The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky closed last week, but during its two-month run it attracted a lot of attention. The exhibition, curated by Gaylord Torrence, displayed 137 objects from collections in North America and Europe. While much of the commentary surrounding this exhibition has been laudatory – and there is much to praise – the reviewers have also employed tired tropes, language that could just as likely be found in nineteenth-century dime novels and melodramatic odes to the “noble savage.” Taken together, these reviews show the persistence and power of that language. They tell us that as a society, we’ve made little progress in moving beyond worn out stereotypes bequeathed from centuries past.
Following its opening in March, Artists of Earth and Sky elicited immediate responses. Six reviews, published during the show’s first two weeks, appeared in various sources including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Indian Country Today, Forbes, and the Boston Globe. These early responses underscore American fascinations and fixations with Native American people, their art, and material culture. The collective feedback celebrates the exhibit’s top billing and dazzling curatorial selections. It’s “a spectacular collection,” writes Sebastian Smee in the Globe. These are “wondrous things,” Holland Cotter reports for the Times, that remind us how Native peoples “were particularly in tune with nature.” In Forbes, Jonathon Keats informs his readers that the objects are “imbued with magical qualities…a sort of spiritual technology.”
This language is carried through nearly all the earliest reviews of Artists of Earth and Sky. In a later review, Thomas Powers, writing for the New York Review of Books, observes that “A kind of twilight invites silence” upon entering the exhibit. While low lighting is a technical measure that slows material deterioration, Powers notes that the dim ambiance creates the right effect for exhibiting “what remains of a culture so utterly confounded by the invasion of richer, better-armed people with robust immune systems.” This “narrative arc,” the Boston Globe piece notes, begins with the Indians enjoying “flourishing plentitude” and ends with their “near-annihilation and flinty endurance.” Such language recycles the vanishing Indian trope, an idea that rose to cultural ubiquity after the Civil War, when well-armed and robustly-immune settlers flooded the Plains and Far West.
There is a cruel irony here. The nineteenth-century notion that Native people were dying out drove early anthropologists to catalog, record, and describe American Indian cultures. It also propelled the wealthiest and most ambitious collectors to acquire Native material items both legally and illegally and to hoard them jealously. Today, when these items are displayed, reviewers are quick to rehearse the same old tropes to describe the pieces. They also invoke a vaudevillian hype, urging audiences that the artwork is “never before seen” and that the show is “one of the greatest exhibitions of American Indian art you may ever see!” One can almost hear the squeaky tune of a hand-churned street organ.
Artists of Earth and Sky actually follows generations of Indian art exhibits in New York City. However, reviewers have heralded the show in such a way that suggests a kind of exhibit amnesia. Take for example the curatorial inclusion of the human effigy “Adena Man Pipe” from Chillicothe, Ohio (800 B.C.-A.D 100). Typically a featured item at the Ohio History Center, the pipe has its own circuitous background. In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art’s Indian Art of the United States, another comprehensive exhibit, also showcased “Adena Man.” Since its excavation in 1901 it has been shown in St. Louis (1904), New York (1941, 2015), Kansas City (1976, 2014), London (1976), and Paris (2014).
Regardless of their exhibit provenance, “Adena Man,” and other curatorial selections are extolled as “rarely seen.” The review language surrounding the items reads as a case of exhibit amnesia cleverly spun as a “groundbreaking.” New York is a city with one of the largest American Indian populations in the U.S., yet writers consistently overlook important New York venues with well-established reputations for exhibiting American Indian material items. The George Gustav Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, for instance, and the American Indian Community House are two institutions that have featured American Indian art for decades.
Continually invoking romanticized language eclipses honest discussions about United States colonialism (in the past and present) and about how collecting itself can be a form of violence. The return of Plains Indian cultural materials from abroad, a unique feature of Artists of Earth and Sky, provides a rare moment to appreciate the importance of these items for the communities from whom they were bought, stolen, and removed. Including the work of contemporary Indian artists like Wendy Red Star and Edgar Heap of Birds, as this show does, is a bold move that disrupts the vanishing Indian trope and affirms the rich contributions of American Indians to contemporary society.
When recycled nineteenth-century rhetoric about Indians overshadows such complex histories, the cultural items themselves become free-floating stand-ins for actual Native people, a process that in some ways masks colonial guilt about these tough issues. To accept outdated language is historical laziness that does broad damage. It’s a cavalier attitude, one that helps explain prevalent cultural appropriations like hipster headdresses, Hollywood Indians, and the dogged support for racist professional sports mascots. Future reviewers and museum-goers must look at Indian art exhibits with fresh eyes. What language can we employ that kicks the crutch of worn-out Indian tropes? What might our responses to an exhibit like Artists of Earth and Sky then look like? We’re not entirely sure. As scholars, we may not even completely agree with each other. But we’re certain we’d all be talking and writing about it a lot differently.