Powerful Images

Santo Domingo Olla, Eiteljorg Museum, pottery, southwest art.
Santo Domingo Olla, Eiteljorg Museum

This month Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America opens at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY, before traveling to six other western museums. The show presents works that explore how Native Americans have been portrayed by Euro-American artists, in popular culture, and by Indian artists themselves. It includes historic and contemporary Indian artifacts. Through pieces such as a Henry Farny painting, a Hopi kachina doll, and the suede shirt worn by Jay Silverheels for the role of Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” this exhibit captures the significance, influence, tragedy, and frequent misunderstandings of Native American culture.

Powerful Images aims to illustrate various perceptions and dispel the stereotypes so prevalent today. “Despite the diversity of native North American cultures, Native Americans have been alternately stereotyped, miscast, and romanticized,” writes Byron Price, executive director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in the show catalog. “Powerful Images aims to encourage visitors to test their perceptions of Native Americans and begin to see how their concepts have been formed and generalized.” The exhibit provides an interesting contrast between art about Native Americans and art created by Native Americans, which should help people better define the line between myth and fact.

Warbonnet and Trailer, Buffalo Bill Historical Center,painting, Southwest Art.
Warbonnet and Trailer, Buffalo Bill Historical Center

The following excerpt is from an essay by Emma I. Hansen that is included in the exhibit catalog. Since the first Euro-American artists and scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries visited native peoples of North America and collected objects representative of their cultures, the traditional arts of Native Americans have been categorized, analyzed, and defined by non-native scholars. Early explorers including Lewis and Clark and artists like George Catlin and Karl Bodmer collected clothing, ornaments, painted hides, and other materials as specimens to describe and illustrate the Indians they had met.

In the early decades of the 20th century, many large museum collections were amassed by institutions like the Field Museum of Natural History, the Heye Foundation (now the National Museum of the American Indian), the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Museum of Natural History. By then, most of the tribes had been under the control of the reservation system for 30 years or more, and the lives of American Indians had been drastically altered.

The once-massive herds of buffalo, which were the center of the Plains Indians’ economic and spiritual lives, had been decimated by commercial hide hunters. The people themselves were reduced by disease, starvation, and warfare, with some tribes such as the Mandan, Pawnee, and Omaha suffering as much as a 95 percent population loss by the last half of the 19th century. With the loss of lives, homelands, and the freedom to go beyond the boundaries of the reservations, many people also experienced a loss of spirit and faith in their traditional beliefs and medicines. These conditions allowed large numbers of objects, which were mistakenly viewed as ethnographic remnants of dying and disappearing cultures, to be purchased by private and museum collectors. Even ceremonial bundles, once the keystones of spiritual life, found their way into museum collections.

Crow Cradle, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, craft, southwest art.
Crow Cradle, Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Once inside museums, these  ethnographic objects were often stored, cataloged, preserved, and displayed as natural history specimens of seemingly unchanging 19th-century cultures. Lakota anthropologist Bea Medicine describes this process as “laundry-list anthropology,” in which the objects came to define the cultures and “the material goods assumed more dynamic qualities than the people themselves.”

Recently, the aesthetic qualities of American Indian art have been emphasized through exhibitions at art museums and galleries. A beautifully carved buffalo-horn spoon, for example, collected as an ethnographic specimen in the late 19th century, may now be viewed as an example of Plains Indian sculpture and exhibited apart from its tribal context and the artist who created it. Once-functional southwestern pottery is now made for market and prized by collectors for its form and design.

As recent writings have stressed, North American Indian languages have no equivalent word for art. Traditional Indian materials, while admired within their cultural contexts for craftsmanship or design, were part of the cultures that produced them and had important economic, social, or spiritual functions. According to Lloyd New, “Although Indians of the past probably never considered themselves to be practicing artists in pursuit of art for its own sake, art was nonetheless integral in the growth of Indian culture. For them, art and culture are inseparable—art is essential to the shaping of culture and simultaneously shaped by it.”

Rather than being products of an artistic process, the objects on view in Powerful Images serve as reflections of cultural ideals, beliefs, and knowledge. They may manifest the spirituality of a people, or they may support community and individual achievements, aspirations, and the proper roles of men, women, children, and elders. For the artists, the creative process with its attendant preparations, songs, and prayers may have as much value as the completed work.