Native American

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Maria Martinez San Ildefonso blackware [pottery] bowl, vasiform with high rounded shoulder gunmetal finish with [decoration of] Avanyu slithering along shoulder; signed Marie on base, circa 1925.Avanyu (sometimes Awanyu) is a deity of the Tewa people. The Tewa are Pueblo Native Americans who share the Tewa language and live around the Rio Grande River north of Santa Fe, New Mexico among the pueblo communities of Nambé,
Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan), Santa Clara, and Tesuque. San Ildefonso and Santa Clara are in particular known for their pottery, which often has depictions of Avanyu.

Avanyu is the guardian of water and represents how important water is to the native peoples of the desert, with the flowing movement of its body suggesting the flow of water and the zigzag of the tongue symbolizing lightning. The serpent, often depicted with plumes or horns, appears in cave drawings in New Mexico and Arizona and remains a common decorative motif on the pottery of a number of Southwestern tribal potters. It’s been suggested that Avanyu might be related to Quetzalcoatl and other feathered serpent gods from Mesoamerican cultures.

When one hears reference to McKenney and Hall, it is easy to assume, as it often the case with lithography, that they were the publishers or printers, but in reality, Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785 to 1857) and James Hall (1793 to 1868) played a much larger role in the portraits which would form the basis of the folio History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Philadelphia: 1837-1844.

McKenney, initially Superintendent of Indian Trade and later heading up the Office of Indian Affairs, working as he did under Presidents Madison, Monroe, Adams, and Jackson, took a respectful and yet fatalistic view, it seems, of the American Indian peoples, as he seemed to feel it was necessary to preserve their tribal cultures, believing they were destined to be obliterated. Thus, as his work brought him into contact with the various tribal leaders who visited Washington over the years as members of treaty delegations, he began to commission their portraits.

Charles Bird King (1785 to 1862) did the vast majority of the portraits McKenney commissioned, although a number were also done by James Otto Lewis and George Cooke, and his sensitive, vibrant portraits are all the more remarkable when one realizes that King’s own father was scalped by Indians in 1789, when King was just four years old, after the family had traveled west to Ohio.

By the 1830s, after more than a decade of portraits, McKenney felt the collection, displayed in the War Office, needed a broader audience, but to complete such a project would require more effort and different skills than those he had to offer. As a result, he commissioned lithographs of the paintings and recruited James Hall, a frontier Renaissance man who worked as a lawyer, a judge, a newspaper editor and author, among other things, to pull together biographical sketches and appropriate text to accompany what McKenney envisioned as a three-volume set.

As was common in the era because of the associated costs, such sets were usually sold in advance on a subscription basis (this set was sold at $120), and while Hall powered through the work of sorting out very vague notes with murky references to individuals, they managed to sell enough subscriptions to begin. Timing was bad, however, and the Panic of 1837 dealt the project a near-mortal blow as many subscribers were left without the means to pay. Things became grim enough that McKenney actually abandoned the project he had begun, but Hall, who had by this time invested close to a decade in the work, persevered, recruited another publisher, and pushed on.

The final volume, by which time there were 1,250 subscribers, was not finished until 1844. In 1858, the original portraits were moved to The Castle, the Smithsonian’s first building, and they remained there until the winter of 1865, when they were to be relocated. The men charged with the work brought in a woodstove which they vented into a ventilation shaft they believed to be a flue. After several weeks, a fire started and despite fireproofing efforts in the building, the damage was extensive and the Castle’s roof collapsed. Only five of the original 300 portraits survived. (The fire also destroyed approximately 200 other paintings of Native Americans by John Mix Stanley and a great deal of important correspondence and paperwork.) It is only because of the foresight, awareness and persistence of Thomas McKenney and James Hall that these valuable images, with their detailed, colorful and accurate renderings of American Indian tribal dress and customs, survive for us today.

Complete sets can still be had for prices that can vary from $25,000 to $100,000, depending on condition and binding. (Subscription publications were bound by the individual subscribers, often coming in piecemeal over many months or years, and the quality of the bindings can vary widely from set to set.) An octavo set was published in the 1850s and it can be had for something closer to $10,000. Individual print prices are also affected by condition, of course, but the fame of the sitter and the drama of his costume are also important factors. Chief Red Jacket, for example, dressed in English-style clothes and wearing his enormous peace medal, often sells for more than $2,500, but lesser known chiefs’ images sell for $200-500.

An exceptional large ash burl covered bowl, North America, circa 1780.Burl wood is highly prized in the antiques world, used for veneer on a variety of case pieces and smaller decorative objects as well as being shaped into more utilitarian wares like bowls and utensils, but it starts life as one of those knobby, rounded growths often seen on trees. Most burl objects from an identified wood are ash, but burl can occur on just about any type of tree and objects are also made from maple, elm, and walnut burl, among others.

Burl is actually most typically a tree’s response to an injury of some sort – either a direct injury like a cut or a blow or an indirect one caused by the introduction of a virus or a fungus, and a great many of them are actually found in root systems in enormous connected networks when trees fall over. The knots within the burl themselves are dormant, malformed buds.

Extracting wood from a burl or using one to create an object is quite difficult, making burl not only prized for its rarity but for the difficulty in working with it. It is almost like a tumor – a dense cluster of cells and while the winding, convoluted grain makes it prone to cracking if worked with too much mechanical force, the same thickness of grain makes objects wrought from it unlikely to crack or split. Burl was often worked by hand, especially by Native Americans who created many utensils from it. On the other hand, if a bowl has parallel lines or rings on the exterior, a raised foot or a particularly consistent rim around the top, these are indications that it was turned on a lathe rather than carved by hand.

It should be noted that birdseye maple, while similar to burl in appearance, is not the same thing. The dark, hard knots found in burl are not present in birdseye maple and while many theories have been put forth, scientists do not yet have an explanation for what causes the birdseye effect.

A Navajo Crystal weaving, two shades of brown and cream, with two large diamonds at center, surrounded by four large diamonds and a sawtooth border.In 1896, Texas-born John Bradford Moore, the former mayor of Sheridan, Wyoming, purchased the seasonal trading post at Narbona Pass in New Mexico. He erected a permanent log building and established the Crystal Trading Post.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Moore’s post was flourishing, particularly in the sale of Navajo weavings. Like other trading post operators, Moore saw the value in adapting his product to meet the needs and desires of his eastern customers. Thus, rather than producing Navajo blankets meant to be worn, Moore’s weavers wove rugs meant to be used on the floor. He thus used quality wool and employed only highly skilled native weavers (though he apparently paid them little).

Beyond changing the function of the weavings he sold, Moore further modified them by blending traditional Navajo design motifs with those already known to non-native customers, most importantly, designs inspired by oriental rugs, which were booming in popularity. His weavers incorporated borders and central medallions into their weavings, giving way to popular patterns such as Crystal, Storm, and Two Grey Hills.

The Crystal Trading Post acted as an important mediary between east and southwest, not only from a design perspective, but also from a sales and marketing perspective. In 1903, Moore published his first mail-order catalog, thus allowing easterners to purchase his Navajo weavings without the necessity of traveling to the reservation. His second catalog, published in 1911, was larger, and included far more weavings that blended Navajo and oriental rug designs.

Shortly after publishing his second catalog, Moore left Crystal, and sold the post to his manager Jesse Molohon, and the Crystal Trading Post continued to market oriental rug-inspired Navajo rugs into the 1930s.

A Hopi polychrome bowl by Nampeyo, first quarter 20th century, Sikyatki-style bird in centerIf you’re looking for a beautiful, graphic collection, you can’t do better than American Indian pottery.  It’s hard to make generalizations about these pots, because pottery developed among different tribes in different ways.  Archaeology teaches us though that almost all farming cultures turned to potting at some point, a fact that holds true among American Indian tribes, but as many Native American tribes were pushed westward, farming ceased to be a viable lifestyle for them and their pottery-making often decreased dramatically or ceased completely as they turned to nomadic lifestyles.

It makes sense, then, that pottery traditions among the farming cultures of the Southwest have come closest to surviving intact, and the pottery industry blossomed with the tourist boom that started in the early 1900s.  Thousands of pots have been made and carried home by visitors, many from well-known pottery families like the Nampeyo and Martinez families, so there are plenty out there to choose from!  You can find modest pots with broad decoration for less than $100 (even signed pieces like this one), modern pots with dramatic decoration (like this one, also signed) for less than $300, and beautiful pieces from the early days of the tourist trade by prestigious families, like the $10,000 bowl pictured above from the Nampeyo family.  Personally, though, I find it hard to pass up Zuni pots with applied pottery frogs!

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