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Creating a Living Legacy : Burbank show testifies to the diversity and innovation of contemporary Native American art.

February 17, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margaret Hardin smiles as she looks at the beautiful objects to be featured in "Lost and Found Traditions," an exhibit of con temporary Native American art that opens Feb. 25 at the Burbank Gallery of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Relatively recent baskets, pots, beaded costumes, cradleboards, even a soaring tipi and a 17-foot-long canoe are all vivid reminders that Native American art hasn't gone the way of the buffalo herds. Native American art not only survives, says Hardin, the museum's curator of anthropology, "it's terribly diverse, very lively and terribly innovative."

Subtitled "Native American Art 1965-1985," the show will include 100 objects drawn from a collection of just over 500 pieces amassed by Ralph T. Coe, an authority on Native American art who now lives in Santa Fe. In 1977, Coe began crisscrossing North America, acquiring choice objects from artists and artisans affiliated with 93 tribes in Canada and the United States.

The resulting collection is eloquent testimony that Native Americans haven't lost the ability or desire to make stirring, yet useful objects. "These traditions were never lost to Indian people," says Craig Stone, an associate professor of art and American Indian studies at Cal State Long Beach and one of the show's several consultants of Native American heritage. "They were just out of the gaze of non-Indian onlookers." Stone notes much of the work was not intended for gallery display but was "made pretty much for Indian use."

An earlier show drawn from the Coe collection traveled to nine American museums between 1986 and 1989. In 1991, the American Federation of the Arts (AFA), sponsor of the project, decided the collection needed a permanent home. Twenty museums competed for the prize, which was ultimately won by the Natural History Museum of L. A. County.

According to Hardin, two factors seemed to sway the AFA. First, Los Angeles has the second-largest concentration of Native Americans in the United States (only the vast Navajo community of the Southwest is larger). Second, the museum, which has an important collection of traditional Native American materials, had already begun collecting contemporary Native American art.

In Hardin's view, it's not at all surprising that some contemporary Sioux make beaded sneakers (a wonderful pair are on exhibit in the downtown museum's new Hall of Native American Cultures). As she points out, Native American artists have always incorporated new materials and technologies into their work. For instance, while Navajo rugs and other textiles are typically made of wool, and have been for a century, there was no wool in the Southwest until the Spanish introduced it. Native American women enthusiastically added glass beads from Europe to porcupine quills and drilled shells in their repertoire of decorative options.

The silver jewelry of the Southwest is also a marriage of traditional Native American aesthetics and techniques borrowed from Europeans. "Silver is an introduced technology," she notes, "but what is done with it is utterly Native American."

Hardin says there was a simple criterion for inclusion: "We picked things we really liked." A handsome Mohawk cradleboard, with two charming little bears on it, was chosen for another reason as well. "It's one of the things kids can relate to," she says.

Hardin also thinks youngsters will be drawn to the tipi (the spelling preferred by most Native Americans, according to Hardin). Made in 1984 by Armenia Miles, a Nez Perce who lives in Seattle, the canvas tipi was decorated by her nephew, Maynard Lavadour, who is Cayuse and Nez Perce and lives in Santa Fe.

As Lavadour has explained, the simple but resonant decoration symbolizes the retreat across Montana in 1877 of the great Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph. The pattern of red dots around the top represents the bullets that were aimed at the retreating band, but never reached them because of Indian magic. As Hardin points out, tipis are still useful in the plateau area of the Northwest. She knows of paleontologists excavating for dinosaur remains who have forsaken their space-age tents for tipis. "There are places in that country," she explains, "where the wind is so high, any other kind of tent blows over."

In the course of collecting the pieces, Coe often became friends with the artists. Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, who is Assiniboine and Sioux, made a pair of quilled and beaded moccasins that will be featured in the exhibit. "Trying to make you the best there is," she wrote to Coe of her footwear-in-progress. "If there are any fancier ones, I'd like to see them. . . . I hope your people there realize how much work a simple pair of moccasins can be!"

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