Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 2005
Richard F. Townsend, ed. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South Exh. cat. Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004. 288 pp.; 320 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300104677)
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Ill., November 20, 2004–January 30, 2005; Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Mo., March 4–May 30, 2005
Notched ovate bannerstone. Michigan, ca. 4800 B.C. Banded Slate, h. 12.7 cm. Steve and Susan Hart Collection Hunting, Indiana (cat. 5/G21894). The design of this famous piece features a symmetrical convex and concave outline, with a natural pattern of banded slate rising in chevrons across the central axial ridge.

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South explores a period and a region of indigenous art little known even within the field of Native American art studies. Long studied by archaeologists, this vast area, roughly bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico, has been largely neglected by art historians and art museums. The only previous large-scale exhibition of material from this region occurred nearly twenty years ago.1 Recently, however, scholars have begun reevaluate the imagery of these ancient cultures, and interdisciplinary seminars held over the last decade to explore the iconography of the region’s art are beginning to bear fruit. Created between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1600, the objects displayed in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand may be less familiar to audiences than the sites and artifacts of, for example, the Southwest. Nevertheless, this stunning exhibition demonstrates that this area and this period deserve closer attention.

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand is enhanced by a cooperative effort involving Native American groups who now occupy the lands where these artifacts were found, thus providing a unique modern perspective on the past. Indigenous voices are heard on the audiotape accompanying the exhibition, and the catalogue includes contributions by and interviews with Native experts. The exhibition draws heavily on the history and mythology of contemporary peoples to reconstruct the lost worldview of vanished civilizations. Some of these interpretations will undoubtedly engender controversy, but they will force much-needed reappraisals of these artifacts and their archaeological contexts.

This exhibition demands close attention, as many of the objects are small and their subtleties may be easily missed. It opens with a display of banner stones—probably the oldest extant art form in North America, with some examples dating from 6000 B.C. Although they look like modern abstract sculptures, banner stones most likely served as counterweights on spear throwers. Cut into a variety of shapes, from hourglass to bowtie, their minimalist forms are enhanced by the natural colors and striations of the stones from which they were carved, ranging from banded slate to carnelian. These exquisite objects were also painstakingly drilled through with hollow reeds and sand abrasives: it took an estimated 270 hours to create an 11-centimeter-long hole. A cache of over 30 finely crafted blades of white chert from the later Hopewell culture is equally compelling: the wrong size for use as weapons and too delicate for any other practical function, these stone points must have served a social or ritualistic purpose that we can no longer reconstruct. A series of disks, also carved from lithic materials of different textures and colors, is less enigmatic: Europeans who witnessed the last years of Mississippian culture observed a game called chunkey being played with such disks. The presence of these objects in the burial of an important chief at the major Mississippian city of Cahokia, Illinois, may attest to their powerful symbolic value as well.

Not all of the objects on display are quite so abstract: lively depictions of animals and birds adorn Hopewell stone platform pipes, for example, and cutouts of paper-thin mica depict human hands and torsos, bird claws, and snakes. These shimmering, delicate objects, made from a material imported into Ohio from the Southeast two thousand years ago, were among the luxury objects that accompanied the Hopewell elite to the underworld, but their function before serving as funerary offerings, if any, is unknown. Human figures in clay and stone provide tantalizing hints of dress and customs. A nursing mother, a kneeling chunkey player poised as if about to leap into play, and a victorious warrior decapitating his crouching captive are among the subjects depicted in Mississippian sculpture. Easily overlooked because of its diminutive size, a rare wooden piece from Florida shows a kneeling shaman transforming himself into a feline.

Numerous carved marine shells and copper repoussé plates depict an armed hawk impersonator called Birdman, a supernatural figure whose image dominates Mississippian iconography after A.D. 1200. Overlapping with Birdman are representations of Morning Star, a culture hero who figures prominently in legends of southern Siouan-speaking peoples today. A number of stone figurines, all probably carved at Cahokia, are interpreted as characters from the Morning Star myth cycle. Women also figure in these stories, usually as fertility and earth deities. A kneeling woman grinding corn may be Corn Mother, who gave agriculture to humans, while another, known as Our Grandmother, digs her hoe into a massive serpentine creature, its body sprouting gourds and vines. In contrast to these earthbound agricultural goddesses, the winged Birdman—often shown dancing, leaping, or fighting—is thought to mark the beginning of the hunting and warfare season. The winged culture hero also stands opposed to an aquatic underworld creature with panther and serpentine attributes, depicted with considerable variation in every medium from shell to pottery: effigy vessels on display, once believed to represent dogs, are now viewed as portrayals of the fearsome Underwater Panther. Concepts of duality prevail in all these cultures. The theme of Hero Twins, for example, is found throughout the Americas. For the Mississippians, they embodied concepts of civilized and uncivilized behavior as well as death and reincarnation. They are most often seen etched or cut into shell, sometimes fighting one another.

Pottery appears about 2000 B.C.: a small, crude human torso from Poverty Point, Louisiana, represents this early period. Most of the pottery on display, however, dates from the later Mississippian period, from about A.D. 1200 to 1550. A series of naturalistically modeled effigy head vessels from Arkansas and Missouri demonstrate the existence of portraiture, a rare genre in precontact cultures anywhere in the Americas. Distinctive facial features, expressions, and tattoos serve to distinguish individuals, probably important leaders or ancestors. Workshops and even individual artists’ hands are now recognized in this group. In contrast to these vivid portraits, the pottery of the Caddo, the westernmost Mississippian group, tends toward abstraction: jars and bottles, some with bulbous tripod feet, were highly polished and engraved with fine cross-hatching, scrolls, and chevrons. Startlingly different are Caddoan seed jars, their ovoid cylindrical shape probably derived from gourds. Decorated only with fire clouds, they recall Japanese pottery in their elegant simplicity.

In order to put these objects in archaeological context, a large map of the area, a time chart, and plans and vivid reconstruction paintings of key ancient towns, such as the very early Poverty Point site and the Mississippian capital Cahokia, hang on the gallery walls. The labels and the audiotape elucidate the scale and function of these great earthen mounds, as well as the astronomical and mathematical knowledge of peoples who left no written records.

The exhibition ends with a series of European prints from the earliest years of contact, depicting what Native American life looked like through the eyes of sixteenth-century visitors. These engravings, enormously useful for reconstructing the customs and habitat of Southeastern American natives, are also full of inaccuracies and misunderstandings: the people are portrayed with classical features and bodies, for example, and there is considerable emphasis on their lack of clothing and perceived savagery.

The exit video focuses on Native American life in the same region today, with segments on the design and building of a cultural center in Oklahoma, the importance of powwows in keeping culture alive, and the work of contemporary artists, notably a potter working in the Caddoan style and a Florida artist who copies the designs carved on ancient shells.

Curator Richard F. Townsend has done a splendid job in bringing to public attention the high aesthetic quality, rich ideology, and impressive architectural remains of the prehistoric Midwest and Southeast. He also boldly elevates these ancient societies to a level not usually attributed to Native American groups, asserting that central Ohio (home to the Adena and Hopewell cultures between ca. 400 B.C. and A.D. 400) may have been a “cultural hearth” on a par with the great early civilizations of Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, and China. While this idea can be disputed—so far no one has demonstrated that the level of social organization in this area ever went beyond complex but powerful chiefdoms—it is a reminder of how far we have come in our understanding and appreciation of these cultures. Until the late nineteenth century, it was widely believed that the ancient mounds and artifacts of this region could not possibly have been created by the ancestors of Native peoples living in North America. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand should dispel any lingering misunderstandings about the achievements of the original Americans.

Virginia Miller
Associate Professor Emerita, Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago

1 See David S. Brose, James A. Brown, and David W. Penney, Ancient Art of the American Woodland Indians (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1985). The exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, from March 17, 1985, to March 2, 1986.