Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Art of Native America at The Met

I recently had the pleasure of visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to see their exhibition, The Art of Native America. These pieces came from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, believed to be the largest collection of native art in private hands. On exhibit (through Oct. 6, 2019, if you get to NYC) were 113 items ranging from the second to the early twentieth century, and covering some fifty cultures from North America—from basically what is now the USA and Canada. For the purposes of the exhibition, the works were divided into seven areas of these countries, not states.  As much as I would have liked to, I obviously could not photograph the entire exhibition so have made what I felt were representative selections of each of the areas, plus a couple extra. Photographing exhibits is rather difficult due to the presence of other visitors, light, and showcasing, so I hope you’ll forgive the poor quality here.
The exhibition began with a series of quotes from prominent Native Americans working in museums, universities, and other art institutions. I’ll share two quotes here:  “Native history and American history are inseparable.  It is a rich history, as inspiring as it is terrible, and it belongs to all of us.” (Kevin Gover—Pawnee, Director, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.); “To engage Native art is to reconsider the meanings of America” (Ned Blackhawk—Western Shoshone, Professor of History and American Studies, Yale)
1. The Woodlands area covered most of the east coast of the USA and Canada. As with all native cultures, their religious beliefs were intrinsic to their art.  By the sixteenth century, trade with Euro-Americans expanded their works to include items such as glass beads and wool. Eventually forced by the US government to remove to other locales, they maintained their identity and culture.
Shoulder bag and moccasins--Muscogee (Creek)--ca.1830--SE, poss. GA or AL, wool, silk,  glass beads

2. The Plateau seemed to be a catch-all area meeting the plains and southwest, but also inclusive of part of the northwest.  Their art was expressed in useful items such as bowls and tools, and despite their interaction with Plains Indians they maintained a distinct style.  As European migration increased after the 1830s, nations such as the Nez Perce were squeezed into smaller areas.
Blanket strip--Nation or tribe unknown--ca. 1850--ID, OR or WA--bison, glass beads, horsehair, porcupine quills, dyed wool, brass bells

3. Southwest includes several cultural groups with distinct styles. Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century incited wars, and the arrival of Euro- Americans forced these peoples onto reservations in the late 1800s. Disease also took its toll. However, their inherent respect for the land, animals, and each other helped them adapt to the new American culture.
Quiver and arrows--Apache--ca.1875--AZ or NM--quiver:  leather, glass beads, and pigment; arrows:  cane, wood, pitch, stone, sinew, feathers

4. Plains Indians led a nomadic life in pursuit of the buffalo, prompting the decoration of their transportable belongings.  The loss of the buffalo in the late 1870s destroyed their lifestyle, and the ensuing domination by the US attempted to eliminate their culture, but reservation life brought new arts such as ledger art, as well as intertribal celebrations.
Boy's jacket--Crow--ca.1880--MT--native-tanned leather, glass beads, cotton cloth, commercial buttons

Cradleboards--(1) Ute (2)Kiowa--(1)1890 (2)1875--(1)CO (2)OK--wood, leather, pigment, glass beads, wool, metal cones, feathers, bone, rawhide, cotton cloth, brass tacks and link chain 

5. California and Great Basin have one of the greatest basketry traditions, which met with the interest of collectors and ethnologists. Prior to that, however, from around 1769, these Native Americans faced waves of Euro-Americans who subjected them to forced labor and violence, and whose livestock decimated their materials for basket weaving. Today their work has a new aesthetic and refinement.
Gift baskets--(1 & 3) Pomo, (2) Wappo or Coast Miwok--ca. (1)1910,(2)1890, (3)1880--CA--willow shoots, sedge root, bulrush roots, glass beads, clamshell beads, glass beads, quail feathers, abalone shells (1) is attributed to Belle Hildreth Variel (1881-1952); (2) att. Mary Mono

6. Northwest Coast artwork is marked by abstract pictorial images and curvilinear lines.  Interaction with non-native peoples in the late seventeenth century brought both benefits from trade and challenges such as disease and violence. From the mid- to late-eighteenth century, pressures from Euro-American settlements increased.
Women's ceremonial combs--Tlingit--ca.1840-1880--AK--wood

High-ranking man's ceremonial tunic & leggings--Chilkat/Tlingit--ca.1890--AK--cedar bark, mountain sheep, dye

7. Arctic peoples faced a Russian invasion in 1741, followed by French, Spanish and British.  These colonists brought disease and alterations to the life of the Native Americans, but despite this, their arts have survived. They express a cultural view that spiritual and human worlds are connected and interact, and this is evident in the sculptures and imagery of these peoples.
Mask--Yup'ik--ca.1900--AK--wood, pigment, vegetal fiber, iron nails, feathers

One can see that later works include more trade items, such as with the boy’s jacket’s buttons.  However, to me, the most moving piece in the exhibition was this tipi bag, made during the early reservation period. The US government had outlawed the Lakota’s annual Sundance and replaced it with July Fourth celebrations. Earlier artworks of the same nature had their traditional motifs replaced with both the flag and the Great Seal of the United States.
Tipi Bag--Lakota/Teton Sioux--ca. 1890--ND or SD--native-tanned leather, glass beads, metal cones, horsehair, dye

For more information on this exhibition, go to  If you hit ‘Exhibition Objects’ there are more photos of the items displayed as well.
And while in NYC—or anyplace else for that matter—why not make your reading Dances of the Heart, which will give you a small taste of life in the Big Apple. Available at  and other fine booksellers.

Successful, workaholic author Carrie Bennett lives through her writing, but can’t succeed at writing a man into her life. Furthermore, her equally successful but cynical daughter, Paige, proves inconsolable after the death of her fiancé.
Hard-drinking rancher Ray Ryder can find humor in just about anything—except the loss of his oldest son. His younger son, Jake, recently returned from Iraq, now keeps a secret that could shatter his deceased brother’s good name.
On one sultry night in Texas, relationships blossom when the four meet, starting a series of events that move from the dancehalls of Hill Country to the beach parties of East Hampton, and from the penthouses of New York to the backstreets of a Mexican border town. But the hurts of the past are hard to leave behind, especially when old adversaries threaten the fragile ties that bind family to family…and lover to lover.  


Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Andrea, thank you for the armchair museum tour. I enjoyed your photographs! Looking at your pictures and reading the description of the people who made the items reminds me again how we as humans need art--even to the point of covering functional items with pleasing decorations. I'm also thankful that someone thought to preserve these items so we can enjoy them today. Thanks for sharing your trip to the museum with us!

Paty Jager said...

Awesome post, Andrea! Wish I could get there, but it isn't happening. I enjoyed the photos and the information.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

What a wonderful collection! Thanks for the armchair tour.

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, you're very welcome. It was a really pleasant day out for me, though at times I did feel the work could have been arranged. it was difficult at some points to understand their breakdown of the seven areas; for instance, they discussed Sub-Artic and Artic and Northwest Coast, but the nations who inhabited these areas overlapped into two or three--for instance, the Tlingit. In any event, the items were truly beautiful and well worth seeing!

Andrea Downing said...

Well, Paty, I'm glad to have brought you a little taste. There are so many of these items on view in other museums around the country--I guess we can't make it to all of them. it's just wonderful to know they are preserved.

Andrea Downing said...

Kristy, you're very welcome. Perhaps we can revisit together if you're in town during the next year as it will be on until October.

Unknown said...

Beautiful baskets. Belle Variel is my Great Great Grandmother. I would love to know how you got that basket or story. Thanks