Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, a traveling exhibit from the Fenimore Art Museum of Cooperstown, New York, at the Dallas Museum of Art, gives a glimpse of the cultural, social and military traditions practiced by native tribes that roamed a borderless North America.
The 111-piece collection includes everyday and ceremonial objects that were intended to be used, not hung on a wall and admired from afar. Now, an Algonquin war club, once bloodied in battle, rests behind protective glass; a leather garment, adorned with beads, will likely never be worn again. Their time has passed.
The philosopher Wittgenstein came to mind as I meandered through the gallery. For a brief, childish moment, I wished the objects surrounding me could talk, to share the secrets of a people alien to me.
Then Wittgenstein, in a roundabout way, reminded me of the unrecoverable nature of the distant past: "If a lion could talk we could not understand him," he once wrote. The historical record -- supplemented by imagination -- must suffice.
An informative docent leading our tour pointed out the mobile nature of early Native American artwork. This was born out of necessity; a great number of American Indians were nomadic, a lifestyle that placed a premium on mobility and practicality. Tribes dependent on the buffalo had a use for nearly every part of the animal. Waste was a sin.
Many pieces denoted social status. A 17th century war club once wielded by an Algonquin warrior is marked with the warrior's portrait and his spirit animal, so there was no mistaking to whom it belonged. The warrior -- boastful of his combative prowess -- carved a deep groove into the club for each scalp taken.
Decorative garb, made for a high-ranking tribe member, might be crafted from precious materials like leather, beads, porcupine quills and human and horse hair. Human hair, usually one's own, was given as a gift for a chief or other leader to attach to clothing.
Cultural items, like the lightning-emblazoned horse mask, or a chief's war bonnet streaming with feathers, are eerily beautiful despite the implied violence. The war bonnet, a fixture in cowboys vs. Indians movies since the dawn of film, was an expected sight; however, I didn't realize the bonnet was intended to be worn on a horse, for full dramatic effect.
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The collection is organized by region, winding through the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains and Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, before ending in the Arctic. Visitors leave the gallery with a fresh memory of frightening masks with grinning, gaping mouths. The stuff of nightmares.
The exhibit is a quick walk through, well worth the $15, which includes admission to the museum.
Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection is at the DMA until September 4, when the exhibit departs for Indianapolis.