San Francisco

“1,000 Years Of American Indian Art”

108 outstanding art items highlighting the culture of American and Canadian Indians, selected by Dr. Frederick J. Dockstader, Director of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York City, and circulated under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts.

The point is made that Indian art from about 900 A.D. to the early years of the 20th century was traditionally functional. Art for art’s sake is a recent concept, most notable in the form of watercolor paintings—six of which are included here. Decoration was obviously of tremendous importance to Indian art. In many cases it was applied lavishly, and one notes a wide variance in its purpose, especially between the Plains Indians and those of the Northwest Coast.

Among the Plains Indians it served as camouflage and identification. The delicacy of their linear and floral patterns has a special beauty, bringing a fresh note into the concept of primitive art—which is so often fraught with lush fertility symbols, demanding gods and threatening spirits.

Northwest Coast art is based on a social philosophy and expressed mainly in wood sculpture. Here, as in many Indian cultures, man regarded himself as part of the whole world and did not set himself apart from the animals and natural forces. He traced his ancestry to elements that we consider non-human, and in mythology the shift from animal to human was easily made. So, in the art, human heads and animal bodies indicate the same trend of thought. Ceremonialism fostered art, especially the potlach ceremony, a sort of social command performance where one sometimes “fought his enemies with gifts of property.” The potlach was as important to the art of the Northwest Coast as the Christian religion was to the art of Europe.

This exhibition is far too large in scope to give any deep penetration into specific tribal arts (probably one reason primitive Mexican art was not included). But covering as it does the whole range of Indian art from the pottery of the Pueblos to the stone carvings of the Eskimos, the basketry of the Californians to the magnificent effigy pots of the East Coast, it does illustrate an impressive variety of approaches, giving an opportunity for fuller appreciation of the fast vanishing Indian culture. They were ingenious craftsmen who responded with vigor to their environment.

––Elizabeth M. Polley