Senator Elizabeth Warren’s unraveling DNA converted family folklore into acrimonious political diatribe. Whether genuinely motivated to honor her ancestry or intentionally trying to game the system, the unintended consequence of the Senator’s faux identity as a member of the Cherokee Nation has re-focused interest in the philosophies, traditions and ancient wisdom of Indigenous Peoples.
Mapping the complicated history between Tribal Nations and the United States, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts and the Metropolitan Museum (MET) in New York have organized two very different riffs on the relationships that evolved between Native Americans and Colonialists. Although stylistically different, both museums have created spaces that can be seen as cultural observatories of America as it was, and boldly questions the evolving parameters of ethical eco-sociology.
At the PEM, now through May 5th, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is the first exhibition to landmark three centuries of America’s ecological history. Organized with support from Princeton University’s Art Museum, the visually eclectic galleries feature more than 100 works, including rare pieces by Indigenous artists, John James Audubon, Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keefe.
The gallery tour begins by acknowledging the Museum is built on the ancestral territories of Pawtucket, Pennacook, Naumkeag and Massachuset tribes. Coupling the greeting is a sculpted bear created in the 16th century by an unknown Pennacook artist. Indigenous People living in the area for hundreds of generations traditionally used such folklore to honor clan-members long before Roger Conant and his followers ‘settled’ Salem in the 17th century.
In a nearby gallery, a dramatic painting of a wounded buffalo epitomizes another culture-clash between Native and Colonized Americans. Settlers moving west hell-bent on eradicating Tribal sovereignty, languages and customs confined Native Americans to reservations. Their reliance on buffalo for food, shelter and ceremony was ignored. Trailblazers, seeing the buffalo only as a trophy of American-spirit, hunted the bison for their hides. In time, the population dwindled from 10’s of millions to near-extinction.
Addressing the injustices, partnerships between Indigenous tribes and the US Government developed conservation efforts to save the buffalo population. Today, the American icon is both part of U.S. currency and seen by Native Americans as the embodiment of their cultural resilience.
At the MET, now through October 6th, ‘The Art of Native America‘ takes an intimate look at the diverse and solemn traditions of American tribal cultures.
The Museum acknowledges it stands on the homeland of the Lenapehoking Indians and respectfully honors their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections as the definition of American Art expands to include the insights of Indigenous Peoples.
Before a ceremonial dance welcomed guests to the exhibition’s opening, Max Hollein, CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described ‘The Art of Native America‘ as both ‘autobiographical and a chronicle of history’. 116 masterwork contributions of stylized clothing, spirituality and war from the private collection of Charles and Valerie Diker represent a careful and sensitive look at more than 50 distinct Native American, North American cultures.
A woman’s beaded dress, a shaman’s rattle, and a painting of the Battle of Little Big Horn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand) share the dreams, energies, and dramatic details of Tribal Sovereignties that co-existed across porous borders.
Intentionally this exhibit broadens the definition of ‘Who is American’ and represents the first significant presentation of Native Art in the MET’s American Wing since it opened in 1924.
These thoughtful compositions of history can be taken at face value as beautiful pieces of art or be seen as a cautionary tale asking visitors to consider the true price of actions made thoughtlessly in the name of “progress.” Through art’s universal language, these exhibits honor the integrity of Indigenous Peoples, expand our appreciation of cultural traditions and confirm our obligation to be honest stewards of the land.
***All active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve military personnel receive year-round complimentary general admission to the Peabody Essex Museum.
Diane Kilgore is a journalist in the Greater Boston Area. She is a Cultural Contributor for NewBostonPost and creator of the lifestyle blog ‘To Di For.’