Sara Morris Swetcharnik

Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Collecting of Chandler and Pohrt

Sara Morris Swetcharnik, circa October 1992

As I walk into this exhibition, I am immediately swept away by the beauty of the American Indian way of life. Here we see objects that beautified both the ceremonies and the daily life of the American Indian. Whether the objects are made from natural materials or from imported silk ribbons or glass beads, to me they elicit a yearning for this other time and culture.

This, the premiere exhibition of 152 of the most important objects from the collections of Milford Chandler and Richard Pohrt, can now be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Co-curated by David W. Penny and George P. Horse Capture, this exhibition reassembles from the original collection of over 4000 art objects produced by North American Woodland and Plains Indians. The exhibition begins with art from the end of the fur trade era (1790-1850) and closes with the era of relocation and confinement to reservations (1830-1900). Exquisite examples of decorative, utilitarian, and ceremonial objects, including feather headdresses; moccasins; leather and textiles; bead work; domestic items such as cradles, trunks, bowls, and spoons; pipes; weaponry; and pictorial drawing and engravings are included in this exhibition. The curators show how the arts evolved during this period of rapid change and while also trying to maintain a sense of Indian identity.

The exhibition also documents the process of collecting of Milford Chandler (1889-1981) and Richard Pohrt (b. 1911). Neither men had formal academic training in ethnography, nor great financial resources. Initially, both men were romantically drawn to the American Indian: tales, legends and recitations of Longfellow's Hiawatha were the things their dreams were born on. Their dreams were not lost as they pioneered collecting American Indian art. From Chandler's close relations with families among the Potawatomi, Mesquakie, and Miami communities of the Midwest, and Pohrt's attachments to the Gros Ventre of Fort Belknap, Montana, stemmed a commitment to preserve the artistic heritage of these people. Chandler encouraged young Pohrt to collect but more importantly to also get to know the Indian people. In a film that accompanies the exhibition George P. Horse Capture speaking of Pohrt says, "He collected things with respect, honor, and knowledge and he kept them in the same way. Through him we retrieved a portion of ourselves that we thought we lost. We, the Gros Ventre people, are grateful to him."

As I look at the objects in this collection, I too am grateful, although I see them as an outsider. I thrill at their intricate geometries, as beautifully crafted as rugs from the Caucasus, and floral designs graceful as French Art Nouveau. I admire the age-old sense of craft--far antedating the English Arts and crafts movement --and I ask myself what it is about American native art that achieved such a unity of beauty and function. It was an integral part of their culture to add beauty to every aspect of living: the putting on of shoes, lifting a spoon or a bowl for a meal, taking up a weapon for making war, or smoking a peace pipe. These are not merely quaint objects: they are unabashedly affirmative art. What can we learn from this art that tries to read a hint from God in every aspect of the created world? What is there to learn from an art whose use of the natural world serves as a bridge to the spiritual, while the culture we belong to regards the natural as a resource to be exploited. Perhaps this is part of the romance I feel--and that Chandler and Pohrt felt--before these objects was for the opportunity to begin in a new world. It is the art of a courageous people had not lost hope, or beauty, or joy.

The exhibition continues at the National Gallery of Art through January 24, 1993.

Originally published in The New Paper, Frederick, Maryland (circa October 1992).