and historical artifacts, items like this pouch (detail above)
in 'Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody
Essex Museum' show American Indian life and creativity. This
holder for herbal medicine, hunting charms or tobacco was
crafted from leather, quills, deer fur, metal and dye.
exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts merits a visit, posthaste.
are many reasons one should run, not walk, to see "Uncommon
Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum":
to get a glimmer of what the Americas' native peoples created in
the way of clothing, containers, weapons and ritual objects;
to see these precious items--each both an artwork and a historical
artifact--that rarely come into public view;
to take advantage of the exhibit before it packs up July 20 and
heads for home on the Massachusetts seacoast.
this treasure trove practically recommends itself.
what better time to see the exhibit than now, the beginning of the
bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition--that Virginia-born
enterprise that crossed a continent, and whose men depended so utterly
on the kindness of the natives they encountered?
can appreciate each object in this exhibit purely for its beauty
and craftsmanship; the patience and now-vanished expertise it took
to make many of the works is mind-boggling.
museum visitors are open and receptive, they also may leave asking
all kinds of questions about native cultures and the histories of
the people who lived here when Columbus and Cortez, John Smith,
the Puritans and all the rest first stepped off their boats.
Legacies" opens up whole worlds that most us never see--and
some that are gone forever.
colorful brochure each visitor is given at the entrance to the collection
makes the former point elegantly. It features six fold-out flaps,
rather like an Advent calendar, each of which opens to reveal an
image of an artifact from the exhibit.
back the flap bearing the image of a pair of blue jeans, and you
find fringed leggings made by the Eastern Sioux. Flip over the tennis
shoes, and there's a pair of brightly decorated moccasins. Turn
over a red parka to behold a buffalo robe from the Northern Plains,
inscribed with drawings that tell of beliefs and experiences.
Museum of Fine Arts borrowed items such as this sash from
the Peabody Essex Museum. The sash was made in the 1820s of
wool and beads.
object on display has its own story and, delightfully, some of those
tales are still known to us 150 years or more after they were created
by the people of various nations, then collected by white explorers,
traders, settlers and missionaries.
is astounding that so much about the provenance of many of the artifacts
is known. That detail is due to a policy of the Peabody Essex Museum's
earliest predecessor, the East India Marine Society, founded in
society urged all of its contributors--who were initially globe-trotting
sea captains based in Salem, Mass.--to keep diaries that described
and explained the curiosities they were bringing back to a young
to such care, more than a bit is known about the 119 pieces in this
exhibit, which represent the work of some 38 American Indian tribes.
catalog item 102, for instance. This ornate and brightly colored
baby carrier clearly shows how special infants were to that society.
Resplendent with quills, beads and shells, it may have been made
for Hester (Crooks) Boutwell on the birth of her first child, Elizabeth,
on Aug. 4, 1835. Hester, born in 1817 to an influential fur trader
and his Chippewa partner, taught at a mission on Lake Superior,
married William T. Boutwell in 1834 and died at 36 in Stillwater,
Minn., after bearing nine children.
visitors enter the exhibit's first gallery, a quote from Mary Lou
Fox Radulovich, director of the Ojibwa Cultural Foundation, sounds
an important theme: "Indian people have no word for art. Art
is a part of life, like hunting and fishing, growing food, bearing
and housing children. This is art in the broadest sense giving meaning
more you see of the exhibit, the clearer that idea becomes. It is
full of wonders, from the array of moccasins--each pair strikingly
different--to the brilliantly colored macaw-feather headdress from
the Amazon basin, to Chippewa herbal medicine pouches fashioned
of leather and quills to the antelope or mountain-goat-hide men's
shirt collected in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains by missionaries
in about 1840.
which closes July 20, includes this overcoat made in the 1820s
of mammal intestine and dyed esophagus.
awhile to enjoy and look and read and ponder, and you'll find your
own personal favorite.
the center of the last gallery stands mine, what my companion and
I regarded as the most extraordinary single object in the wonderful
array. Translucent, almost luminous, it glows in the spotlights,
each edge adorned with fine embroidery.
Aleut overcoat, made of mammal intestine and dyed esophagus, was
acquired by Seth Barker, master of the Boston ship Volunteer, which
traded on the Northwest coast in 1824 through 1827. Clearly influenced
by European styles, it is a high-collared officer's garment of a
kind commissioned by fur-company and military officials as souvenirs
magnificent garment--fit for a potentate--was created at a time
when thousands of native Alaskan people, many toiling in forced-labor
camps set up by the Russian American Co. fur monopoly, were perishing
from disease and inhuman working conditions.
one think the cultures that created such treasures are all long-gone,
two companion exhibits at the museum correct that notion. One is
on Virginia's eight tribes, featuring a fine video documentary that
adults and children watched raptly on a recent visit. The other
is "As Long as the Waters Flow: Native Americans in the South
and East," a moving assemblage of black-and-white portraits
of Indians from various tribes and communities, each telling a different
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and its partners are to be commended
for hosting "Uncommon Legacies." A tour de force richly
deserving of respect and reflection, this powerful exhibit stands
stereotypes on their heads.
learn about Virginia's Indians, visit the Web sites of the American
Indian Resource Center at the College of William & Mary, wm.edu/AIRC,
and the Virginia Council on Indians, indians.vipnet.org.