As you approach the new American Indian Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, you'll see from a distance the exhibit's breathtaking Cheyenne eagle-feather headdress. The cascade of eagle, hawk, owl and raven feathers, adorned with glass beadwork, exudes beauty and power. It's so iconic and innately American an artifact that you can't quite believe you're actually seeing it. It's like encountering Paul Bunyan or Uncle Sam in the flesh. Any American browsing among the new gallery's collection of masterworks will experience that weird cultural resonance two dozen times.
The museum and curator Gaylord Torrence have made the bold but inevitable choice of placing the American Indian galleries in the context of the revamped American collections. It's an innovation that fine-art collections around the country are almost guaranteed to emulate. Traditionally, museums have placed American Indian art within ridiculously encompassing "tribal art" surveys that stop just short of putting Toltec carvings and Navajo rugs in the same cabinet as Ghanaian textiles. By locating this new gallery across the hall from American Puritans, the Nelson-Atkins formally recognizes Native American art within the fabric of American artistic heritage. Which makes the exhibit rife with fascinating, definitive collisions of Native American and white European traditions.
The Ojibwa captain's coat is another of those objects with such immediate living presence that you can't quite believe you're seeing it. Made from buffalo skin, rawhide, porcupine quills, glass beads and deer hair, the already striking coat also includes pigment decorations in Woodland and Plains Indian motifs. It is immediately recognizable as a work of American Indian art, yet the garment's cut is patterned after a late-18th-century English officer's coat. Similar examples in European museums suggest that it was intended as a gift to a white officer.
The more than 200 pieces on display include almost too many examples of cross-cultural pollination to take in during one viewing. A woven serape dated around 1865 features a repeating geometrical pattern floating over a brilliant red background. The pattern shows the era's characteristic appropriation by Navajo weavers of Spanish and Mexican design elements, and the fabric includes commercial wools acquired through trade. It sits at an intersection of multiple traditions; the serape wouldn't exist as an object without this commingling of materials and aesthetics.
An even more obvious — and painstakingly rendered — cultural echo is the exhibit's Heiltsuk beaver effigy chair. Torrence describes it as a "trans-cultural object." The seat is a relief-carved sculpture of a beaver holding a piece of wood in its mouth, but apart from the beautiful tribal motifs, the chair deliberately imitates the European styling of mid-19th-century furniture. Its fabricator may even have emulated a specific chair. But here's the crazy part: While the decorative uprights of European chairs were turned on lathes, the beaver chair's intricate details were carved by hand.
Removed from their tribal origins, the objects in the Nelson-Atkins' collection require intermediary explanation. But we're talking about a fine-art museum, and the mandate of the exhibit is artistic quality, not anthropology. The deference to American Indian traditions is apparent here, even by notable absences. The museum has chosen, for instance, not to exhibit the Iroquois ceremonial masks in its collection, respecting the wishes of the Iroquois League that children should not see their sacred objects removed from their religious context.
The American Indian genocide at the hands of white European descendants is one of the two original sins in the history of the United States. Modern appreciation of native cultures — and the scars we left on them — is commendable, but it has come late and has usually depended on the acquisition of American Indian masterworks by rich white dudes. That leaves not only native artifacts but also the culture itself sequestered in institutions. So if, despite the curatorial rigor and deep cultural respect displayed by the Nelson-Atkins, you still feel unsettled among so many treasures, that's history's gravity pulling at you.
To its credit, the Nelson-Atkins does not discourage that feeling. Among the exhibit's contemporary works is Diego Romero's fired clay pot, a work titled "A True Tale," which depicts with stylized figures a horrifying 16th-century event still related in Pueblo culture. Two soldiers, accompanied by a Catholic priest, chop off the feet of an Acoma Pueblo man in retaliation for an attack on Spanish soldiers months before. The starkly beautiful object is the document of an oral history, an artist's impression of the violence and paternalism of Europe's diplomacy in the New World. The story it tells is one of conquest, but the pieces in these new galleries recall a more complex relationship. The art is ancestral to more than just American Indian culture.