The setting sun arced across the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House sitting imposingly at the tip of Bowling Green, highlighting the dormer windows set in the pink tinged upper façade as I wended my way down Broadway on Thursday, August 18 to tour the National Museum of the American Indian located within the Customs House. Despite the large banners hanging from the massive portico of the Customs House heralding the presence of this information jewel of Western hemisphere native Indian life and lore, many New Yorkers, myself included, have never visited it. Indeed, as I bounced toward the tip of the land parcel the Lenape tribe called “Manahatta,” Island of Hills, I maneuvered around gaggles of tourists stampeding toward the Wall Street bull also decorating Bowling Green. The 1907 Customs House, with its splendid Beaux Arts architecture, designed by the renowned Cass Gilbert and unusually sited with its façade facing away from the harbor is, however, the more exciting structure. I was therefore excited that the New York Librarian’s Meetup Group arranged a two hour guided tour of the National Museum of the American Indian.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN – NEW YORK BRANCH
The National Museum of the American Indian in New York, at the George Gustav Heye Center, according to one of its brochures, “presents the diversity of the Native peoples of the Americas and the strength of Native cultures, past, present and future.” It operates under the auspices of the Smithsonian http://www.americanindian.si.edu/. Although the Smithsonian runs both the New York museum and the similarly named National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the educational resource collection, educational programs, and the exhibits at the New York branch seemingly generate from different corn husks. The Heye Center, named after the engineer and investment banker whose stupendous collection of nearly one million Native American artifacts amassed from decades of travel and the archaeological expeditions he financed, opened in 1994, ten years before its counterpart opened on the National Mall. For a brief article describing Mr. Heye’s collecting pursuits, please see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/small_nov00.html
Photo Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian (photo on the reader’s right depicts the New York Resource Center)
We first stopped at the Heye Center’s Resource Center whose mission is to provide any museum visitor with knowledge relating to both the historical and contemporary indigenous life of native Americans of the Western hemisphere The Resource Center/library is located on the second floor of the Custom House in the former cashier’s office. Although the remnants of the cashier’s cages adorn the space along with life sized Indian dolls the currency of entry is a desire to learn and study the lore and culture of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. We were lucky to have, Ellen, an experienced and enthusiastic guide who had worked at the Museum in its various incarnations, including the upper Broadway location, since 1967, show us the Resource Center/library with its plethora of materials focused on Native Americans. The library collection is impressive for a specialized library; it contains more than 5,000 books. According to the Resource Center’s website description it also possesses videotapes, audio cassettes, CDs, magazines, newspapers, information files, interactive computer stations, native-produced handling objects placed on tables and shelves, a bibliography and resource lists and provides access to online databases. Our guide’s admiration for Indian life and the collection’s resources sparked my interest in learning more about Native American life as she handed out some of those resource guides, detailed curriculum guides for educators and pointed to copies of the Smithsonian’s specialized magazine publication: National Museum of the American Indian.
INFINITY OF NATIONS
Although the group expressed avid interest in exploring the books, crafts and dolls located throughout the Resource Center while conversing with our Center guide time constraints prompted us toward the second wonderment of the evening: the Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit (Infinity of Nations). Our wonderful Resource Center guide passed us on to Manola, the Museum’s lead ambassador, who escorted us through an awe inspiring three story oval rotunda to the portal of this exhibit’s hall. As we entered the gallery she explained that the Infinity of Nations exhibit is the first permanent exhibit displayed at the Heye Center, encompassing about 700 objects of the Museum’s 800,000 objects – and quickly quipped that “permanent” designated ten years. The space, organized into 10 geographic areas of the Americas extending from the southern depths of Patagonia to the northern climes of the Pacific Northwest, with carefully chosen artifacts representing objects fashioned into Indian artwork and tools based upon what indigenous people discovered at hand in their geographic habitat depicts what made those civilizations vibrant and capable of imparting life lessons to our sometimes technologically obsessed society.
Manola ushered us through several of these geographic stations with her breathtaking breadth of knowledge of Native American culture and her enthusiasm in imparting her knowledge to us. Our time with this student of languages, who studied ancient Mayan texts, was too short. Not only was this ambassador capable of explaining the historical significance of the artifacts highlighted on our tour, but she actively invoked group participation at stop along our tour route by asking us questions. At our first station in Patagonia, Manola highlighted a canoe and asked us what we thought the purpose was of the little vessels positioned next to the boat. We soon learned that the Yahgan Indians who rowed across cold waterways positioned fuel pots in their canoes for warmth and to heat food. As she spoke, I felt myself erasing the glass barrier between me and the canoe and being transported back centuries to the Yahgan community in much the same way that the jazz age car in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris transports the movie’s twenty-first century protagonist back to the roaring 20s. She explained that these Indians only used the bark of trees to construct canoes, thus preserving the scarce trees. I thereby gained a greater appreciation of the survival skills of Native Americans, earth’s consummate ecologists. As Manola described the tribes indigenous to the Patagonian area I pictured the once glowing fires dotting the frigid landscape which prompted Europeans sailing around the tip of South America, to call this region “Tierra del Fuego.” Further into the hall, we encountered the Andes Indians and their gold accoutrements. As we peered into the glass panel to look more closely at a group of gigantic circular discs, Manola asked us what the Andean natives used these shiny orbs for. Despite staring intently at the photos of these sun shaped orbs she showed us few of us guessed that they were earrings. The photo below portrays an example of this gold craftwork with the figure itself wearing a smaller version of these golden orbs.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian
5 cm, Major Otto Holstein Collection, 15/7233
Another highlight of the Infinity of Nations exhibit is the full length Crow exploit robe encased in a horizontal glass case. We were thus able to peer from above at the fine stitching which tells the story of the feats of courage or “exploits” which elevated the wearer to chief upon completion. Manola explained that one of the exploits included having the aspiring warrior humiliate the enemy by stealing a horse or some other important object rather than killing the enemy.
Preston Singletary, Wolf Hat (detail). 1989. Blown and sandcarved glass. Collection of James Sherman. Photo Russell Johnson. Photo Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian
As we exited the Infinity of Nations exhibit we stepped into a gallery presenting: Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fires, and Shadows, another awe inspiring look at Native American art. The exhibit, displayed only until September 5, however, highlighted a contemporary artist: 54 glassworks of the internationally lauded, Preston Singletary (Tlingit). Mr. Singletary uniquely blends glass working with Northwest coast Native American motifs. He writes on his website of the connection between Native American traditional art forms and the more contemporary Western glassblowing: “Glass has a defining historic connection with Native Americans in the form of trade beads, which were quickly adopted as a form of ornamentation for clothes and other ceremonial objects” http://www.prestonsingletary.com/artist-statement/. Although the group rushed through this exhibit as the Museum was about to close, I remember a vivid red and black swirling glasswork reminiscent of the vivid sun discs of the Andean Indians in its intensity.
If you miss this exhibit, there will be many more opportunities to view Native American art as the Museum is committed to displaying contemporary as well traditional artwork. Since it has a large cobblestone courtyard some of the art displays are live performances. The Bowling Green Cobblestone, for instance, hosted Red Power Squad, a Cree hip-hop group from Alberta as well as Hopi Indian Nation Dancers in August.
I am grateful the New York Librarians Meetup Group organized this tour, as it expanded my awareness of the breadth of the Indian culture of the Americas. As a student who attended New York schools until college, shamefully my knowledge of Native American indigenous cultures primarily extended to the Iroquois. I strongly recommend a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, an unparalleled cultural resource, sitting majestically at Manhattan’s southern tip and proudly displaying the magnificent heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (And it’s free.). This Museum is the true location of the “Avenue of the Americas.”
By Jodi B. Cantor