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American Indians in the Deep South

A New Orleans exhibit focuses on people who lived under French and Spanish rule before 1539, part of a larger show for the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

June 27, 2003|Cain Burdeau | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Almost nothing survived from the American Indian civilizations on the rim of the Gulf of Mexico and in the woods of the Mississippi Valley after Hernando De Soto arrived in 1539.

Nearly all was wiped out by war and disease, but this summer the New Orleans Museum of Art has attempted to fill this void for the general public.

On display are a handful of rare American Indian artifacts from tribes living under French and Spanish rule.

The American Indian pieces are included in a larger exhibition for the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase titled "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France." The show, with a total of 260 items, celebrates the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson, who signed the land deal that paved the way for U.S. expansion in the West.

Most of what we know about these agricultural peoples, known as the Mississippians, comes from archeological digs of their cities and villages.

"I wanted people to see what the people who had been living here for thousands of years were making, uninfluenced by Europe," said Paul Tarver, the Indian exhibit's curator and museum registrar.

Tarver selected what items he could get on loan from French and American museums to try to tell the tragic story. In all, he collected more than 20 objects.

The oldest of the objects are two Natchez pipes carved in limestone sometime around 1500. On loan from the Milwaukee Public Museum, they are carved in the shapes of a seated human and a large feline, perhaps a cougar.

The Natchez lived on the borders of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, building towns with a central temple to the sun. They endured well into the 1700s, fighting tenaciously against French settlement north of New Orleans.

Equally intriguing is a wooden statue of a seated man painted in yellow and adorned with human hair. The piece, which Tarver found in the Smithsonian Institution, is attributed to the Caddo people, who lived along the Red River in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The figure dates to about 1800. Originally, it probably held a small cloth bundle and might have contained medicine.

Also featured are three painted Quapaw robes, two made in caribou skins, with highly complex designs; they were collected by 18th century French explorers. Tarver found these robes in the Musee des Beaux-Arts et d'Archeologie in Besancon, France. The Quapaw lived in the northern reaches of the French domain.

The American Indian display also presents early European portrayals of uprooted Southeastern Indian families on the move through primitive forests, and a headdress and moccasins from Great Plains Indians.

The Mississippians' demise was brought on by European diseases and military might. The American government added to the trauma by brutally removing many to the Oklahoma territories, what became known as the Trail of Tears.

For unknown reasons, almost nothing made during the period after European arrival has survived from Americans Indians living in much of the present-day Southeast. A leading historian on Southeastern Indians speculated they stopped making art.

"They continued making carved stone pipes well into the historic period, but they didn't create any symbolic art that said something about their world -- because their world fell apart," said Charles Hudson, a retired University of Georgia anthropologist.

"If your society ceases to exist, in my mind the last thing you'll do is make art," Hudson said. "Art is done within the context of social order."

The American Indians in the territories conquered by France and Spain had developed agriculture and were organized into large, hierarchal societies with elite leaderships and militaries.

Their art was grounded in mythology, characterized by motifs such as circles surrounding objects. Nature was supreme: Cougars, peregrine falcons, spiders and mythological creatures with horns and wings adorned their art.

"They were a preliterate society. They had no writing system. Everything they knew was in their heads, so when the heads died, the knowledge died too, and their artistic skills and the purpose of their art ceased to make sense," Hudson said.

Historians and archeologists, though, hold out hope of finding more artwork from these cultures, also known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

"I think there is a lack of institutional focus -- no particular university or museum has committed itself to featuring Southeastern Indian art, and I think the materials are scattered," said Daniel Usner, a historian at Vanderbilt University who specializes in early American Indians.

"Historians and archeologists are just getting around to tracing connections between the pre-Columbian societies and the Indian nations of the period after European contact," he said.

The exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art runs until Aug. 31 and will not travel.

Napoleon's golden throne, period oil portraits by Parisian masters, original Louisiana Purchase documents and Jefferson's red leather chair are some of the items on display in the larger exhibit.

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