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Back to Reviews 98


native paths
by Fred Stern  

Julian Scott Ledger artist
Twelve High-Ranking Kiowa Men

Fort Marion artist
Fort Sill (Pawnee Village)

Western Apache ceremonial robe
ca. 1880

Northern Plains Crow Man's shirt
ca. 1880

Eastern Woodlands, Saulteaux-Métis(?)
Shot pouch
ca. 1820

Eastern Woodlands, Huron
Pair of moccasins
ca. 1830

Southwest, Zuni
Hilili kachina
ca. 1890

Southwest Laguna Pueblo jar
ca. 1890

Southwest, Hopi-Tewa
ca. 1905

Central California Pomo
Gift basket
ca. 1860

Artic Yup'ik Eskimo mask
early 1900's

Pacific Northwest, Nuu-Chah-Nulth
Fish-trap rattle
ca. 1910
   None of the American Indian tongues have a word for "art," but there are many words for pride, beauty, creativity, dreaming and seeing. Great objects of American Indian art are monuments to the Native American spirit, to the perception of beauty in nature, to a love of animals, to the Indian drive for survival.

One of America's most important collections of American Indian art is on display at the Met until well into the year 2000. The exhibition, titled "Native Paths: American Indian Art from the Collection of Charles and Valerie Diker," features some 140 objects. The Dikers, who have homes in New York and New Mexico, have co-chaired the trustee board of the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

Collections don't grow by themselves. They need careful nurturing. The Dikers have spent many years growing and caring for their collection, which now ranges from Indian drawings and quill- and beadwork to pottery, baskets and Indian and Eskimo sculpture.

Ledger Drawings
The specific drawing style that is indigenous to the Plains Indians developed over many lifetimes, and is known to us primarily from pictographic images on deer and buffalo hides. The style underwent significant changes after the Indian peoples were relocated and settled on reservations. The "x-ray vision" that showed horse and rider in overlapping lines disappeared, to be replaced by a formal parade of men and women in all their tribal finery and pride. These drawings, mostly from the 1880s, were done on ledger paper discarded by traders and soldiers. They are proud attempts by warrior-artists to assert their traditions, preserve their glorious history and mourn the tragedy brought to their race.

On display are drawings from the Julian Scott Ledger, done in l880 by unidentified Kiowa artists on the Kiowa, Comanche and Wichita Agency. A drawing by "Artist B" in the Scott Ledger shows l2 Kiowa men of high rank in splendid costume. A Pawnee village, drawn by "the Fort Marion Artist," features an astounding number of men and women at a Pawnee Harvest Festival celebrating the Sacred Corn and the Sacred Buffalo.

While drawings were mostly executed by men, quillwork and beadwork were the province of the women. The quills were of course porcupine quills. Quills were traded between tribes and were used almost uniformly throughout the continent. Quillwork followed traditional tribal patterns, styles and applications, but each woman artist tried to add her own touch, and inevitably she passed her skills and know-how on to her daughters or other female family members.

The artist usually flattened the quills with her teeth, then made the design either by weaving the quills or mounting them to an appliqué that was stitched to the buckskin with strong sinew thread. Traditionally, quillwork decorated deer and buffalo hides used for garments, bags, cradles, moccasins and weapons cases. Quills were not used for decorative purposes anywhere else in the world.

Iroquois and Huron natives in particular left many highly ornamented quillwork moccasins dating back to the 1820s, and such works are an important component of the Diker Collection.

Animal Skin Painting
On view are several beautiful painted shirts, robes, dresses and even toy tipis made of tanned skin by the Plains and Woodland Indians. Most of the painting was done with bone or wooden styluses; fork-shaped markers were used for drawing parallel lines.

The pigments were dissolved in hot water and then mixed with an adhesive. Good binders proved to be boiled hide scrapings, fish roe and cactus juice. Women artists painted geometric patterns, and men would paint the pictographs, usually hunting scenes or visionary experiences.

Good examples of the pictographic style are a Western Apache ceremonial robe, ca. l880, and an Arapaho girl's robe with a colorful, dynamic geometric pattern, ca. l870.

Glass beads imported from Europe had a tremendous influence on the Indian artist. It enabled a squaw to sew quickly, and the tremendous selection of colors and lengths allowed her to indulge her decorative skills to the fullest. Beads proved especially suitable when applied to cloth imports. With the beads inevitably came the introduction of floral designs from American folk art. Beadwork appears, notably, in a Crow man's shirt, featuring factory-woven cloth, pigment, ermine and feathers. Other examples are a woman's dress, belt and awl case, ca. l870, from the Wasco Plateau.

Kachina Dolls
The Diker collection is also rich in Kachina dolls. Kachinas are supernatural spirits that are said to bring good fortune, and the dolls act as teaching tools, designed to demonstrate the religious significance of the various areas in which these spirits operate. Always on view above the children's beds, their influence and importance were strong.

A Zuni kachina of around l890 features native-tanned skin, paper pigment, feathers, horse hairs, plant fibers, wool yarn and a metal shell.

Pueblo Pottery
Almost 2,000 years ago, Mexican pottery was introduced to the Pueblo Indians -- though Pueblo oral traditions record that pottery was part of the world when it was created. Large jars (ollas) stored water and dried fruit. Smaller pots were used for cooking, and bowls were typically used in food preparation or as serving dishes.

Pueblo pottery is made by women. The clay is cleaned, soaked and cleaned again. Small pebbles and other impurities are removed with a sieve. Pueblos do not make pots using a wheel; instead the clay is coiled to form a pot or bowl. The completed form is sanded, and then coated with layers of a watery clay mixture. While slightly damp the form is polished with a smooth stone. Colors of either vegetable or mineral origin are applied. After painting, the pottery is fired, usually outdoors, using a wood or manure fire.

Change and flexibility are the constants of Southwestern pottery. In the early period of pottery casting, beginning around AD 1050, Socorro pottery most often featured black and white geometric decoration.

The Diker collection also includes work by acknowledged 20th-century master potters such as Nampeyo, a Hopi, and the Pueblo potters Maria and Julian Martinez. Ancestral rock art designs distinguish the work of the Martinezes. Nampeyo reinterpreted bird and feather symbolism in her creations.

Basket Weaving
Basket making was an integral part of Indian life. Weaving techniques differed widely, although this may not be apparent to the average observer. Weaves were determined largely by tribal traditions and practices. A Pomo basket from Central California and a Panamint-Shoshone basket will differ greatly in design pattern as well as in materials used. The Shoshone basket uses Yucca roots, the Pomo basket sedge root and bullrush. Quail feathers decorate the top of the Pomo basket while the Shoshone basket has no such decoration.

Planting and harvesting plant materials for baskets was done carefully and based on centuries-old traditions. The materials had to have proper hue, size and strength before they could be used. The harvesting was a prayerful operation, rich in symbolic meaning. The harder bark of the plant was usually turned to the outer surface of the basket to safeguard the composition. Indian women were well aware that their efforts would affect the life and durability of their baskets.

Basket production had primarily served the Indian market, but the Chicago World's Fair of l892 brought Indian baskets before a wide public. By the early 1900s curators complained that Indian baskets of the old quality and quantity were no longer available. Indians, aware of new marketing possibilities, quickly changed working methods, improved their efficiency and began working for the non-Indian market. A Tlingit whale basket from the Pacific Southwest from 1910 is an example of this new development.

American Indian and Eskimo Sculpture
Among the most exciting components of the Diker collection are its sculpture. Here many new elements come into play. The three dimensionality of Indian and Eskimo art is apparent, as is the wood-carving skills and the immense ability to translate shamanistic vision into visually stimulating objects. The shaman was involved in almost all aspects of Indian life, but his role was especially important in potlatch assemblies, where epics were related to the sound of rattles and the sight of intricate masks.

The Diker collection features an elaborate seal hunt mask from the early 1900s. This Hooper Bay mask takes the shape of a kayak. It features seal flippers at its base and salmon spirits at the top. The mask was used in prayer rituals for survival and good hunting.

Although the Metropolitan is to be congratulated for bringing such a superb selection of objects to public view, the show deserves better presentation space. And Native American material is seldom presented in such dim lighting conditions. Due to its size, the collection is being shown in three rotations.

Finally, the exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue, Native Paths, available in the museum shop for $19.95.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.