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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Native American Art

Pequot tribal descendants reenact an encounter with early European settlers.
As we stuff ourselves with turkey and all the trimmings later this month, our thoughts have been trained to reflect back upon the New England Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving of 1621. Although they've been an integral part of the Thanksgiving tradition for centuries, we don't as often contemplate those sitting on the other side of the table at that first Thanksgiving--the Native Americans. If this is true at Thanksgiving, it's all the more the case when we think about American art. In fact, I think it would be fair to say, in this context, we seldom, if ever, think about indigenous American Art. We think as if our European forebears had some kind of monopoly upon creative expression and exposition. But actually, art was so deeply ingrained in the culture of our Native American brothers and sisters it totally lacked the artificial separations European minds then and now are accustomed to. Native American art was a part of all that they were, from illustrated legends drawn in charcoal on the walls of subterranean caverns, to the clothes they wore, their weapons, their daily utensils, their religion, their painted bodies, even the way they laid out their communities.

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center,
Mashantucket, Connecticut.
Nowhere is this more eloquently depicted than at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center at Mashantucket, Connecticut. The $193 million facility is, in a modern sense, more than an art museum, yet in the traditional sense I mentioned above, it's nothing but an art museum. It might better be termed a cultural showplace made possible by the 1983 settlement of land claims dating back nearly two hundred years; and by the sale of sand, gravel, maple syrup, vegetables from a hydroponic greenhouse, a restaurant, and of course, the real cash cow, their Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Pequot basketry, early to mid-19th century
The art of the Pequot is that of wood. Basketry, bowls, canoes, weapons, eating utensils, all center upon this most plentiful, malleable, and readily available art medium. Carved, woven, even painted upon, wood never achieved a higher calling in art than that of the Pequot. The museum includes hundreds of objects, from prehistoric tools to eighteenth century clubs to 20th century paintings. These are juxtaposed next to work by contemporary Native Americans such as two Penobscot artists who have depicted in wood sculpture the Abenaki creation story detailing how the first man and woman were carved from trees and came to life when shot with arrows.

Pequot art today, Quilled Box, 1996,
Vicky Sanipass
We don't know for sure which tribes shared the first Thanksgiving feast with their Puritan neighbors. The Pequot, the Penobscot, perhaps several others may have attended. But it's a pretty sure bet that they brought their "covered dish" share of the feast in bowls made of wood, served with utensils made of wood, perhaps transported in birch bark canoes. They may have marvelled at their hosts' fine china, or everyday pewter, maybe even traded for it, but the artistry and craftsmanship in their own offerings stood up quite easily next to that of the thankful Pilgrims.
Although the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 seems to have been a peaceful
enough affair, later colonial Thanksgiving celebrations often followed
brutal massacres of "native savages."

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