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Commentary: A rich culture of Native American art flourishes in the Midwest

I recently saw an inspiring documentary film title “Carvalho’s Journey” here in St. Louis at the Jewish Film Festival.

In 1853, travelling with explorer John Fremont’s Fifth Westward Expedition, Carvalho became one of the first photographers to document the sweeping vistas and treacherous terrain of the far American West.

Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, was a painter and had no experience in this rugged outdoor life.  He probably would not have survived without the help of 14 Delaware and Wyandot guides and several topographers.

I became fascinated by this courageous man and found that author and scholar in Native American studies Arlene Hirschfelder wrote a book titled “Photo Odyssey: Solomon Carvalho’s Remarkable Western Adventure 1853-54.”  Not only was I fascinated by Carvalho, but was made very much aware of how without the help of Native Americans, the Fremont explorations would have been next to impossible.

In a chapter called “Buffalo Hunting,” Hirschfelder talks of how Fremont became ill and had to go to St. Louis to recover and his men stayed behind with a group of Delaware Indians.  The Delaware ancestral lands had been taken away from them, and by the 1850’s they had been pushed westward into Kansas Territory.  But they were still famous as skilled hunters and guides, and some tracked beavers all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

All of this made me want to pay special homage to our brave predecessors. Of all things, a couple of weeks later I met Lona Barrick, Executive Officer of Cultural Tourism for the Chickasaw Nation at a Mid-America Arts Alliance meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Barrick says there is a Southeastern Art Show every year which is sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation which also has a fabulous youth component.  She feels the Chickasaw Nation must continue its creativity and keep the fires burning.

Barrick says, “The arts add wonder, color and imagination to a world that would be cold, stark and flat without them.  Chickasaw artists speak of our past, present and future with voices heard through paint and canvas, metal, glass, textiles, music and performance.”

St. Louis has a wealth of Native American art and artifacts.  Christopher Gordon, Director of the Library and Collections at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis says, “Few people realize that the Missouri Historical Society has one of the oldest and largest Native American collections in the United States.  It is a diverse collection which consists of everything from ancient artifacts to modern art pieces.  The Missouri Historical Society was one of the first institutions to collect artifacts of the Mississippian culture, the ancient Cahokia people who built the hundreds of mounds which existed on both sides of the Mississippi River.  The important collection contains nearly 10,000 archaeological pieces of ancient art and tools.

“In addition, the Society’s collections hold elaborate eagle feather headdresses and skillfully crafted pipes created by tribal groups of the Great Plains, beaded and porcupine quill work clothing of Great Lakes tribes, and more modern art pieces crafted by Osage artists.”

Alexander Marr, Assistant Curator of Native American Art, Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at The Saint Louis Art Museum, says, “The art museum has collected Native American Art since 1920, which is early for U.S. art museums. Strengths of the collection include masterworks of Northwest Coast art (from Morton May) and Plains art (from Donald Danforth, Jr.), though the collection includes material from across North American and multiple donors.”

Marr also told me that in 1816 William Clark founded the first museum west of the Mississippi.  Among other things, Clark displayed fine works of Native American manufacture including tanned hide clothing, wooden clubs, pipes and two canoes.  The 1904 World’s Fair is a major event in the history of Native American art, with multiple displays of that genre.  The Saint Louis Art Museum has presented a number of important exhibitions, beginning with the first major traveling exhibition of North American Art: “The Exposition of Tribal Arts” in 1933.  Subsequent exhibitions have included “Vision of the People” in 1993, when SLAM pitched three painted teepees outside the museum, and “Art of the Osage in 2004.”

Marr’s current research focuses on early-twentieth century Native American art, a time of great change for Native American artists and a time when Americans began to view their work as art, rather than specimen or curio.

A trip across the river to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is well worth your time.  At the site is preserved the central section of the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico.  Occupied from 700 AD to 1400, the city grew to cover 4000 acres with a population of between10 and 20 thousand at its peak around 1100 AD.

The wonders and power of art of Native Americans continue and Arlene Hirschfelder invites us all to the Mitchell Museum of The American Indian in the Chicago area to view the exhibition which she co-curated with Paulette Molin entitled, “Contemporary Native Women Opening Doors to Change.”  The exhibition showcases twelve indigenous leaders whose contributions make a difference in the lives of countless people.  These richly diverse women are renowned for their work on issues ranging from land and environment, tribal sovereignty, culture and language to economic injustice.  The exhibit draws from their eloquent voices, stunning photographs and selected objects to tell their stories.

The Native women featured included activists, advocates, artists, attorneys, curators, judges, linguists, political representatives, scientists, teachers and writers.

The exhibit opened this past June and will close in a year.

The rich culture and history of Native Americans surrounds us.  Let’s all enjoy what the Midwest has to offer in this arena.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.