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Indian art works showcase many cultures

STANFORD -- More than a century after a Lakota craftswoman worked distinctive zigzag patterns into a woven medicine bag, the bright orange and subtle maroon vegetable dyes still tell a magical story.

Equally intriguing is the printed explanation that accompanies the Northern Plains art work on display at the Art Gallery.

“Religion and healing are part of the cultural life of my people,” read the words of Donald Warne, an Oglala Lakota who received his M.D. in family medicine at Stanford in June. “Religion is not something practiced only once a week, healing is not provided exclusively in an office, and there is no separate word for 'art.' They are included in everything we do in a balanced way of life.”

The medicine bag that dates from 1895 originally belonged to Warne's grandfather, a traditional Lakota healer who inspired his grandson to pursue a medical career. Warne has loaned the bag and several family photographs to the Stanford Museum of Art for its new exhibition, “Our Art, Our Voices: Native American Cultural Perspectives.” On display at the Art Gallery through Dec. 17, the exhibit celebrates the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Stanford American Indian Organization.

Twenty percent of the 100 art works are on loan to the museum from 12 Native American alumni who have agreed to act as “interpreters” of their cultures by writing about how the items are used day to day, and how they are positioned in a broader sociological context. Their printed statements hang next to life-size photos of the alums in a gallery presentation that is described as a museum “first” by Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

“I've never heard of anything like this happening at a museum, let alone at a university museum,” West said in a telephone interview.

“One of the most significant objections to museum displays on the part of Native peoples has been the predilection to depict their cultures as purely historical, rather than contemporary in nature,” he said. “Any cultural institution that purports to represent Native cultures must depict them as part of a significant contemporary culture, and Stanford is doing just that with its 'living' interpreters. There are no memorials in this exhibition.”

West has loaned the museum one of the most stunning outfits on display - his own Southern Cheyenne dancing regalia. Trimmed with bright yellow, red and blue glass beads and fringed along the arms and leggings, the white buckskin regalia is topped by a magnificent “roach” headdress of porcupine guard hair, red-deer tail, and spotted-eagle and bald-eagle feathers. A white bone choker trimmed with ermine tails completes the dancer's outfit.

“I've been dancing since I was 5 years old,” West said. “But when I hit 50, I switched from traditional dancing to straight dancing, which requires less bowing and swirling and is better for us 'duffers.' ”

The gallery has been sectioned into clusters that focus on 10 tribal areas, from Eastern Woodlands to Northwest Coast and Southern Plains. Bright red Navajo textiles and iridescent Plains beadwork cut colorful swaths through the monochromatic baskets of the Northern California tribes and black Haida argillite carvings of the Northwest Coast.

In one display case two spotlights illumine a dark blue wool dress trimmed in bright red and decorated with 270 elk teeth. The dress belonged to alum Lesley Jackson's grandmother and is a testament to her grandfather's skill in providing meat for his family, since an elk has only two of the prized ivory eye teeth. Although some Crow elders prefer to be buried in their finest clothes, Jackson's grandmother insisted that her dress be passed on to younger women in the family to wear in the Grand Entry of dancers at powwow.

“The difference between Indian and non-Indian culture is that we don't keep items that are central to our culture encased and hidden away somewhere,” Jackson said in a telephone interview from her office in Denver, where she is director of comprehensive education for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. “Our culture has no value in a casket laid eight feet under. We have to give it life by using it.”

Jackson persuaded other friends and members of her family to loan a concha belt and bracelets for the exhibition, and one friend of the family agreed to loan a 150-year-old wooden Crow saddle that has become the envy of several Stanford curators.

“When I heard about the exhibition, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of it,” Jackson said. “It's a chance for those who visit the gallery to understand that Indian people are alive and well, that our cultures are thriving and that we're excited about it.

“Hell, there are more than 500 different cultures in Indian Country alone, each of them distinct and beautiful and worthy of another look.”

Jane Stanford agreed. Her purchases of Mound Builder stone and shell works, Northern California baskets and Northwest Coast carvings launched the museum's Indian holdings. By 1939 the collection was so highly regarded that the first woman reporter for the San Francisco Examiner donated 400 of her best and biggest Indian baskets to Stanford, with 300 smaller specimens parcelled out to the U.S. Department of the Interior. As the collections have expanded in recent years, however, most of the art works have remained in storage, inaccessible to the viewing public.

“I'll never forget the day a couple of years ago when I was taken down to the basement of the museum, to a locked storage room,” said Denni Woodward, assistant director of the American Indian Program. “They opened the locks on this nondescript plywood cabinet, and even though we hadn't turned on any switches, it was as though a beautiful light was suddenly shining by itself out of the cabinet. It was full of pottery from the Southwest, shelf after shelf after shelf.”

Woodward had proposed an exhibition of Indian art works to Tom Seligman, the recently arrived director of the museum, and she was getting her first tour of the collections that she had heard so much about over the years. As a youngster growing up in the Bay Area, she had gone regularly to the de Young and other local museums with her mother and grandmother, both of whom were Mescalero Indians.

“Whenever I got to a museum, I'd go straight to the Indian exhibits, but the labels were always so skimpy,” Woodward recalled. “The objects had been removed from their cultures and the tags only listed what they were made of. They used words like 'uncivilized' and 'primitive,' and made it sound as though we had all died out centuries ago.

“My grandmother would look at a label about a 'basket used for carrying things' and tell me that the museum didn't know any better.”

Today's museum educators wince at stories like Woodward's, says Ruth Franklin, Stanford curator of arts of Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The labels prepared for the current exhibition are long on text that aims to position the art works within a contemporary setting and to explain the artistic cross-fertilization that occurred between tribes.

“There's been this great misconception that Indian culture was lost 100 years ago because of trading and exchanges,” says Woodward, who is guest curator of the exhibition with Franklin. “So we got along with each other and exchanged gifts? Is that such a phenomenon?

“I'm sure there were Indians who, after trading goods, said to themselves, 'Gee, that's a nice looking pot, and next time I do one, I think I'll do something similar.' The notion that we've sat by the stream for eons, weaving the same basket, is totally ridiculous. And that's the kind of thing that we're trying to help people understand.”

Assisting the volunteer museum docents for the exhibit are four Native American undergraduates: Powtache Williams, a Mississippi Choctaw who has loaned a number of baskets and traditional regalia to the exhibit; Zach Pahmahmie, a Potawatomi/Kickapoo headed for a career in museum work; Trish Moquino, a Pueblo Indian from Santo Domingo Pueblo whose grandfather has loaned several art works to the Southwest display; and Amy West, daughter of Rick West.


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