October 5, 2011

At the National Museum of the American Indian: An Infinity of Beauty

Now that Occupy Wall Street has at last garnered some mainstream media coverage, we may want to turn our attention to the language, geography, and cultures of occupation. One good way to do so would be to take a walk downtown on Broadway, strolling all the way past the lively encampment at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square and past the dark canyons of Wall Street and past the circle of bright red geraniums of Bowling Green.

As the thoroughfare ends, pause for a moment to look at the formidable building at the street's base - the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (built 1900-1907), designed by Cass Gilbert and featuring four large figurative sculptural groups representing the Four Continents. The building is used for multiple purposes in our era including the Federal Bankruptcy Court and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, the latter the subject of this post. But before you make your way inside to see the museum’s excellent exhibition, Infinity of Nations, which you must, turn around and consider for a moment the august avenue you’ve left behind. The Lenape and other Native nations first pounded out this path as a favorite trail. Indeed, in pre-Dutch days, the Wickquasgeck Trail ran all the way up to near Boston.

National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center
At the National Museum of the American Indian: Infinity of Nations.
Warrior's robe, Fort Benton, Montana.


With Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, on display at the George Gustav Heye Center, the museum is showing off two hundred stellar objects in its formidable collection, with fifty special works serving as exemplars of the infinite variety of Native cultures. With descriptions authored by new Native scholars and people the museum call "community knowledge-keepers," the many paradigmatic objects on display represent nations from the southernmost reaches of South America in Patagonia all the way north to the Arctic Circle.

National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center
At the National Museum of the American Indian: Infinity of Nations.
The polychrome jar on the left is by Rosalia Medina Toribio (Zia, 1858–1950),
Zia Pueblo, New Mexico 

The exhibition is novel in its geographical presentation, but the contexts of climate, region, and ecologies inform the works on display, whether an Olmec jade head, an ancestral Hopi bowl, a Pipe tomahawk presented to Chief Tecumseh (Shawnee, 1768–1813), a mask from the Northwest coast, or a wedding dress worn by Inshata-Theumba (Susette La Flesche or Bright Eyes, Omaha, 1854–1903). In keeping with current Smithsonian practices, the richly evocative and well-preserved works on the exhibition are presented with care in contemporary display cases under subdued and respectful lighting.

National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center
At the National Museum of the American Indian: Infinity of Nations

George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), the man responsible for collecting these works, was a New York native and a Wall Street dropout. He started acquiring artifacts in Arizona in 1897 and later hired teams of anthropologists to gather more from Native sites. According to the museum, "Over time, Heye gathered some 800,000 pieces from throughout the Americas, the largest such collection ever compiled by one person."(from the highly recommended exhibition website). The Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation opened to the public in 1922 in Audubon Terrace, part of that extraordinary complex of societies and academies uptown in Washington Heights, one that you must also visit and that still includes Archer M. Huntington's mind-blowing collection of Spanish art at the Hispanic Society.

Heye's collection, which makes up 85% of the National Museum of the American Indian, is housed in the primary building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum also operates a Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. The George Gustav Heye Center in the Customs House on the lower reaches of Mannahatta, the Lenape name for this "Island of Many Hills," serves as an exhibition space. One might say the museum "occupies" the facility. Or not.


View National Museum of the American Indian in a larger map

For peoples who have struggled with the impudence of others occupying their land, the language of occupation, as in Occupy Wall Street, may not sit well. As websites such as Unsettling America argue, the park used for the Wall Street protest is part of a vast colonized landscape seized from indigenous peoples and should be explicitly recognized as such. Activists have circulated a poster featuring an Algonquin man with the preferred alternative language - "Decolonize Wall Street." (see the image on the Tumblr of laborreguita.)

National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center
National Museum of the American Indian. U.S. Custom House.
1 Bowling Green, island of Mannahatta

The pattern and language of occupation continued throughout New York's history. Under the direction of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch fortified the wall of Wall Street in order to keep the indigenous peoples and the British at bay, using African slaves with some of the labor. After the American colonists struggled against their British occupiers, the new country swore in military leader and Virginia slave owner George Washington. This first inaugural ceremony took place April 30, 1789 on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street. The Buttonwood Agreement, the agreement among twenty-four stock traders that launched the New York Stock Exchange, came just three years later. Bankers and stock market traders continued to move into the street. While much of the everyday stock trade has moved elsewhere due to the diffused geographical nature of online trading, Wall Street continues to be synonymous with financing. The New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street is still the world's largest.

Here's a news item you may have missed. On August 25, 2011, several Native leaders from across North America gathered at the NYSE to ring the closing bell. They had assembled there to celebrate a new member of the exchange - NativeOne Institutional Trading. On that day, the firm became the first American Indian-owned member of the New York Stock Exchange. (Source: Tribal Link ) That only took a few hundred years.

Visitor Information:

The George Gustav Heye Center
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
One Bowling Green
Hours: 10 AM–5 PM daily; Thursdays until 8 PM; closed December 25.
Admission is free.
Website

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

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