CHICAGO — Mention the Incas or the Mayas, and most Americans will give a nod of recognition. But talk about the great civilization of Cahokia - once the largest city in North America - and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. Few people have heard of the Hopewell society in Ohio, or the Etowah or Moundville cultures in the Southeast, despite their complex social structure, architecture, religion, and art.
The Art Institute of Chicago hopes to change that. "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," a collection of art from the ancient cultures of the Midwest and South, aims to toss out old notions of pre-Columbus America as an untamed wilderness.
It may seem, at first glance, an unlikely exhibition for a museum known for its grand displays of Matisse, Gauguin, and Seurat - a collection that would be more at home, perhaps, in the Field Museum of Natural History, a mile south.
But despite a fair amount of ethnographic information and historical context, the emphasis here is on aesthetics - and the curators are clear that the objects displayed are art, not artifacts. It's the artistic quality of the Hopewell's carved animal pipes, or the stunning Moundville pots, more than their function, that interests them.
"We're trying to create a fresh approach to the interpretation of these objects," says Richard Townsend, curator of African and Amerindian art. "I hope at the most basic level that visitors will carry away with them an emotional imprint - that they will be affected by the beautiful and powerful works of art shown here."
Many of the pieces are indeed stunning - and in surprisingly good shape. The first room is devoted mostly to the Hopewell society, which flourished around AD 1000 in the Ohio River Valley, and to Cahokia, an ancient city just outside St. Louis that existed from about AD 900 to 1200.
In the Hopewell section, the most riveting objects are thin mica cutouts, which seem almost transparent, of a bird talon, human profile, and a large hand - subjects which gave the exhibition its name and which held deep symbolic value for many of the societies.
By the time of Cahokia, the human figure, in particular, is more developed, and often represents heroes: Red Horn, also called Morning Star, or the Corn Mother. But as interesting as Cahokia's intricate copper plates and engraved whelk shells is the information about the city itself. A large mural on the wall imagines what it once looked like: a city of 15,000 to 20,000 people that contained large earthen pyramids, scattered thatched houses, and a spiked wooden wall that surrounded the central palisade.
The lack of general awareness of such civilizations may be one reason why those associated with the exhibition sometimes display an almost missionary zeal when talking about the art's importance.
"It's about time that native Americans and nonnative citizens realize that in the eastern woodlands of the United States a great civilization arose, and the art it produced is equal to the art of societies at a similar level of development anywhere in the world, at any time and place," says Kent Reilly, a professor of anthropology at Texas State University who helped conceptualize the exhibit.
In the second room, the focus shifts to ceramics and carved stone vessels, but some of the common threads continue. Many of the red and white pots from the central Mississippi Valley are in the shapes of animals. The open hand, which scholars believe symbolized the portal into the Milky Way where ancestors went, recurs frequently in the Moundville art.
The Etowah art, meanwhile - from a warrior aristocracy in northwest Georgia - consists largely of human figures. Elaborate copper plates depict heroes, while stone carvings show kneeling and seated figures. And the Caddoan ceramics - from sites in southwestern Arkansas and northwestern Louisiana - are almost exclusively abstract. The distinctive red, black, and white designs are very different from the Southwestern art that many people are familiar with, and many of the pots are oddly shaped, with bulbous legs or triangular bodies.
The exhibition also attempts - with varying degrees of success - to incorporate modern tribal voices and histories. Contemporary native Americans weigh in at various points on the audio tour and provide the first quote on the entry wall. At the end of the show, two paragraphs sum up the Trail of Tears and the deplorable acts by the US government, and a film shows modern efforts to reclaim and revitalize tribal culture. With most experts unsure of the links between contemporary tribes and ancient societies whose art is on display, these additions seem somewhat forced.
Still, the works hold meaning for contemporary native Americans. Jereldine Redcorn, a Caddo potter from Oklahoma who has taught herself ancient ceramic techniques, says that seeing her ancestors' art achieve prominence in a museum is somewhat bittersweet.
"We had this society, and because of removal policies," it was lost, she says. "Seeing this - it is with a sadness, but also a hopefulness that people will appreciate the history and art and culture we had."
• 'Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand' continues at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 30. It travels to the St. Louis Art Museum in February.