Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Places from The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath's New York, and a Map

After her long night with her friend Doreen and Lenny the DJ, Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar , decides to walk back home to her hotel, the Amazon, and pulls a New York street map out of her pocket. Calculating she was "exactly forty-three blocks by five blocks away" from her hotel, she sets out on foot uptown. (p. 15 Bantam Windstone paperback edition, 1981) If the Amazon is based on the Barbizon Hotel at Lexington and 63rd, then her starting point could have been around 20th and 8th Avenue (or, even possibly, uptown on the Upper West Side). I don't think Plath intended this to be precisely autobiographical. A walk from the Village to anywhere around Lexington and 63rd would make a nice hike, probably in the neighborhood of 3.5 miles. In a real life incident from June of 1953, Plath tried to track down poet Dylan Thomas outside his favorite bar, probably the White Horse Tavern on Hudson (marked on the map), and she could have walke

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on East 52nd Street

"-S'il vous plaît… dessine-moi un mouton!" Like many others, I learned French in school by reading  Le Petit Prince,  the charming and thoughtful story written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. So I was delighted, even in a child-like way, to come upon a charmer of a building, 3 East 52nd Street, and to see on the exterior a plaque honoring the French author and aviator. According to Christopher Gray, in an April 2001 NYT Streetscapes article about the building , the organization La Section Americaine du Souvenir Francais put up this plaque memorializing Saint-Exupery. It's not where he lived, as I shall explain. During the early years of WWII, from January 1941 and April 1943, the writer lived much of the time in a penthouse at 240 Central Park South and in a rented mansion in the village of Asharoken on the north shore of Long Island. He also spent some time in Quebec City. He wrote The Little Prince in the Long Island mansion during the summer a