Santa Fe Museum Hop & Shop

The Wheelwright Museum of the Almerican Indian, International Museum of Folk Art and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture are all located on Museum Hill, Camino Lejo in Santa Fe, NM

New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue, Santa Fe

New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe

Palace of the Governors is on the north side of the Santa Fe Plaza

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson Street in Santa Fe

BRRRR! That’s all we can say about wandering around outdoors right now. While not as challenged by winter as many destinations, Santa Fe can have frigid weather, much to some travelers’ surprise. On those winter days when the sun is not shining, cold weather does negatively impact the desire to wander in and out of Santa Fe’s many unusual shops and boutiques. So we suggest combining your visit to our wonderful museums with a visit to the equally wonderful museum shops!

Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

Starting on Museum Hill, a favorite has to be the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Musemum of the American Indian. The museum itself is unusual in that it operates serarately from the New Mexico Museum group that includes the other major institutions in Santa Fe. Even more unusual is the fact that admission to the Wheelwright is by donation, so while the suggestion is thoughtfully observed, no actual fees are required. Currently on exhibit through April 17, 2011, is a fabulous show of Native American rugs woven by the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills master weavers. The show should not be missed, and a visit with these beautiful works of art can be followed by a walk down the stairs to the intimate Case Trading Post, where a desire to buy a rug can be easily satisfied.

The Case Trading Post

The Case Trading Post has been artistically designed to recreate the flavor of an early 20th century trading post on the Navajo Reservation, right down to the squeakiest floors in Santa Fe. The management of this little gem boasts some sharp eyes, much like the traders of yore, with a beautiful selection of old and new items that reflect the panoply of Native arts, past and present. Particular favorites for me begin at the “pawn” section in the back, where I regularly yearn for beautiful inlays and handsomely worn silver goodies. The pottery and weavings chosen by the Case’s skilled buyer offer a variety of styles and price points. I have bought some lovely little watercolors, very reasonably-priced,  by Hopi painter Peter Sumatzkuku that I never get tired of seeing on the wall. There are plenty of books for adult minds and for children, and enough small affordable collectibles that you can bring the kids in without feeling like your wallet will be seriously depleted when you leave. Serious depletion here is for the adults, but when it occurs, you can be sure you’ll go home with something you love and treasure.

The Museum of International Folk Art is much praised and justly so, and its gift shop gets kudos too. After spending a few hours or a full day in MOIFA’s collection, the yen to take home a little piece of folk art can easily be assuaged in the shop located right by the entrance. Visitors have until January 31 of this year to see the exhibit, “A Century of Masters: The NEA National Heritage Fellows of New Mexico,” comprised of examples of the works of all the Fellows from New Mexico in its collections, from weavings, to pottery, tinwork, straw appliqué, retablos, and woodcarving. National Heritage Fellows must demonstrate artistic excellence and commitment to their art forms through process, technique, and subsequent transmission of the knowledge to strengthen and enrich their communities. This notion has been an ongoing tradition in New Mexico throughout the centuries, and this is an excellent opportunity to see the fruits of this heritage.

I Met ‘Em at the MOIFA Gift Shop!

The plethora of objects in the MOIFA tend to stun the mind, but there is always something memorable that stays with one. Even for those who choose to travel to Santa Fe at times other than the International Folk Art Market, desires inevitably arise: Need a calavera for Day of the Dead? Earrings made of bottle caps? Colcha embroidery? Name your fixation, and the friendly staff at the shop will help you find a souvenir or gift that accurately represents the finest in folk art traditions.  And of course, if a visit makes it imperative to return in July for the Market, make your reservations now, because it is always a sell-out!

A Slogan Worth Remembering

A Slogan Worth Remembering

While on Museum Hill, lovers of Native arts will want to stop in at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. History and art combine to educate and delight in the painstakingly acquired collection of this institution, and their website offers many resources, such as a Pueblo dance calendar to help you decide when to visit if this is part of your desired itinerary. Currently on display, but soon to leave in February, is an exhibition of Huichol art with the fine yarn paintings for which this indigenous culture is known.  The concept of balance is central to Huichol art and culture, and who doesn’t need that in their life about now?

Inexpensive souvenirs are sometimes necessary for our wallets, but for those who want the real deal, museum shops are the go-to experience. Making a purchase at the Indian Arts and Culture Museum shop guarantees that you’ll be going home with authenticated goods, a certainty not always ensured by shopping at the many tiendas in Santa Fe. Shining silver bracelets, fine pottery and kachinas, tomes on Native art, you’ll find them there. The staff is knowledgeable about the art and the artists, and they’ll take the time to help you receive a better understanding of designs and the culture.

Huichol Yarn Paintings at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

If your Santa Fe visit is limited to downtown, you can find plenty to admire in our New Mexico Museum of Fine Art located on the northwest corner of the Plaza. A new exhibit entitled “Cloudscapes” just opened on January 14, comprising a selection of pictures from the museum’s permanent collection of works that by necessity spend much of their life  in storage due to light sensitivity issues. Many of the pieces are from the mid-twenthieth century, along with more recent acquisitions, and works on display are by masters of the medium, including familiar names like Alfred Stieglitz, Laura Gilpin and Edward Weston, with more recent images by Paul Caponigro and William Clift. Following your trip through photographic history, make a stop at this museum store. Though petite in size, it will yield good postcards, always an inexpensive memento, as well as catalogues of past exhibits and a wide assortment of art books. And the art jewelry is always a delight!

The Distinctive New Mexico Museum of Art

Of course, a walk to the Plaza should include a trip to the New Mexico History Museum, where one can garner a comprehensive understanding of how the Southwest grew and changed through the centuries. Running through early April is an interesting exhibit entitled “Wild at Heart,” curated by New Mexico art historian David L. Witt of the Academy for the Love of Learning, home of the Seton Legacy Project in Santa Fe. The exhibit is a fascinating study of Ernest Thompson Seton, conservationist, author, artist, lecturer and co-founder of the Boy Scouts and includes a series of lecture programs that expand one’s understanding of Seton’s legacy and how it lives on in Santa Fe. And lo and behold, there’s more than one gift shop! Beautiful hand-crafted decor items and artistic creations by New Mexicans from all over the state will be found in the shop on the Lincoln Avenue side near the new museum, and a treasure trove of New Mexico books, archival photos and prints from the Museum of New Mexico Press will be found at the Washington Avenue location around the caorner from the Palace of the Governors.

Prints, Photos and Books Galore!

You truly can’t finish a downtown tour without a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum! Probably the most well-known name associated with the arts in our state, O’Keeffe is well-represented in this small but gorgeous museum, notable not only for the collection but also for the wonderful educational opportunities it offers to the community. The current exhibit, “O’Keefiana; Art and Art Materials” is itself an education experience, with artworks supplemented by the materials the artist used and the objects that inspired her. The exhibit runs through early May, and it is a pleasure to see the detailed notes O’Keefe made for herself regarding colors she used and the art materials she created to use, along with the art works that resulted from both.

The O’Keeffe Museum Gift Shop

The O’Keeffe gift shop is definitely postcard heaven, with the only hard part being to actually let go of the cards and mail them out! Who doesn’t want to keep these on a wall somewhere? And if you want it bigger, get a poster and frame it to have your own O’Keeffe! If you missed the movie version of O’Keeffe’s life, staring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, you can get on to enjoy by your own fireplace on a winter evening. The jewelry and clothing items are thoughtful extensions of O’Keeffe’s subject matter, and the books are definitely keepers, destined to be thumbed through repeatedly. The online store is well organized, too, so if you left without it, go online and get it!

Try making your museum hop into the museum shop, and you’ll not only go home with something uniquely Santa Fe, you’ll also know your spent your souvenir dollars to help keep the arts alive in the Land of Enchantment!

Santa Fe Open House at IAIA

The Institute of American Indian Arts is located at 83 Avan Nu Po Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe

While many cities can boast an art school or two, Santa Fe has unusual bragging rights by virtue of having an institute for indigenous artists! Students at the Institute of American Indian Arts (commonly known as IAIA) have  the opportunity to partake in an eclectic learning experience in a distinctive Native-centered environment. Faculty and staff, comprised of both native and non-native individuals, provide nurturing support, professional training and positive role models for native students embarking on new endeavors. By opening its doors to the community recently for an afternoon open house, IAIA gave locals and visitors the time to see how this dedicated educational institution fulfills its mission, as stated  here: “To empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning and outreach.”

The Institute of American Indian Arts was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and first opened in October of 1962 on the campus of the Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Under its first Superintendent, Dr. George A. Boyce, the Institute embodied a bold approach to arts education and has evolved through the decades into a leadership role in the contemporary Native American art world. The Institute was later housed on the College of Santa Fe campus before settling it on its expansive new campus about ten years ago. A total of 80 tribes from 25 states are represented in the student body of this multi-tribal learning center, which provides a bridge between a past rich with tradition and the dynamic American Indian culture of the new millennium.

Sculptural Landscaping

IAIA offers four-year degrees in Studio Arts, Visual Communication, Creative Writing and Museum Studies, and it is uniquely qualified to offer students a foundation from which to build new forms of artistic expression and accomplishment, while guiding them into maturity as proud representatives of their culture and participating citizens of the world. The college promotes Native leadership and offers an ecologically-sound atmosphere that allows students to explore their culture and artistic heritage in a supportive and understanding environment. A place where the spirit and vision of American Indian and Alaska Native people is the number one priority, IAIA honors the traditions of the past, continually being rediscovered and reaffirmed, while giving students the freedom to celebrate their artistic identity in new ways, helped by its affiliation with the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

Paying Attention to the Southwest

The curriculum at the Institute is geared towards a comprehensive integration of the arts into a college program of study that graduates Native students prepared to juggle the artist’s life with the more mundane aspects of everyday reality. The Creative Writing Dept. holds a prominent place at the College, and students come from reservations and pueblos, cities large and small, to study with nationally and internationally-known working writers. A Studio Arts Department, divided into five areas of focus (painting, photography, ceramics, jewelry/metals, and sculpture), delivers foundational art classes leading to the College’s AFA and BFA degrees. The newer arts are not neglected, since a comprehensive program is in place to teach digital media students the evolutionary principles of  new media, as they study the history and theory of graphic design, film and the ongoing evolution of story-telling.

In recognition of the role Native arts have played for thousands of years, IAIA is home to the only museum studies program designed from a Native American perspective. Experienced museum professionals lead the College’s hands-on, experiential program with courses addressing the cultural history of exhibition, curation, conservation, collections and museums themselves.

A Re-Imagined Image from the Past

The Indigenous Studies Program prepares students who desire the broad education that the liberal arts provide. Students are taught to master competencies in critical thinking, research and writing, with  courses in culturally-based anthropology, policy, traditional arts, art history and Native American studies. An Essential Studies Program provides a solid undergraduate education in English, math and science, as well as a grounding in the strategies necessary for success in college and life in the wide world beyond the reservation or pueblo. The Native Eyes indigenous studies program offers accredited online courses, and the Center for Lifelong Learning is onsite to coordinate tribal outreach services. To address to the specific health concerns of Native peoples, a Fitness and Wellness Dept. schedules classes to help students develop healthier lifestyles through education and experience.

The open house was held on a Friday afternoon, with the glorious autumn Santa Fe weather offering blue skies, warmth and sunshine even in November. Visitors could take a guided tour or wander at will around the beautiful and state-of-the-art campus located on the southwestern edge of Santa Fe. The feeling was genuinely welcoming, with students and faculty alike proud and eager to demonstrate the worth of the program.

Native Stickball

Native Stickball Equipment

The striking campus buildings were laced with attractive landscaping and sculptures, and on a large circular center lawn, a fierce game of Native stickball, a full contact sport that is the ancestor of lacrosse, was taking place. Student housing comes in the form of dorms and apartment-style homes for students who come with families. An outdoor cooking area promised a tasty potential for adventurous picnicking, although I didn’t notice an horno.

Mark Herndon in the Jewelry Studio

Painting Demonstration by Charlene Teters

Tours of the classrooms offered ongoing demonstrations by faculty, and visitors were free to roam through the halls, which were liberally hung with student works. Equipment in studio art classrooms was up-to-date, and non-arts rooms were outfitted with computers galore. The museum conservation program showed  some serious chops, as Museum Studies Professor Jessie Ryker-Crawford demonstrated art polarizing microscope technology, letting visitors expand their understanding of the conservation concerns involved in maintaining two- and three-dimensional works of art.

Jessie-Ryker Crawford, Museum Studies Chair, in the Conservation Lab

An old-fashioned auditorium hosted a continuous screening of Native films, and the new digital dome, opened in October of this year, was designed to revolutionize the college’s fastest-growing degree program, new media arts. The 24-foot diameter, 12-foot high dome is the only one in the world to rotate from 0° to 90° views at 0°, 30°, 45° and 90°. With an 8,000-pound steel exoskeleton and an immersive environment featuring a surround sound system with six film projectors, it will be used to explore science, Native storytelling and art.

Untitled Painting by Collestopher Chatto, Dine Student

A student-run gallery offered an exhibition of student works for sale at very reasonable prices, but it a definite improvement would be realized by painting the gallery walls white to let the artwork shine! A gentle and friendly librarian encouraged visitors to browse the stacks in the expansive, peaceful and thoughtfully LEED-built library, with intelligent-sensor lighting, recycled carpeting and a treasure trove of books, all enhanced with a terrific Geronimo sculpture by Bob Haozous. And our transit back to the car led us by nose to the student cafeteria where locals can come and feast for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The IAIA Library with Geronimo Keeping Watch

Yet another distinctive feature of our City Different, the Institute of American Indian Arts lends authenticity and merit to the artistic reputation of Santa Fe, helping Native youth lead the way into this new millenium. We are genuinely grateful to have IAIA in our midst!

Native America Builds for the 21st Century

Santa Fe Indian Market Says Indian Summer Soon!

Well, we hope it will be an Indian Summer! Weather in Santa Fe is always pretty decent, but like everyone else, we hate to see the warm days go with the summer. And with the much-anticipated arrival of the Santa Fe Indian Market comes the departure of other beloved summer events. Next week marks the last of the Santa Fe Opera until next season, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival will be packing up its winds and horns at the end of this week. We appreciate living in a town where you can drive from one end to the other in a half-hour or less and still enjoy such world-class culture.

Seed Sister Pot by Marcus Spooner and Michael Roanhorse

Author Sherman Alexie

Making its 88th appearance, the Market is a relatively old event compared to some, but there is always new blood bringing new ideas to the fore. Tonight, Tuesday, August 17th, the Market welcomes writer Sherman Alexie for what is sure to be a lively night at the Lensic. Author of the screenplay for Smoke Signals and the novels The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Mr. Alexie will be onstage at 6pm. Always an entertaining speaker, this serious and seriously humorous author is sure to bring an interesting perspective, and at last report, tickets were still available.

N. Scott Momaday

Continuing with the theme of Native literature, on Thursday, August 19th, Collected Works Bookstore hosts an Evening of Native Literary Arts at 6pm, moderated by James Thomas. The headliner here is the dean of Native writers, Cherokee-Kiowa author, N. Scott Momaday. For many, his novel House Made of Dawn was a first view into Native life from an authentic Native perspective. Also appearing will be Navajo poet and Shiprock, NM native, Luci Tapahanso. This event is free and sure to be popular, so plan to arrive early.

Since its inception ten years ago, the Native American Cinema Showcase has grown in both quality and popularity. Taking place over four days from August 19th to the 22nd,the showcase is jointly supported by SWAIA, CCA Santa Fe and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Beginning on Thursday, August 19 at 6pm, the slate includes sixteen programs with films and videos from seven different countries playing at two venues, the Cinematheque at CCA and Bishop Lamy’s beautiful Cathedral Park, adjacent to St. Francis Cathedral. And the film showcase taking place at the Park is totally free – where can you find a deal like that in downtown Santa Fe?!?

Actor/Musician Gary Farmer

Music has been always integral to Native life, and the Santa Fe Bandstand Series, about to finish its summer season, plays its part by welcoming actor Gary Farmer and his band, the Troublemakers, along with Native Roots on Tuesday, August 17th at 6pm. The music plays on at 6pm Thursday, August 19th, with musicians Keith Secola and Micki Free and American Horse, accompanied by special guests, Shea and Casper, and the Mighty 602 Band. Like all of the Santa Fe Plaza Bandstand programs, the two-hour programs are at no charge, but expect to encounter a crowd when it’s a whole lotta music for nothing!

By Friday, people-watching will be prime, as the booths go up and the town fills to capacity. The buzz is palpable as artists prepare for the early Saturday morning excitement when collectors hustle in to vie for Best of Show pieces to add to their collections. The only opportunity to see all of the Best of Show artwork in one place at one time will be  on Friday, August 20th, at a ceremony in the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. Beginning at 11:30am, the preview and luncheon acknowledges the hard work of the artists who hope to receive the coveted Best of Show recognition. With a nice discount on tickets for SWAIA members, this might be the time to join!

And the youngsters will not be ignored, as SWAIA presents Skatepoloitation! With an eye to promoting young artists and future collectors, SWAIA is partnering with Douglas Miles and Apache Skateboards in an event that features with trick skateboartding and skate demonstrations, along with product tosses and prizes. Taking place on Saturday, August 21st from 1 to 4pm, this will certainly be a change of pace from circumnavigating the 600+ booths in and around the Plaza environs!

2009 Native Fashion

Of course, the Market simply would not be complete without the Native American Clothing Contest, a fashion event for over twenty years. This competition takes place on Sunday, August 22nd beginning at 9am right on the Santa Fe Plaza, a fitting location for all to admire the artistry and innovation of both young and not-so-young participants. Local designers always bring out some local fans, and with both traditional and contemporary Native fashions on display, prepare to be inspired by everything from classic jingle dresses to steampunk design.

While we know that Santa Fe Indian Market means that autumn and the Santa Fe Fiesta are just around the corner, we welcome our Market back every year with anticipation, despite the traffic, despite the wait for a table at a favorite restaurant, despite having to park further away from downtown every year. This Market is a one-and-only, and it’s ours!

A Special Santa Fe Summer Symposium

Located at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center on the NE corner of West Marcy Street and Grant Avenue from July 6-8, 2010. Registration in advance at

Every summer, the art opportunities in Santa Fe seem to get better and better. The two-year-old SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Fair) WEST Exhibit and its big sister, Art Santa Fe celebrating a tenth anniversary, are both now well-established and welcomed as summer events, and Santa Fe’s art educators have exhibited their wisdom by developing new ways for those who love art AND Santa Fe to learn more about each.


SOFA WEST returns to Santa Fe from July 8 to 11, and has worked with local arts professionals to organize an exciting three-day symposium entitled Historic Bond/Contemporary Spirit: Collecting New Southwest Native Pottery. This intriguing educational event begins on Tuesday, July 6, 2010, one day before SOFA WEST opens and runs through Thursday, July 8 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. Attendees will also be welcomed to the invitation-only opening of the SOFA exhibit on July 7 at 6:30pm.


Tailored to both the collector and the connoisseur, the Historic Bond/Contemporary Spirit symposium features presenters Garth Clark, who wears a multitude of hats as an author and specialist in modern and contemporary ceramics and as a curator, critic and art dealer; Bruce Bernstein, PhD, executive director of SWAIA (Southwestern Association for Indian Arts); and Ellen Bradbury Reid, former director of Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe (now known as the New Mexico Museum of Art) and currently head of Recursos de Santa Fe, the city’s well-regarded organizer of a variety of conferences and symposia that cover the panoply of arts, architecture and history, past and present, that distinguish the Southwest.

Garth Clark, himself a passionate collector, has said that the pottery culture of the Southwest is “rich, mesmerizing, unparalleled, and uninterrupted for two thousand years.” The symposium creates a venue in which a small group of pottery enthusiasts can travel back through the millennia with their guides, both noted scholars and Native Potters, via a thoughtful program of travel, demonstrations and lecture presentations.

Dr. Bruce Bernstein of SWAIA, a principal organizer of the Historic Bond/Contemporary Spirit symposium, has said that the program was designed to explore the ongoing meaning of pottery in the culture while examining the great beauty of today’s creations, since through the years, “Southwestern Native pottery has been through cycles of renewal and regeneration, resulting in compelling contemporary innovations including new forms, techniques and symbolism.”

Key organizer Ellen Bradbury Reid, of Recursos de Santa Fe, notes that it is verging on 25 years “since there was a serious recap of the world of pueblo ceramics.” While newer Native pottery has moved from traditional to innovative and even irreverent,  the roots of the process remain strong and visible. The work of the younger potters shows a freshness  and inventive quality that appeals to collectors and curators alike.


The program has been well thought-out and includes exclusive curatorial tours of prehistoric and historic Pueblo pottery from internationally recognized museum collections, as well as private collections of historic and contemporary Native ceramics. As all art lovers know, experiencing the depth of  a private collection is one of the most exciting ways to indulge a passion, as well as being a rare privilege. The travel leg of the symposium takes participants to tour the Pueblo of Acoma, the Sky City, located 2 hours SW of Santa Fe, where they can witness the making of Pueblo pottery first-hand. Truly one of the most unusual of pueblos, with its location atop a mesa, Acoma is among the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the US, and its rich and unique history invites further study.

For the truly intrepid traveler, the education can continue with an exploration of Chaco Canyon, the largest, best-preserved and most architecturally sophisticated of all the ancient Southwestern Native villages. On July 11 and 12, 25 adventurers can experience the striking aura of this prehistoric center of Anasazi ceremony and trade. Sturdy walking shoes, sunhats and sunscreen are required. Chaco Canyon is definitely a bucket-list place, and 26 miles of dirt road are rewarded by a glorious vision of the past.

July in Santa Fe promises to be hot, not only in temperature, but in choices for memorable art adventures – and this is truly one of them!

A Santa Fe Museum Day

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, my grand-daughter and I were crafting some beads and charms for her to use in creating a hand-made gift for her mom. As we looked through my high-school-vintage jewelry box for ideas, we came across a pair of Huichol earrings that I bought on a visit to Mexico for her parents’ wedding back in the 1990’s. The seed beads were so tiny and the craftsmanship so precise that it’s downright embarrassing to recall that I paid only $3 for this delicate work! If you admire this sort of exquisite artistry, then it’s time to get over to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill to see the Huichol exhibit currently on display there.

Maidu Creation by Harry Fonseca


Art Wants to be Free

The Cleveland Museum of Art: Always Free!

The Cleveland Museum of Art: Always Free!

A Free Museum? That’s a novel concept! As it happens, however, it’s not so novel after all, as evidenced by the Cleveland Museum of Art, with free admission since the museum opened in 1916. Away from Santa Fe for a bit, I wandered back in some old stomping grounds, with the pleasant addition of sunshine and blue skies, something not typically encountered in Northeast Ohio at this time of year. While I would love to take credit for bringing the Santa Fe sun with me, in truth, I was just plain lucky. A further piece of luck was the exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of the Thaw Collection of America Indian Art, on tour from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

The Fenimore, housed in a 1932 Georgian mansion, underwent an exciting expansion in 1995 when Eugene and Clare Thaw of Santa Fe made a gift of a remarkable assembly of Native arts to this wonderful small museum. Frankly, I had never heard of the museum, despite my long-standing love for James Fenimore Cooper‘s books, set in colonial America.  The Thaws’ gift led to an 18,000 square foot addition to the museum, which now houses their fine collection, acquired over the years when Mr. Thaw was a dealer in Old Master paintings and drawings. The Thaws’ expertise and patient attention to building this comprehensive collection continues today, as they still contribute new pieces to the Fenimore Museum.  And with this exhibition, on its first stop of a national tour, there were many stunning pieces there for me and other museum-goers to enjoy right here in Ohio!

Yup'ik Nepcetat Mask

Yup’ik Nepcetat Mask c.1840-1860 The Thaw Collection

The exhibit is well-curated and very easy to enjoy over the course of several hours. The works are grouped by region, moving from the Northwest to the Southwest and spanning several centuries, with the majority of pieces being from the 1800’s, as the U.S. expanded westward.  Interestingly, the timeline laid out for the show begins at 1600, when Spain began to colonize New Mexico, and what we might call the age of the collector began! Not until the 1960’s do the tribes and pueblos begin to receive Constitutional protections with the passing of the American Indian Civil Rights Act, followed by the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 and the Graves Protection Act in 1990. One can be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy these objects, but also be aware that the trail to seeing these works is strewn with blood and tears.

The broad overview provided by this exhibit not only demonstrates the skill and beauty of the works themselves, but also informs the viewer on how the artists prized the invisible qualities of the objects, qualities such as the correct method of gathering materials, their sound and usefulness, and the powers that may have derived from a vision or how often the planned object may be used in a ritual or ceremony. The exhibition is very tastefully mounted with just enough work to demonstrate symmetries in design and function, yet avoiding the exhaustion that can occur when there is just too much to see.

Tsimshian Frontlet c. 1840-1870 Thaw Collection

Tsimshian Frontlet c. 1840-1870 The Thaw Collection

In the first room were works from Northwest Coastal Native artisans, with the entrance to the exhibit flanked by two massive upright Tlingit log posts, each depicting Raven bringing the gift of daylight to man, and each carved by a different artist. Many of the NW works dealt with shamanism, with rattles, masks and ritual objects displaying exaggerated eyes, emaciated forms and mouths that are calling or singing to the spirits. An octopus shaman’s mask suggests that the shaman can squeeze himself into hidden caverns and obscure himself from view. A Nootka piece shows an extended tongue representing the transfer of knowledge and power. There is one beautiful 1830 carved statue of a woman, likely a Haida tourist piece and consequently in excellent condition. A Nootka war helmet seemed similar to a Samurai war helmet, with its crest denoting status in the community. It’s fascinating to see materials so different from those of our New Mexico Pueblos,  with the north-westerners using things such as sheep horns steamed, shaped and then carved, or snail opercula – the little flap that closes the hole in the shell after the snail is inside – used for decoration. A giant greasy bowl used in a potlatch is shaped like an upside down whale, providing wealth for the feast from the belly of the beast, both literally and figuratively. Many cultures have a representation of an old witch, be it Dzoonakwa who keeps the Kwakiutl children in line or La Llorona who keeps New Mexico kids hiding in their beds.

The second room featured works by Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples such as the Yup’ik, the Gwi’chin, the Inupiat and the Aleut. The walrus ivory carving used as a harpoon counterweight showed how the whale comes full circle in its own demise. Yup’ik dancers apparently never dance with bare hands, and the two beautiful dance fans on display are two-sided with a smiling male half and a frowning female half; it would be interesting to know why the distaff side doesn’t smile. Does the fact that woman’s work is never done make it harder to celebrate? As with all indigenous hunting cultures, every part of the hunted is used in its entirety, as demonstrated by a parka made of seal guts. Carved wooden goggles are a testimony to blinding snow, but Raven as depicted by the Yup’ik is not as angular a carving, seeming to be a smoother fellow and less dangerous than his Haida cousin.

Nancy Youngblood Swirled Melon Pot

Nancy Youngblood: Swirled Melon Pot

Entering the third room was like coming home to the Southwest, with a Pueblo head-dress of rain clouds reminding me that although I was enjoying sunny days, we in the high mountain desert welcome and treasure our precipitation. In addition to several Mimbres pots, there was a blackware pot by Maria Martinez and an equally gorgeous polychrome vessel that she made with her husband Julian. A contemporary flavor was imparted by a beautiful highly polished vessel created by Nancy Youngblood of Santa Clara Pueblo, that was specifically commissioned by the Cleveland Museum for their collection. Zuni water vessels, Navajo (Dine) weavings, an Apache basket – we Santa Fesinos are lucky to be able to see examples of these arts whenever we ant at our excellent Museum of Indian Arts and Culture or the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (also with free admission!).

The next section of the exhibit highlighted California and the Great Basin. Basketry was totally the star, with a Karuk woman’s woven basket hat similar in shape to a Muslim prayer cap or a yarmulke, both of which are frequently in evidence in Cleveland, a very multicultural city. A Hupa jump basket of hazel and spruce from the 1800’s was probably every bit a fashionable and desirable in its time as a Chanel bag is today. Two large 1900 Maidu gambling trays, beautifully woven, were food for thought about how gambling has evolved into tribal self-sufficiency today. Glass-beaded Wappo baskets with noticeably misplaced beads showed the same purposeful error seen in fine Navajo rugs. The accompanying text tells how “a basket is a song made visible,” noting that a variety of songs are required for all stages of crafting these beautiful and useful objects.

Osage Blanket from 1890 Thaw Collection

Osage Blanket,1890 The Thaw Collection

The Great Plains are on dispaly in the fifth room, with a haunting Lakota message that “something sacred wears me,” a reminder that putting on special garments is putting on all that they represent. There is an Osage woman’s robe appliqued with hands, beaded and made of wool, used for a friendhip blanket to tell someone you care for that it goes from hands that love you to your hands. A Lakota war hide depicts a battle, although the warriors are shown in ceremonial garments rather than the tough and dirty outfits necessary to wage a battle.  A Nez Perce horse mask proves that even the horses got gussied up in pre-war ceremonies conducted to ensure a victory. A carved Lakota pipe from the 1880’s depicts three important totems: elk – denoting love – turtle – denoting steadfastness – and buffalo – the provider. An incredibly elaborate Ojibwa kinfe sheath from 1830 was made more beautiful by its evident use than the 1998 beaded medicine bag also on display.

An example of Seminole patchwork

Examples of Seminole patchwork

The exhibition ends in the east, ranging down the coast from the northern woodlands to Florida, where the Seminole fled to escape relocation. The north-eastern MicMac cutwork evokes the larger cutwork of the Seminole, although the MicMac use the tiniest of seed beads for decoration. A Huron sash wove the seed beads right into the work rather than sewing them on afterwards. A Noskapi/Innu summer hunter’s coat shows the influence of European fashion in its flared and gusseted design. Thunderbird is depicted here in the east, as well as the west, denoting both rain and success in war in a 1790 bag. A Fox medicine bag shows Underwater Panther (a new spirit to me), who makes the waters turbulent and treacherous, but who also brings all the attendant virtues of life-giving water. One of the items of traditional dress still most used today, the sash, was represented by a lovely Choctaw example from 1800. Two of the oldest pieces in the exhibit are in this section, with a 1300-1500 clay head effigy from the Parkin site in Arkansas and a neck ornament to mark someone’s rank from Oklahoma, circa 1200, making this revealing and engrossing exhibit seem to end back near the beginning.

Jim Hart, a Haida artist, says it best: “When you stand there and hang on (to the object), you’re hanging on to all your history.” And that is what is so wonderful about this show – it’s not just art, it’s history too, one of the things that is special about any museum visit. You go in to learn, and you come out with more questions and a desire to return for answers. And one of the things that’s so special about the Cleveland Museum of Art is that you can go in and out with your questions as often as you want. Why? Because it’s always free!!