National Geographic : 1955 Mar
America's First Painters 349 Indians, Who Once Painted Rocks and Buffalo Hides, Now Use Paper and Canvas to Preserve Ancient Art Forms BY DOROTHY DUNN INDIAN painting was already an ancient art when Spanish conquistadors forded the Rio Grande and moved into the American Southwest. For untold centuries aboriginal artists had expressed their reactions to their native land in pictures carved in rock, en graved on bone, painted on hides, wood, pot tery, plaster, and cotton cloth-even drawn in colored sand. Today descendants of those bygone artists use brushes and paints to revitalize the ancient themes and graphic forms. Paintings Shown at National Gallery A representative group of these modern works is presented in full color in this issue. They were selected from a collection of con temporary Indian art which I was privileged to assemble for exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Wash ington, D. C. The Indian painter poses no models, follows no color theory, gauges no true perspective. He seldom rounds an object by using light and shade. Often he leaves the background to the imagination. By omitting nonessentials, he produces ab stract symbols for plants, animals, earth, and sky. Yet he acutely senses life and movement and can convey mood or intense action with a few lines. The typical Indian painting is, therefore, imaginative, symbolic, two-dimensional. Its style may vary from seminatural to abstract. Subjects range from archaic religious symbols to portrayals of everyday life, from stylized landscapes to spirited hunting scenes. Paint ers are continually inventing ways to combine symbols of sky, harvest, or life forms, or to depict a certain dance, occupation, or event. Indian artists have encountered many dis couragements and misunderstandings. Punish ment and ostracism were imposed by elders of some communities that frowned on painting shared with outsiders. And, incredible as it now seems, until 25 years ago the Bureau of Indian Affairs forbade native painting in In dian schools. The modern movement got its start on the Great Plains. Before white settlers took over this wide area, nearly every buffalo-hide tepee, robe, and shield bore vivid figures of horses and men in battles, contests, and hunts, drawn with sweep and dash (page 376). Such decorations served as emblems of prowess in war, ceremony, or adventure. Then every man was an artist. A brave displayed a painted robe as a soldier of today wears a service decoration or insignia.* When the buffalo herds disappeared in the tumultuous years of settlement, a new type of painting began. Frustrated Indians turned to makeshift materials. There was heightened need in those des perate times for self-expression. Army com missary books, traders' ledgers, and lengths of muslin and canvas were filled with pencil and crayon drawings, and paintings were done with ready-made colors and brushes. These were poignant renderings of childhood reminis censes, youthful exploits, intertribal wars of bygone days, and new battles with the common enemy-the "long knives," as the white men were called. Indians in prison won vicarious victories and regained wishful freedom through their paint ings. Following his escape from prison, one Cheyenne went into battle with his book of drawings strapped to his side. In the winter The Author and the Paintings Dorothy Dunn, who dwelt among the American Indians nine years, is an Honorary Associate in Indian Arts of the School of American Research, Museum of New Mexico. In 1932 she founded the School of Indian Painting, United States Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and directed its studio for five years. Later she organized and presented exhibitions of Indian paintings in the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Exhibition of Contemporary American Indian Painting was initiated through the encouragement of Mrs. Benjamin Rogers of New York and organized with the cooperation of various collectors and mu seums of the United States. Before the Indian paint ings were shown at the National Gallery of Art in 1953, Chief Curator John Walker, author of memo rable articles in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, brought the exhibition to the attention of the National Geographic Society. * See "Indians of Our Western Plains," by Matthew W. Stirling, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1944.