We know, or feel that we know, a good deal about Native American art. Pressed for examples, most of us conjure pictures of totem poles, Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry from the Southwest. But we tend to draw a blank when asked about the art of the tribes who, before their forced removal by way of the infamous Trail of Tears, populated the South and Midwest for thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived.
HERO, HAWK, AND OPEN HAND : AMERICAN INDIAN ART OF THE ANCIENT MIDWEST AND SOUTH'
When: Saturday through Jan. 30
Unless we're archaeologists or art historians, we probably have only the vaguest notion that a vast body of Native American art from the region -- a complex and mystical art created by a highly developed early civilization in what is now a stretch from Illinois to Florida -- even exists.
That's why "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South," opening Saturday at the Art Institute of Chicago, may come as a surprise. Curated by the Art Institute's Richard F. Townsend, the exhibit gathers 300 stone and wood sculptures, embellished ceramics, implements and ritual objects created between 5000 B.C. and 1600 A.D., all essentially unknown by the American public, including many Native Americans.
"What I hope people will mainly come to understand about this collection of art is its very existence, because many people are just utterly unacquainted with the fact that such a thing ever happened here," Townsend says. "What I'm talking about is a cultural phenomenon similar to that of ancient Mesopotamia, but somehow it doesn't figure in our concept of history. It seems to be disjoined from the sense of what peoples have accomplished here over the centuries."
The reasons for this ignorance are rooted in the flawed mythos of the American wilderness. The idea of a pre-Columbian landscape of virginal forests and rolling prairies without a cultural past has its seed in the decline of the region's town-dwelling cultures, which suffered from the spread of disease -- especially smallpox -- brought by European settlers; some native populations were reduced by as much as 90 percent.
"But it was more than that, too," Townsend says. "It was the readiness on the part of Europeans to see all the indigenous societies as 'the other,' to see them as part of the forest and the mountains and the natural state that could be taken over."
Then came the early 19th-century relocation of the tribes, mostly to Oklahoma, and the subsequent suppression of their languages, religion and culture that continues, some argue, to this day -- all of which helped to consign their art to obscurity. (Southwest Indian art, by contrast, profited from tourism promoted by railroads.)
"Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," then, is designed to throw off the cloak of invisibility that has shielded the work from view.
Prepare to be stunned.
"The art expresses a religious system practiced by the Native Americans that is second to none, that ranks among the great religions developed by anybody at any time and at any place," says F. Kent Reilly III, a professor of anthropology at Texas State University in San Marcos. "In its complexity, in its sense of cosmological order, it ranks up there with the religions of the ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians."
Reilly, who served as a consultant on the project and contributed an essay to its handsome catalog, makes another fundamental observation: "The art itself is simply exquisite. And frankly, it's about time to treat this as art, not just as natural history, and to let people see for themselves the enormous quality of the work. A lot of the pieces are small, but my goodness, the excellence of their execution. The masterpieces are masterpieces for anyone."
Townsend's title for the exhibit reflects the three main themes among the pieces, most of which were excavated (and sometimes looted) from the familiar "moundbuilder" sites in the region -- especially downstate Cahokia, Moundville, Ala., and Etowah, in northwestern Georgia -- or dug up via agricultural activities. (All of the pieces are on loan from a variety of museums and private collectors.)
The first theme, and perhaps the most important, is that of the hero, a central figure in the interlocking system of myths, legends and sagas that made up Native American cosmology and spirituality. The hero, in many of the ancient stories -- he made regular journeys into the spirit world and back, waged fierce battles against enemies, took fearsome trophies and cheated death -- was called Morning Star or Red Horn, so named for the braid of hair that framed his face.
Perhaps the exhibit's most striking image of this hero is a flint clay figurine found in Spiro, Okla., depicting a resting warrior with Red Horn's distinctive braid and earrings in the shape of human heads. Two of his most definitive adornments are a cap carved in the image of a vagina -- a symbol of earth and of ownership -- and, on his curving back, a cape of scalps.
"In every society we have heroes, from Hercules to Superman, as models for the performance of heroic deeds," Townsend says. "The Native Americans in ancient times had the idea of the hero as a person who brings back fire, or brings back the seeds that are going to provide plants, or who leads the people in ways that benefit to humankind. It was the way in which the people poetically told the stories that connected them to the time of genesis and the time of the beginnings, a way of explaining all that which is otherwise unexplainable."
The exhibit is also full of animal imagery, including several depictions of humans transforming into animals or vice versa. Native American mythology embraced the world of animals, viewing them as creatures with supernatural properties who live in an outer world beyond that of living humans and therefore closer to the greater powers of nature, the earth, rain and lightning, the sun and moon. As such, the animals -- including serpents, turtles and fantastic creatures known as "underwater panthers" -- were intermediaries between humankind and the outermost world of powerful and sometimes dangerous forces affecting fertility, the seasons, the weather and the afterlife.
Perhaps no animal was as important to ancient Midwest and Southern tribes as the hawk. Its image -- in the form of effigy pipes, or carved on whelk shells and other objects -- soars majestically through the exhibit, sometimes in realistically depicted forms and, at other times, as the anthropomorphic (or perhaps transmogrified) Birdman.
But the exhibit's most mysterious emblem is the open-hand image, which appears engraved on plates, discs and palettes; it also takes spectacular form in several mica cutouts such as one found in Ohio, created between the first and fourth centuries A.D. With its outstretched fingers and hooked thumb, it is interpreted by scholars as a symbol of greeting, perhaps of ownership, but also of communication between the worlds of humans and spirits.
"The fingers are much longer than ordinary," Townsend says. "They rise up, and there's a sense of aspiration to them, an abstract elegance that lifts one's sensibility in a way that's completely unlike how an anatomically recognizable image might remind you of a hand. This has an expressive value more than a reference to the physical plane."
Other hand images in the exhibit are even more clearly symbolic: an eye set into a palm -- a reference, probably, to what we know as the constellation Orion (a cluster of stars seen by the Indians as a hand containing an eye). "When this sinks toward the horizon," Townsend says, "it becomes a kind of portal for the souls of the departed to go into the underworld and then to rise up eventually and become part of the Milky Way, the home of the ancestral dead."
It took five years to mount "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," in part because of painstaking process of consulting with tribal leaders, especially in Oklahoma, and the vetting of each piece in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which gives the tribes right of approval over display of native art and artifacts. (The exhibit contains no human remains or objects used by the tribes in modern religious practices.)
Townsend and his collaborators insist that the exhibit is intended to be seen by all Americans regardless of their ethnicity.
"It isn't just Native American material, it's American material," Reilly says. "It's ours, it belongs to us and to our past. I tell all my students: 'This is your past, and you need to celebrate it.'"
Even so, everyone associated with the exhibit is fully aware that it will be experienced in different ways by Native American and non-Indian viewers. For many Native Americans descended from the Southern and Midwestern tribes, the exhibit may be both a welcome recognition of their artistic heritage and a painful reminder of loss.
"I'll have, I guess you would say, mixed feelings," says Jeraldine Redcorn, a Caddo woman from Norman, Okla., who will be demonstrating traditional Caddo pottery at the Art Institute as part of the exhibit's opening-week activities. "It's a sign that we lost the lands, and that we lost the ability to make the art that our ancestors made. On the other hand, I think it becomes a matter of pride for me that the world will know more about our art from thousands of years ago. They will look upon us with greater respect."
Stacey Halfmoon, also from the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and a consultant on the exhibit, agrees. "Seeing these objects will be a double-edged sword because they're signs of the loss of our culture -- a culture that our country has failed to illuminate. But it's also very powerful that we're getting to re-adopt some of it and to educate the larger public."
Perhaps Townsend's greatest regret is that, despite making numerous inquiries with art museums in Oklahoma, he was unable to find a home for the exhibit in that state, where most of the descendants of the artists now live.
"He tried every institution in the state," says an angry-sounding Reilly. "A lot of the problem was that they weren't large enough to house the exhibit, but Dick is too much of a gentleman to tell you that he was also given the old story: 'I don't think we can take that -- but do you have a Renoir exhibition? We'd be glad to take that.'"
Which suggests the possibility that for all its beauty and fascination, its artistic and historical significance, "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand" may fail to draw the huge crowds that often turn out for Art Institute exhibits of the Impressionists and other European masters. But the museum's new director, James Cuno, is undaunted.
"We have an obligation to present the public with works of art they know they already like, but also to present them with works of art of a kind they don't yet know they might like," Cuno says. "We mean to bring our intellectual and art-historical expertise to them by means of the new and unexpected as well as the familiar. This falls into the case of the new and different and unexpected."
For Townsend, the exhibit is the culmination of a quest to bring people together with a project whose emotional impact goes far beyond the usual.
"It's a very gripping experience, when you're looking at these objects -- there's an immensely affecting dimension to it," he says. "It's true that I acted out of a [desire] to bring people together, to make a contribution toward an issue that has been so longstanding."
After all, he muses, a fundamental mission of the art museum is a civic one. "It's not just a place where privileged people meet. It's a great public place where we learn about different forms of civilization -- in this case, a civilization whose accomplishment needs to be acknowledged as part of human history and achievement. Much has been lost, but much also remains, and can be recovered."