"Uncommon Legacies:" Treasures from oldest collection of Indian art

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STANFORD, Calif. ? Sea captains began the collection at the turn of the 19th century, picking up tribal artifacts on their voyages to the Pacific Northwest.

Explorers and Indian agents added to it, as did missionaries as notable as Stephen Return Riggs, the lexicographer of the Minnesota Dakotas. By the mid-1800s, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., was well on its way to becoming one of the richest collections of Native works in the country.

It is now one of the oldest, but most of its 70,000 holdings were largely inaccessible, even to staff, until recently. A selection of its masterworks is now finally about to go on public view, in the exhibition "Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum." This important event premieres May 8 at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University before embarking on a one-year tour at four other venues.

The exhibition will focus on the response of indigenous art to increasing European contact between 1750 and 1850. Assembled in the course of interaction between natives and European merchants and missionaries, the holdings range from some of the earliest extant tribal blankets and pouches to native carvings showing Yankee ships and sailors.

The collection began with the East India Marine Society, founded in Salem in 1799 by sea captains inspired by the collecting voyages of Captain James Cook. The members vowed to contribute objects from their voyages to a "cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities."

But, according to a statement from the Cantor Center, the collection differed significantly from Cook's "in that it was assembled in the course of regular commercial and missionary interactions between Native peoples and non-Natives. Ship captains both chronicled the creative output of the people with whom they had contact, and were themselves agents of profound social, political and economic change."

The mariners developed extensive trade relations with the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including Tlingit, Haida and Kwakiutl. Trading for furs for the Chinese market, they also acquired masks, textiles and personal apparel for the East India Marine Society. Their gatherings ranged from the "Coppers" Chilkat blanket, the earliest known of its type, to stone carvings combing Native iconography with images of the visiting men and ships.

Early 19th-century lumber and fish trading along the New England and maritime provincial coasts brought in the work of Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Mic Mac artists. Collectors began to reach the nations of the interior when Salem became the headquarters of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812.

Congregational missionaries set out to preach to the Cherokee and other southeastern nations from 1816 to 1820 and over the next two decades penetrated to the Great Lakes region. Contributors included Stephen Riggs, founder of many Congregational churches among the Dakota in Minnesota and author of "A Dakota-English Dictionary," and William Boutwell, missionary to the Pillager Chippewa in that state.

Other objects came from early explorations of the western Great Lakes, such as the 1820 expedition to the sources of the Mississippi River led by Lewis Cass, then governor of Michigan Territory.

The presentation, however, says the Cantor Center, "moves beyond traditional stereotypes and ethnocentric viewpoints to ? recent research and new scholarship."

"Over the last two decades," said the Center's statement, "both scholars and connoisseurs have become persuaded that traditional Native American arts are to be viewed as a dynamic continuum of creative responses to new ideas, influences and materials. These oldest surviving Native American works belong to a complex living tapestry of cultural expression."

Guest curators arranged the objects in five thematic groupings: "Nations Within"; "Pacific Coast Traders"; "The Interior Wilderness: Outposts, Explorers and Sojourners"; "The Interior Wilderness: Missionaries"; and "South American Adventurers."

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum. After leaving the Cantor Center Aug. 11, it will open in the Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio from Oct. 10 to Jan. 5, 2003, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art at Richmond, Va., from April 17 to July 20, 2003 and back home at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., from Sept. 19 to Nov. 16, 2003. A fifth venue is yet to be announced.