Indian art: poetry in everyday objects

Once, while teaching a college course on American Indian artwork, Charles Thompson gave his students the assignment of duplicating a commonplace artifact by the same methods the Indians had used. All found the task of flaking out an arrowhead with a piece of deer antler to be a frustrating, seemingly impossible endeavor.

''Finally, after much painstaking effort they produced some very clumsy results,'' he recalls. ''And so when I showed them a real Indian arrowhead, its sides exquisitely flaked with featherlike markings, they were amazed. 'That's pure poetry,' one said.''

Mr. Thompson has been collecting choice examples of Indian artistry and craftsmanship for 25 years. Like his student, he believes there is pure poetry in even the most utilitarian items fashioned by Indian hands. He also feels that if the larger society can learn to appreciate what native American culture has created, then centuries-old prejudices and misconceptions about that culture may begin to disappear.

While most of Mr. Thompson's collection is devoted to objects made by Indians themselves, another part of it encompasses items, mostly music sheets and advertising objects from the early 1900s, that show how the white society has both romanticized and maligned the American Indian.

''What they reveal is that the American Indian has always been an enigma,'' he said while relaxing in his home here, where he is curator of the Shaker Village Museum. ''At first, they were seen by the explorers and earliest settlers as a race of noble savages. That image quickly changed to one of a scoundrel, the attitude that 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian.' Finally, after we tried to destroy them and put them on reservations, they were no longer a threat and could be romanticized. So, when they weren't viewed as drunks or ne'er-do-wells, they again became noble savages.''

It is this idealized image that is prevalent on many of the objects in this part of his collection.

From the tobacco tins of the early 1900s right on up to the cartons of Land o' Lakes butter found in the supermarket today, the images are highly romanticized.

But although one might think that so idealized a version of American Indians would have elevated their status, it actually worked in the opposite way, says Mr. Thompson. ''This overly romantic view goes hand in hand with the one that views Indians as shiftless and undesirable. They're both unrealistic attitudes born out of the same ignorance.''

The best illustration in the collection of how white society has both revered and scorned the American Indian is a photograph of members of the Red Indian Lodge, a social organization. ''Everything this group did had an Indian theme,'' he says. ''They dressed up like Indians, they imitated Indian rituals, they even called their treasurer 'the keeper of the wampum.' They also barred real Indians from becoming members.''

In contrast with the cartoon images ofadvertising items in the collection are the works created by Indians themselves, objects not only well-crafted but often filled with deep symbolism as well. Even useful objects such as baskets were created with the same artistry that other cultures might reserve for religious icons.

Among the most outstanding in the collection is a coil-woven friendship basket, so called because of the circle of human figures holding hands that goes around the inside of the rim. ''The circle is an important part of both Indian artwork and philosophy,'' says Mr. Thompson. ''It. . .relates to the shape of the earth, the cycle of the seasons, renewal, and eternity itself. In this case, the circle of figures symbolizes the eternal nature of friendship.''

Another prized basket is a large Apache grain basket with a lid. Also among the collection are simple but exquisitely made Cherokee baskets fashioned from dried honeysuckle vines, river reeds, and dried oak.

A good deal of the collection is devoted to the intricate Indian beadwork: pipe bags, bandolier bags, and moccasins.

Fancy beaded moccasins also served a purpose more decorative or ceremonial than useful, which were ''rarely, if ever, used for walking. They were usually saved for ceremonial occasions during which the wearer would be seated most of the time.''

Less familiar than the beadwork are objects in the collection made from birch bark and porcupine quills, a specialty of the Micmac tribe from northern Maine. Most of this work, like the basket weaving and beading, was done by Indian women.

Equally intricate in detail are items in the collection embroidered with moosehair into floral designs. Mr. Thompson shows the embroidery to be a series of tiny, precisely executed French knots on a tiny box.

Most of the objects in the collection date from the early 1800s up until about 1900. ''The designs and colors of this period were, in general, more subtle and of better quality than in later years,'' he says. ''As the Indians catered more to the white tourist trade, things became more commercial.''

One aspect of the collection that is relatively contemporary is an assortment of highly prized ceramics by the late Maria Montez. One of his favorites is a smooth black jug with twin spouts. ''This was designed for a bride and groom to drink from,'' he explains. ''It symbolizes the importance of remaining individuals even after being joined in marriage.''

It is this connection between craftsmanship and philosophy that appeals to Mr. Thompson in Indian art. ''It reminds me of the way Shakers made their furniture,'' he says. ''They weren't just making chairs or tables, they were implementing their beliefs in simplicity and perfection.''

Mr. Thompson hopes to use his collection to help educate the public about American Indian art and culture. A museum designed to house the collection at his family farm near Bridgewater, Conn., is currently in the planning stages.

How he came to be a collector is something he attributes to two events that occurred during his boyhood - finding an arrowhead on the Connecticut farm and the visit to his grade school by an Indian chief named Silver Star. ''Hearing Silver Star speak on Indian philosophy was one of the most profound experiences of my life,'' he says. ''He told us about the importance of the circle and how Indians believe that man should be the steward of the earth, not the destroyer.''

Many of the objects in Mr. Thompson's collection have greatly increased in value over the years, so much so that he doubts he could have started such a collection today. ''It's ironic because monetary value was the last thing on my mind,'' he says. ''In fact, I was discouraged by most people from buying Indian objects. However, I decided to trust what was within my heart. You can't go wrong if you do that.''

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