“There is a design in living things; their shapes, forms, the ability to live, all have meaning. We must cling to our Indian traditions which exalt beauty.”
Popovi Da (1970, 7)
When the son of the famed potter Maria Martinez, Popovi Da, gave a lecture in Santa Fe in 1969, he characterized the work of his people as living art, “moving from an endless past not gone, not dead, but with a threshold that is the present. . . . Our simple lines have meaning” (1970, 5). The participants in Art 284, “A Different Way of Seeing: The Art of Native North America,” have worked to understand that meaning. The result is this on-line exhibition, drawing almost exclusively upon Edward J. Guarino’s donations to the Loeb Center. Fifteen works ranging from a nineteenth-century Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bag to contemporary Pueblo pottery tell the story of remarkable persistence and extraordinary artistry. These objects were intended for sale, yet the works remain vitally important to their makers. In fact, they are “postcards to the universe” (Sheehan 2008, 18) from artists still in conversation with ancient traditions. Some works cleave closely to communal practices; others display astonishing innovations. Yet all these objects demonstrate the Native makers’ ability to transcend boundaries and synthesize multiple influences.
The fifteen students in Art 284 are a diverse group, representing freshman to seniors; numerous majors (Art, Environmental Studies, American Culture, Anthropology, English, Biology, Psychology); some with Native ancestry, the majority non-Natives drawn to an enriching project of cross-cultural learning and exchange. We had the help of numerous experts, including some of the makers themselves, and we puzzled over various challenges. Should we include a ceremonial basket that some members of the Diné (Navajo) nation deem inappropriate for display? Because listening to Native communities was one of our priorities, we decided “no.” Once we discovered that a man’s outfit (reputedly Oneida) was not Indian-made, we pondered if it should remain in the exhibition. Ultimately, we kept it as a cautionary example of the widespread practice of “playing Indian” in American society. Finally, we faced a situation where many more sources were available for some types of objects—Diné weaving and Pueblo pottery, for example—while other forms, such as Algonquin birchbark containers, languished virtually unexamined. But all the objects in this exhibition have qualities, that in Popovi Da’s words, “are indwelling and dependent on time and space unmeasured. This in itself is beauty” (1970, 7).