A Response to NYT’s “Plains Indian Culture, as Seen Through the Ingenuity of the Tepee”

Recently, the New York Times published a highly critical review of the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibition. As one of its main points of contention, the review questions the relevance of contemporary Native American art in an exhibition about the tipi and Plains art and culture.  Actually, a key goal for the exhibition is to show the vibrancy of Plains culture today through the rich tradition of the tipi, the continuity and evolution of artistic traditions, and ongoing creativity and innovation of Plains artists.

According to the 2000 Census, over one million Native Americans live in states that fall within the Great Plains region.  Many of the artists within this population work in traditional media such as quillwork, beadwork and wood and bone carving. Their skills were learned from elders who in turn learned them from the previous generation, and so on. This transfer of cultural and artistic knowledge is one of the ways that contemporary work relates to historic material from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Moreover, indigenous people have always traded materials, shared ideas, and created innovative art forms, a tradition that persisted after Europeans invaded and colonized North America, and one that continues today. Indeed, looking to past art for inspiration is a time-honored tradition in many world cultures, including Euro-American art. Just as nineteenth-century Native artists incorporated trade materials (glass beads, wool cloth, ledger paper, etc.)  that were introduced by non-Native settlers and army personnel, some Native artists today choose to express themselves in new media, such as photography, or to question received conventions such as gender-specific art forms. The inclusion of both historic and contemporary works in Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains illustrates this complex history, which is one of the exhibition’s themes.

The Times review also was critical of the involvement of Native American scholars, artists, and tribal members in the exhibition. In the wake of prevalent popular misconceptions and stereotypes, Native American participation was central to our goals in organizing the exhibition. The perspectives of our Native consultants—who have firsthand experience of tipi traditions and protocols, of languages and stories that belong to oral traditions, and of tipi arts and designs that have been passed down over generations—enriched the project immeasurably and were crucial to giving an accurate and sensitive presentation of Plains objects. Native involvement in the exhibition was a privilege for our Museum not an obligation.

For additional commentary from a Native perspective, please see America Meredith’s blog.

We welcome your comments.