From relic to recent, Native American exhibit connects the ancient with the modern

October saw the opening of the Fleming Museum’s “Native American Cultures” exhibit, in memorial of James B. Peterson, the UVM anthropology professor who died last year in Brazil. A member of the Abenaki tribe described Peterson as a “friend of the Abenakis,” a tribe represented in the exhibit by many early baskets and ceramic pots. In addition to this media, the exhibit also features lithics, weavings, beadwork and carving. A wide range of tribes are represented, with a large volume of artifacts from the Dakota and Lakota Sioux of North and South Dakota and the Navajos of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Abenakis of Vermont. Perhaps the most revealing means of classifying this collection of art, however, is not by tribe or medium, but chronology. Beginning with the monochromatic pottery of the Quapaws of modern-day Arkansas dating to the 9th century C.E., the collection includes pieces from throughout the second millennium, continuing through the 20th century. Some of the most fascinating pieces were created in the 19th century by the Sioux and Crow tribes of Montana, and document a transformation of native peoples’ way of life. A pair of Sioux beaded grizzly bear moccasins from the 1870s, worn to designate a special tribal distinction, notably by the chief Medicine Bear, include European wool and metal, indicative of a trade relationship of the era. Both a Crow woman’s buffalo robe and an Iroquois pouch from the same period feature intricate designs of glass beads, attained through European trade. A bandolier bag from the Ojibwes of the Northern Midwest is not only covered in glass beads but is also modeled after 18th century European ammunition bags. These are revelatory of the changing nature of the Natives’ way of life that would soon be altered drastically by the continual invasion of the land by Europeans. The debilitating effect the Europeans would eventually have on the Natives is exemplified in Navajo textiles. Making blankets woven from wool from heir own flock of sheep, the Navajo nomadic way of life ended in 1868 when its people were forced onto reservations by the U.S government. This change is reflected in the very design of the blankets: one from the early 19th century uses colored stripes to denote a young boy and his horse, whereas a blanket from the 1960s uses complex geometric patterns as representative of a city, commenting of the altered state of tribal life. While the tragedy of the Native history is evident in the exhibit, the rich culture that exists today is also well represented. Demonstrative of this continuing wealth of heritage are the 20th-century baskets from the Lower Klamath River Valley of Northern California featuring geometric designs and made from traditional materials of willow, maidenhair fern, bean grass and cedar. A prominent contemporary Native artist, Kay WalkingStick of the Cherokee tribe, looked to traditiona;ly stretched hide forms as inspiration for her 1975 painting “Captured Chimera,” which she painted while living in New York City. This effectively captures the dichotomy presented to the modern Native American people by both the modern U.S. and its history. The full range of artifacts and history are on display at the Fleming Museum until the end of the semester.