Highlights From “Infinity of Nations”

A new exhibition explores thousands of years of artwork from the Native nations of North, Central and South America

War Shirt
Contemporary Northern Cheyenne artist Bently Spang wove together photographic negatives and prints of his family’s Montana ranch to design a variation on a traditional war shirt. Walter Larrimore, National Museum of the American Indian

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Infinity of Nations
(Maura McCarthy)
An array of ten brightly colored headdresses—adorned with macaw and toucan feathers, painted wood and animal hide—greets visitors as they enter “Infinity of Nations,” the new permanent exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. Each headdress represents one of ten regions covered in the exhibit (three in South America, one in Mesoamerica, five in North America and another in the Arctic/Subarctic).

According to project manager Duane Blue Spruce, the headdresses symbolize both the multitude of indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere and the status of these groups as sovereign nations.

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Mapuche Kultrung Patagonia
(Maura McCarthy)
Mapu, or the earth, has always been the foundation of spiritual life for the Mapuche people of Southern Chile. The round kultrung, a ritual drum played exclusively by the Machi, or shaman, symbolizes the shape of the earth. A painted design divides the drum into the four directions, each one associated with either positive or negative energy according to the natural phenomena they bring (thunderstorms from the north, sunlight from the east, etc.). Vertical space is also present in the drum: Wenu Mapu, the beneficent land above; Nag Mapu, the land of the living; and Minche Mapu, the land underneath, where both good and evil deities dwell. All converge in the center, a point of divine equilibrium.

Every piece of the drum is chosen for a specific purpose. The female goat hide used for the drumhead represents fertility, and the stones placed inside the drum are said to shine like stars, illuminating the rites of the Machi. “It’s one of the most ritually important objects of the Mapuche people,” says curator Cécile Ganteaume.

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Valdivia Figurines The Andes
(Maura McCarthy)
Dating back to 3500 B.C., these figurines made by the Valdivia people of Ecuador are the oldest known ceramic pieces in the Western Hemisphere. The mostly female figures were likely symbols of fertility that the Valdivia used in agricultural ceremonies. Each one was sculpted from a single block of clay. The figures tend to have a straight posture, pronounced breasts, shoulders and neck, and a raised head with a small face.

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Shipibo Vessel The Amazon
(Maura McCarthy)
In the 1960s, commercial fishermen depleted the rivers the Shipibo people of Peru had depended on for centuries. “They essentially destroyed their subsistence base,” says Ganteaume.

The Shipibo were forced to start making money to buy food, and tourism quickly became a prime source of income. This water container is an effigy of a woman designed in the 1960s for the tourist market. Although it was made smaller than most other vessels of its ilk (which stand up to four feet tall), it nonetheless retains the authentic tri-level design of the Shipibo, a complex, geometric pattern that derives from the visions of a shaman. The Shipibo—one of the only Amazonian tribes known for their pottery and for primarily female artisans—also use similar tri-level designs for facial tattoos, war club ornaments, paddles and clothing.

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Wedding Dress
(Maura McCarthy)
Susette La Flesche was born into the Omaha tribe of Nebraska and attended school on the East Coast before returning home to teach in her community. In 1877, La Flesche saw the neighboring Ponca tribe expelled from their land, a calamity that killed up to one-third of all tribal members. Taking matters into her own hands, La Flesche became an advocate for Native peoples. She married Thomas Tibbles, a white reporter for the Omaha Herald in 1881. Together, the couple helped publicize the case of Standing Bear v. Crook, which resulted in a landmark civil rights ruling that recognized American Indians as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

“She was a precursor to today’s Native people, who find themselves living in two worlds,” says Blue Spruce. “Through her Western education, she was able to advocate for her own people in a non-Native world.”

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Apsaalooke Warriors Exploit Robe
(Maura McCarthy)
Successful warriors on the Great Plains in the mid-19th century painted their war deeds on shirts or robes. This Apsáalooke warrior’s robe—one of only two known to exist today—tells of intertribal warfare between the Apsáalooke (also known as Crow) and the Blackfoot, who lived on either side of the Missouri River. “They were neighbors, but they were also enemies,” says Ganteaume.

The elongated human forms on the robe are characteristic of Apsáalooke art of the era. They depict six different vignettes, in which the warrior takes a gun, seizes a bow, strikes two enemies, kills an enemy, and returns to his people with the enemy’s guns. William H. Schieffelin, the son of a wealthy New York couple, acquired the robe from a Blackfoot in Fort Benton, Montana, in 1861. How the Blackfoot came to possess such a rare piece of Apsáalooke ephemera is not known.

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Anishinaabe Outfit Woodlands
(Maura McCarthy)
Many Colonial soldiers in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries avidly sought traditional Native American garments. This outfit, however, was a gift to Lt. Andrew Foster, a British soldier in the War of 1812, from the Anishinaabe on the occasion of a ritual adoption, a ceremony that recognized a foreigner, or meyaagizid, as kin, or inawemaagen. While most items in the ensemble are Anishinaabe, the loom-woven quillwork on the moccasins is from the Wendat community near Detroit, and the pipe stems, quiver, shield, shield cover and crooked knife resemble Sioux weaponry. The outfit reflects a period of considerable confluence of indigenous cultures in the central Great Lakes area between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

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Pipe Tomahawk
(Maura McCarthy)
The inscription on this pipe tomahawk reads, “To Chief Tecumseh / From Col. Proctor / MDCCCXII.” Tecumseh, a Shawnee war chief who joined the British in the War of 1812 to fight American expansion into the West, received the tomahawk in one of many meetings with the British aimed at retaining American Indian support. The gift was an effort by Col. Henry Proctor to win over Tecumseh, who disapproved of Proctor’s reluctance to attack American forces in Ohio. A short time after, on October 5, 1813, the Americans attacked at the Thames River. Proctor and the British troops fled. Tecumseh and his warriors stayed behind to fight and Tecumseh was fatally wounded.

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Chumash Coin Basket California and the Great Basin
(Maura McCarthy)
When missionaries arrived in California in the late 18th century, Chumash women had been weaving baskets for domestic use for hundreds of years. Using local plants such as sumac or deer grass, they wove bowls for food preparation, large round baskets for storage and jar-shaped baskets for keeping acorns. To expand trade with European settlers, the Chumash took to modifying the baskets according to the settlers’ needs. The design in this basket is identical to that on Spanish colonial coins during the missionary period, and is one of only six with such designs known to exist today.

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Inuit womans Tuilli
(Maura McCarthy)
Nearly 160,000 beads sewn in floral and anatomical designs adorn this Inuit woman’s tuilli, or parka, from the Canadian Arctic. The beadwork, which was transferred from a different garment, was likely a gift from a mother to her daughter during the whaling period between 1860 and 1915. Tuilli were constructed purposefully with large shoulders so that the women who wore them could fit their baby inside while nursing in the cold climate. Far too ornate for everyday wear, this particular tuilli was likely only brought out for special occasions.

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War Shirt
(Maura McCarthy)
Contemporary Northern Cheyenne artist Bently Spang wove together photographic negatives and prints of his family’s Montana ranch to design a variation on a traditional war shirt. Historically, these handmade garments honored one’s family and culture as well as personal identity. Spang’s contemporary interpretation is the second in a series of three produced in 2003. The shirt is displayed prominently in the final gallery of “Infinity of Nations,” which contains contemporary artwork from Native artists throughout the Americas.