Native Tongue Drawings Speak Affectingly of Indians' Proud Culture

By Robert W. Duffy Cultural News Editor Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Native Tongue Drawings Speak Affectingly of Indians' Proud Culture


Robert W. Duffy Cultural News Editor Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


`Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935: Pages From A Visual History

Where: The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, between Broome and Grand streets, New York City

When: Through Dec. 21 Information: (212) 219-2166 ***** A COUPLE of Sundays ago in downtown New York City, a group gathered in a circle to listen to a trio of Native Americans called Silver Cloud Singers chant and beat their drum. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed as everybody congregated, a scene of folding chairs and folks dressed down for a Sunday afternoon. Hanging on the walls around the large room were drawings by members of various Plains Indian tribes. What began as a program segued into a ceremony, and as it progressed, it took on the genuine solemnity that suggests something powerful is in the air. In the circle were other Native Americans - the artist Edgar Heap of Birds was there from Oklahoma - his work was shown a few years back in an important exhibition at Steinberg Hall called "Green Acres." Gerald McMaster, a talented artist-curator from Canada, was there. He was co-curator of the show of drawings. There were 40 or 50 other folks: staff and board members of the Drawing Center, which was responsible for organizing the drawing show and under whose roof the drumming ceremony was taking place; a little non-Native American New Yorker boy asleep in his papa's arms; the simply curious and the apparently devout. Janet Catherine Berlo was a link in the circle too. She's from St. Lou is and is professor of art history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Her specialty out of Yale was Pre-Columbian art. She said, however, with a sort of wry humor, that scholars who are familiar with one category of native art and culture are expected nowadays to be able to teach about all of them. So Berlo found herself giving classes about African and North American Indian art, and she also found herself fascinated. Jim Smith, a talented young St. Louis painter who recently had a good show at the Duane Reed Gallery, has Native American ancestors. He told Berlo several years ago that she should go to the Missouri Historical Society to look at some interesting drawings by Plains Indians. That was the beginning of a another circle, one whose circumference commenced being drawn in St. Louis and closed, in a way, in that gallery down in the SoHo a fortnight ago. Berlo, who says that she is not one of those who has "romantic ideas about drumming," found herself moved. "Somehow, when the drums started, I began to cry," she said. "No one was more surprised than me." ***** It would require having a heart of granite not to be moved by "Plains Indian Drawings," the show that Berlo and McMaster organized, which began its four-institution tour at the Drawing Center. The drawings are all by Native Americans, members of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Lakota tribes, and were produced from 1865 to 1935. Plains Indian men maintained a long tradition in the visual arts of narrating pictorially events in the lives of their people. This tradition existed well before the arrival of any Europeans. It involved painting on stretched hides and robes of buffalo. The earliest works on paper were probably made by the Mandan people in the 1830s. Then, Karl Bodmer, the Swiss painter who traveled up the Missouri River with Prince Maximilian of Wied, gave art supplies to the Indians. As more and more white people moved into Indian territories, more and more pencils and paper were available, and they were handily adopted by the Native Americans, sometimes through trade, sometimes as trophies from dead soldiers and settlers. …

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