen are several pieces of pottery dating from 900-1300, well before Columbus' arrival in the Americas. These pieces include Anasazi clay ladles and Mimbres' classic geometric bowls."

The simple geometric and figurative decorations on the tribe's bowls seem surprisingly contemporary and can be easily appreciated. However, because there is no explanation next to the bowls, one never fully appreciates their significance. You wouldn't know that these particular bowls were buried with the dead or that the holes found on the bottom of the bowls were probably placed there to "kill" the bowl so that its spirit could accompany the human in the afterlife.

Also included in this room are Navajo peyote rattles from 1940-1955, three Hopi Kachina dolls from around the turn of this century, a 1921 sand-painting rug by the noted Navajo artist Hosteen Klah, and the sand painting "Pollenboy in the Sun," created specifically for this exhibition by Navajo artist Joe Ben Jr.

Because the show is packed with objects, it is easy to miss something special. For example, hanging unobtrusively above a case of Sioux and Cheyenne beaded vests, saddlebags, and moccasins from the late 19th Century is a wonderful pre-1957 "Eskimo Mask." Carved from wood, this fairly realistic face is surrounded by a coil. Attached to the coil are miniature carved objects depicting fish, hands and feet.

Among other items that stand out is a case of glass-bead balls made by the Plains Indians. Hanging on a wall is a painted elk hide by the Wind River Shoshoni depicting warriors in the midst of battle. An 1854 buffalo robe by the Chippewa is also hand painted, but its imagery consists of geometric shapes painted red, yellow and blue.

All of the exhibition's items either served a purpose or were decorative.

Two cases are filled with jewelry created by the Hopi, Navajo, Santo Domingo and Sinagua tribes. And there are several serapes and blankets by the Hopi, Moki, Navajo and Plains Indians.

Only inadvertently does this exhibition reveal aspects of various tribes. It represents not only how they lived but how beauty graced even the most utilitarian objects.

"Arrows of the Spirit" may raise questions that are not answered here, but it does incite the viewer to learn more. And it does instill a high appreciation for the work left behind by these tribes.

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