Midwest offers rich exhibitions of Native American art

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

Last year at the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, I saw the inspiring documentary film “Carvalho’s Journey,” about one of the first photographers to document the sweeping vistas and treacherous terrain of the American West.

Solomon Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, traveled in 1853 with John Fremont on the explorer’s fifth expedition into the West. Carvalho, who also was a painter, had no experience in the 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 I discovered that author and Native American studies scholar Arlene Hirschfelder had written in 2000 “Photo Odyssey: Solomon Carvalho’s Remarkable Western Adventure 1853-54.” Not only was I fascinated by Carvalho, but I 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. His men stayed behind with a group of Delaware guides. The Delaware ancestral lands had been taken from them and, by the 1850s, they had been pushed westward into what would soon be the Kansas Territory. But they were still famous for being skilled hunters and guides, and some tracked beaver all the way to the Rocky Mountains. 

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All of this made me want to pay special homage to our brave predecessors. 

Last year, I met Lona Barrick, executive officer of cultural tourism for the Chickasaw Nation at a Mid-America Arts Alliance meeting in Lincoln, Neb. Barrick says there is a Southeastern art show every year 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.

“The arts add wonder, color and imagination to a world that would be cold, stark and flat without them,” Barrack says. “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, the St. Louis Art Museum’s assistant curator of Native American Art, Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, 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, explorer William Clark founded the first museum west of the Mississippi. Among other things, Clark displayed fine works of Native American manufacturers including tanned hide clothing, wooden clubs, pipes and two canoes. 

The 1904 World’s Fair featured multiple displays of Native American art, and the St. Louis Art Museum has presented a number of important exhibitions, beginning in 1933 with the first major traveling exhibition of Native American art: “The Exposition of Tribal Arts.” Subsequent exhibitions have included “Vision of the People” in 1993, when the museum pitched three painted teepees outside, and “Art of the Osage” in 2004.

Marr’s current research focuses on early 20th 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. The site features the central section of the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Occupied from 700 to 1400 CE, the city grew to cover 4,000 acres with a population of between 10,000 to 20,000  at its peak between 1050 and 1150, according to Cahokia’s page on the UNESCO website. 

 The wonders and power of art of Native Americans continue, and Hirschfelder invites us to the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in the Chicago area to view “Contemporary Native Women Opening Doors to Change,” an exhibition through December that she co-curated with Paulette Molin. 

The exhibition showcases 12 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 include activists, advocates, artists, lawyers, curators, judges, linguists, political representatives, scientists, teachers and writers.

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

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.