FEW of us are willing to acknowledge the importance of contemporary American Indian art, especially if it takes the form of such traditional objects as kachina dolls, beaded moccasins, or totem poles. Things like that, we believe, belong to the past, and are best left there. Not so, insists Ralph T. Coe, the noted art historian, who spent nearly a decade gathering proof that tradition-based art produced by today's native Americans is both beautifully crafted and of considerable significance to those still responsive to the traditions that fostered it. This proof, in the form of 383 objects, ranging from textiles and pottery to war bonnets, carved wooden masks, and a canoe, has been assembled by Mr. Coe at the American Museum of Natural History here. It is the first comprehensive exhibition stressing the survival of traditional native American art forms into the present, and represents the work of more than 200 artists and craftsmen.
``Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985'' demonstrates that to be a modern Indian artist does not require that traditions be abandoned. Indeed, in the majority of works on view, the past is incorporated into the present with great sensitivity, shrewdness, and humor. As proof, one need only examine the beautifully beaded sneakers made by Effie Tybrec; the very contemporary-looking war bonnet fashioned by a Northern Cheyenne; Regina Brave Bull's stunning ``Eagle Quilt''; the delightful pottery frog by Elmer Gates; and, most particularly, the extraordinary button blanket by Robert Davidson and Dorothy Grant that would more than hold its own in any exhibition of Post-Modernist art.
The task of finding and collecting the work in the exhibition began in 1977 and ended in 1985. During that period, Mr. Coe traveled widely across the United States and Canada. As he writes in the excellent catalog that accompanies the show: ``It required interacting directly with Indian artists and their communities, and working closely with their traders . . . . One thing quickly taught by Indian country is never to plan a tight schedule that cannot be changed at a moment's notice . . . . It is fruitless to push deadlines. What is being acquired is not simply a piece of work but a portion of a culture that is precious and not parted with lightly.''
Mr. Coe's persistence and sensitivity to local customs paid off handsomely, however. He discovered that almost every type of tribal art of the 19th century either is being made or is still capable of being made -- even in cases where contemporary craftsmen were not told by their elders how particular objects should be constructed. ``It was gone, and I relearned it myself'' was a typical comment -- although it was never made clear just how much help might have been received from very old relatives with excellent memories.
By the time he'd finished, he had visited more than 70 tribes and had discovered that the arts and crafts of native Americans were far from dead. This was underscored with great poignancy by Marty Kreipe, a member of the Potawatomi tribe: ``There will always be Indian art . . . . We move around, leave the [reservation], we come back at powwow time or celebrations. Then we need our things just as much as in the past. Maybe we need them more. Underneath it hasn't changed that much, not at all.''
Also unchanged -- perhaps unfortunately -- is our insistence that handmade objects be categorized as either art or craft. Because of the utilitarian nature of most of the works on view in this exhibition, their designation as art will almost certainly be challenged by many who will resist giving the status of art to beaded belt buckles, silver earrings, baby carriers, or wastebaskets -- although they probably will have fewer problems with totem poles, kerfed boxes, carved masks, frontlets, and some of the pottery.
But if whites have difficulty with these distinctions, the Indians do not. According to Mr. Coe: ``Art is an index to the Indian will to survive culturally. . . . In the classic Indian view, art is not separate from any other phase of life. Prayers, legends, language, social and religious expressions in dance, visual art, and what is generally referred to as the `Indian way' all go together to create an integrated whole.''
What we have in this exhibition then, are numerous clues to the nature and significance of this ``integrated whole,'' as well as a few glimpses into the manner in which traditions evolve. We also, if we read the catalog text, get to meet some of the artists. There is no better introduction to the show, for instance, than the following statement by Nathan Begay, a Hopi potter: ``Your tradition is `there' always. You're flexible enough to make of it what you want. . . . I pray to the old pots at the ruins and dream about making pottery. I tell them I want to learn how.''
After its closing at the American Museum of Natural History on Oct. 5, this excellent exhbition, which was organized by the American Federation of Arts and funded by American Can Company, will travel to the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Ore. (Jan. 18-March 5, 1987); the Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul (April 12-June 7); the Anchorage Museum of History and Art (July 5-Sept. 6); the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Jan. 10-March 10, 1988); The Albuquerque Museum of Art (April 13-June 19, 1988); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (Oct. 9-Dec. 11, 1988).