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Issue Date: April 2010

Tribe Time

The American Indian is not dead.
Crystal Huggins

In the vibrant red, sky blue trim and multicolored mane of the Nimi’ipuu Horse Mask, Native American culture is very much alive and on display as the Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection debuts at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“People think Indians vanished in the early 1900s when people were confined to reservations,” says Susan Bergh, Cleveland Museum of Art associate curator of pre-Columbian and Native American art. “Indians haven’t vanished. They’re a very vital community all over the U.S. creating beautiful art.”

Organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Thaw Collection explores Native North American art from the Eastern Woodlands to the Northwest through more than 135 masterpieces spanning 2,000 years.

At the center of the exhibition will be Louisa Keyser’s Beacon Lights, which makes its only appearance in the traveling show at CMA. The coiled basket, created from willow strips held in place by thousands of tiny willow stitches, is beautifully symmetrical and delicate but sparked with native designs in red and black made from redbud and bracken fern root.

“She is arguably the most famous Native American basket weaver,” Bergh says. “And this is her most famous production.”

The works will be organized geographically, so Keyser (also known as Dat So La Lee), a renowned basket weaver of the Washoe in the Lake Tahoe region of California and Nevada, highlights the basketry of Native American weavers. The ancient ivories and modern masks of the Arctic, including a Crane Mask of the Yup’ik, and dramatic arts of the Pacific Northwest are the cornerstones of the Thaw Collection, which was put together over two decades by collectors Eugene and Clare Thaw.

The majority of the 120-piece collection dates to the 19th century, but modern works and about 15 pieces from the Cleveland Museum of Art collection are included as well.

“American Indian art represents a part of the history of this continent,” Bergh says. “They’re universally appealing, beautiful works of art.”

The Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection runs through May 30.

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