MUSEUM: “Infinity of Nations” reveals true spectrum of Native America
New York—The National Museum of the American Indian has opened a landmark exhibition of 700 objects—which span the Americas and more than 13,000 years—in its museum in Lower Manhattan.
The exhibition is named “Infinity of Nations,” an expression drawn from the letters of a Jesuit among the Ojibwe near the Great Lakes, who in exasperation wrote of the infinity of Indian nations that confounded his ideas of organization. So the exhibition by this name shows how Indian art ranges widely from nation to nation, from geography to geography, confounding simple definition, and standing the idea of the simplicity of pre-contact Native America on its head.
“This exhibition represents a homecoming of the collection to the George Gustav Heye Center,” said John Haworth, Cherokee, who is director of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian.
In a review of the exhibition in the New York Times (Nov. 5, 2010), titled “Grace and Culture Intertwined,” art critic Holland Cotter observed, “Boundless multiplicity is the rule.”
Heye was a New York industrialist who amassed most of this 825,000-item collection, funding anthropologists to collect objects from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic. When he died in 1957, he owned the largest private collection of American Indian arts and artifacts in the world. His Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan was an annual field trip for generations of New York school children.
In 1989 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired the collection for what would become the National Museum of the American Indian. But it promised to always keep a presence in New York, opening the museum in the United States Custom House in Lower Manhattan in 1994. And some at the October opening of “Infinity of Nations” observed that this exhibition fulfilled the intent of the promise.
“Lower Manhattan was the place through which most people entered the New World, and now to have a world-class exhibition of the First Peoples in Lower Manhattan is extraordinary,” Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told a crowd of elected officials and business leaders who came to the early morning official opening.
On one of several tours associate curator Cécile R. Ganteaume has given of the exhibition that she spent five years planning, she said, “This is a collection survey. It is not intended to present only the great quality, but also depth and diversity. It is also intended to explore the historical significance of objects.”
Sixty Native advisers from cultures across the hemisphere helped to guide the selections, and shared stories on the origins of pieces. Each display, encased in sheets of floor-to-ceiling Italian glass that make the objects viewable from different angles, is a microcosm of Native America, Ganteaume observed. Smaller pieces are displayed on barely visible metal arms, but many large-scale pieces made from wood and stone stand in their cases.
Each region is represented by a signature piece of unique artistry. Among these is a Mapuche ceremonial drum (ca. 1920) from central Chile. It is circular, representing the “world infinitum,” and a cross painted on its surface marks the divides in the world between spiritual and natural, and among the directions north, south, east and west. Nearby a Yámana bark mask (ca. 1910) from the Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina is displayed. Placed together, the two nations represent both the survival and decimation of Native peoples, Ganteaume observed.
“The Yámana were hunted down by sheep ranchers in the early 20th century and are nearly extinct,” Ganteaume said. “But the Mapuche number nearly a million today.”
A Quechua-speaking artist from the village of San Mateo in Tayacaja Province, Peru, told the story of Native participation in the 1880 war between Peruvian and Chilean forces on an intricately carved gourd (ca. 1925). Mariano Flores Kananga would have been about 30 at the time of the war, old enough to remember and perhaps participate with the Indigenous troops defending a mountain village. His art is thought to be the only documentation of their participation in the war, she said.
An Apsáalooke warrior’s exploit robe (ca. 1850) is laid flat under glass, allowing visitors to view its drawing depicting vignettes of personal warfare. The robe was acquired by a collector from a Blackfoot, which seems unusual because the robe is from the Blackfoot’s enemy, the Apsáalooke or the Crow. But to Ganteaume, the provenance of the robe illustrates the movement of goods through trade and other exchanges among Indian nations, and along trade routes that stretch across whole regions of the continent.
It also raises another idea about Indian scouts, who are reviled by history and by their enemies for their support of the U.S. Army, but who may have been making difficult decisions, Ganteaume said, to protect the survival of their own people.
A colorfully beaded and fringed Inuit woman’s parka called a tuilli (ca. 1890-1925) shows the innovation that occurred in styles of clothing after contact with whalers in the central Canadian Arctic, but also through the creativity of one Inuit woman. Nearly 160,000 beads were used to decorate this parka, including a beaded panel from an earlier tuilli. It has big roomy shoulders so the wearer can lay her nursing baby flat with feet in either shoulder.
Some objects are included for their historic significance. They include Tecumseh’s pipe tomahawk, presented to him in 1812, a year before he died in battle, by British Colonel Henry Proctor. Also, woven wool garters that likely belonged to Osceola, the Seminole leader whom George Catlin painted wearing these or similar garters; and the silk, satin and lace wedding dress worn by Susette La Flesche, an Omaha woman who advocated for the release of imprisoned Ponca leaders, including Standing Bear.
Tim Johnson, associate director for museum programs, called the work that generated this exhibition a “world-leading experience.”
“Five years ago we set out on a course to establish an exhibition practice and methodology that projected the full power, beauty, and meaning of American Indian expression while strengthening the purpose, substance, and veracity of Native interpretation of a collection largely assembled by George Gustav Heye,” said Johnson, who is Mohawk.
“Infinity of Nations” will be a permanent exhibition at the museum in New York, though over time some pieces will be exchanged for others. The volume, “Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian” ($29.99, HarperCollins), is a coffee-table book filled with essays by exhibition curators and advisers. Parts of the exhibition can be viewed online at www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/.
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service
The collector behind most of objects in the Infinity of Nations exhibition
American Indian News Service
George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) was the wealthy industrialist who amassed most of this 825,000-item collection, buying and funding anthropologists to collect objects from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic. When he died, Heye owned the largest private collection of American Indian arts and artifacts in the world. It was housed for decades at the Museum of the American Indian at Broadway and 155th Street in Manhattan. In those cramped quarters objects were crowded together, and yet visitors, including generations of New York schoolchildren, came to the museum because of the wonder of its collection. It was acquired in 1989 by the Smithsonian Institution for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., with the promise that the museum would always maintain a presence in New York. Its current home, the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in the U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan in 1994.
American Indian News Service