By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
It all began with a Navajo deerskin shirt, which George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) acquired in 1897 in Kingston, Arizona, where he was the superintendent on a railroad project.
By the time he died, Heye, who held a degree in electrical engineering, had amassed more than 800,000 indigenous peoples’ objects — perhaps the single largest collection held by a private individual — and co-founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York, which was opened to the public in a new building at 155th Street and Broadway in 1922. The native New Yorker was its director from inception until a year before his death.
Today, about 700 items ranging from basketry, to beaded moccasins and clothing, to carved masks, pottery and more are on display at the National Museum of the American Indian-New York, George Gustav Heye Center, which I toured on a recent Sunday.
These exquisite artifacts, showcasing Native Americans’ masterful command of many disciplines, convey the tribes’ inextricable connection to nature and the land.
Since October 1994, this part of the collection has been located in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, completed in lower Manhattan in 1907. The Beaux Arts building, covering three city blocks, is a destination in itself, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Because the museum is a branch of the Smithsonian, admission is free, especially welcome in an extremely pricy city. Its location adjacent to Battery Park is also convenient for those interested in an American history day out: The ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants came into the New World from 1892 to 1954, leaves from the park at the southern tip of Manhattan. (The ferry ticket includes both island stops.)
Heye was also an investment banker for eight years in the early 1900s. When the ups and downs of the financial world no longer held much interest — but had imparted a liberating fortune — he gained further funding from his well-off family and friends and turned his full attention to his voracious, consuming passion.
He enlisted anthropologists on his quest, and sent them on buying trips to far-flung parts of North America, South America and Central America. An enthusiastic amateur — he had no academic training in archaeology, anthropology or curatorial rigor — Heye also took an active role himself, purchasing goods from tribes, dealers and museums.
After Heye’s death, his museum fell on hard times, including a dubious episode of a former director being charged with giving away or selling artifacts for his own benefit. Among the failed schemes to revive it was an offer of $70 million from billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot to move the priceless collection to Dallas in the mid-1980s.
Finally in 1989, an agreement was reached to transfer stewardship of the artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution and legislation was passed to establish the National Museum of the American Indian, with a purpose-built building to follow on the National Mall adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
That building opened in 2004, and Heye’s collection forms the foundation for more than 85 percent of its holdings. I visited in 2008 and was wowed by the architecture inside and out, to say nothing of the abundance of engrossing artifacts. (Photographs, paintings and treaty documents are in the collection at the Washington location.)
The permanent exhibit in New York, grouped geographically, is titled “Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.”
Much of the explanatory signage is brief, confined to a description of the materials used, the name of the tribe and its region, and the date the object was likely made.
An eye-catching, diverse array of headdresses opens the exhibit. Among the largest is a horseshoe-shaped frame covered with tightly overlapping blue and red macaw feathers, accented around the perimeter with smaller white heron feathers. From Brazil, circa 1990, it was used during naming and boys’ initiation ceremonies. In an accompanying photograph, it looks cumbersome, the top arching above the back of the wearer’s head, and the bottom edges brushing the upper thighs.
In-depth information accompanies the 10 “focal-point” pieces, enclosed in stand-alone display cases. Accompanying media feature touch-screen images, text and a scholar talking about the details and background of the object.
One of the star items tells its own story. The Apsáalooke (Crow) warrior’s exploit robe, one of two known to be in any collection, dates to around 1850 and was secured from Fort Benton, Montana, in 1861. Its elongated figures and weapons illustrate six episodes attesting to the warrior’s bravery in battle, essential for any male aspiring to a tribal leadership role. It measures about 7.4 feet long and about 6.4 feet wide (224 by 193 centimeters).
Made from buffalo hide, pigment, red wool trade cloth, beads, porcupine quills and horsehair, the robe is read from top to bottom and from right to left. Though a Crow garment, it was in possession of a Blackfoot, who may have come by it through the spoils of war, trade or as a gift. The enemy tribes would have visited Fort Benton, a major trading post, to acquire beads, steel knives, copper pots, guns, powder and lead.
Spanning the shoulders on either side of the beadwork are 11 parallel long-barreled guns (they look like stripes), which the warrior took from the enemy. The red triangle on the left side signifies a horse’s head.
Another magnificent garment, noted for its vibrant colors, beadwork and functionality, is an Inuit “amauti” or “tuilli,” a woman’s inner parka from Nunavut, Canada, circa 1890-1925. More specifically, it was acquired near Cape Fullerton, a former whaling station on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
Inuit men were hired as hunting guides and to crew the whaleboats, while the women sewed mitts, parkas, boots and sleeping bags.
Crafted from caribou skin, nearly 160,000 glass beads, stroud cloth, caribou teeth and metal pendants, the wide-shouldered parka would have allowed a mother to carry her baby in a neck-level pouch on the back, and swing the infant around to the front when it was time to nurse, minimizing its exposure to the elements.
These beautiful objects might inspire visitors to start their own collection, beginning with a stop at the museum store. High-quality jewelry, rugs, wood and stone carvings, apparel, pottery and basketry crafted by Native American artists are among the extensive inventory, complemented by a range of books and DVDs.
The shop has just undergone a $2 million renovation, increasing the display space to 3,000 feet. This area was the Cashier’s Office of the U.S. Custom House, back when it was a major revenue collection location. The expansion retained the gate-like antique metal dividers that date to the early 1900s, and the chandeliers and crown molding were also preserved.
The National Museum of the American Indian’s New York branch is located in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan.
Quick reference: National Museum of the American Indian-New York, George Gustav Heye Center, 1 Bowling Green, adjacent to northeast corner of Battery Park. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Closed December 25. Admission: Free. nmai.si.edu Visitors must pass through security screening and metal detector. No storage lockers, no cafe.
Other exhibits: “Manifestipi,” through March 25, 2018; “Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed,” through May 20, 2018; “Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound,” through January 6, 2019; “Circle of Dance,” though April 2019.
The third floor is home to the New York branch of the National Archives. It’s open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For those with genealogical ties to New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, this is a good place to start tracing your family history. Access to some records requires an appointment. Check the website for details. http://www.archives.gov/nyc