Indian reminders in Indy

Special to The Tribune

Indiana, "land of the Indians," was named in remembrance of NativeAmericans who lived in the territory long before white settlers pushed thelast of them westward in the 1830s. It should come as no surprise, then, thatthis capital city is home to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians andWestern Art.

The surprise, of course, is that although the Miami, greatest in number,the Potawatomi, last to leave, and other tribes who once roamed thegrasslands, woods and waters of America's 19th state are represented here,they are far from the centerpiece of this 10-year-old ethnic treasure house.

That honor goes to the artisans of the Southwest, whose work was greatlyadmired and collected by Indianapolis-born Harrison Eiteljorg, the museum'slate founder.

As a young newspaper reporter, Eiteljorg had shown an interest in Westernart, buying his first painting, "Cutting Horse" by Olaf Weighorst, in the1920s. Later, as manufacturing and processing expanded after World War II, hetraveled west in a quest for coal and became enamored of the terrain, thecolors, the climate, the folklore and the creative work of both whites andIndians.

Films of the '40s did their share to promote interest in the Southwest.Grade-B Westerns featuring Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry hadblossomed on the silver screen in the early '30s, but with the coming of John Wayne in "Stagecoach" in 1939, the epic Western was established as solid boxoffice fare. Other successes such as 1948's "Fort Apache" and "She Wore aYellow Ribbon," released a year later, continued to focus attention on thissun-splashed region of the country.

Aware of the growing national interest, former reporter and adman Eiteljorgcast his artistic eye on hand-crafted products created and sold by the PuebloIndians to enhance their farming income -- Navajo textiles, Zuni silver andturquoise jewelry, Apache basketry, Hopi pottery and kachinas, carved woodendolls representing deities or spirits of the dead.

One of his favorite haunts was Taos, largest of New Mexico's 19 pueblos andhome of the Taos Society of Artists, founded in 1898 by Bert Geer Phillips andErnest L. Blumenschein. As his personal fortune grew, Eiteljorg returned toTaos again and again, adding more art objects to his burgeoning collection.

Works by Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp and E.I. Crouse are highlights ofthe Western Art collection in the museum that bears his name.

During his visits he grew to love and respect Native Americans, theirhistory and their deep regard for nature, which is reflected in the pottery,basketry, clothing and bead-and-quill work among the 3,400 pieces that aredisplayed in two of the four galleries. Drums, cooking utensils and huntingtools tell the story of Indian life in the Pacific Northwest as well as theSouthwest.

Prior to the opening of the 73,000-square-foot museum in June 1989, aneffort was made to include items of local significance from the Museum ofIndian Heritage, which operated in Indianapolis' Eagle Creek Park from 1967until the late `80s. However, many of these were reclaimed by their owners,who did not want them housed in an art museum and treated as "art," accordingto Ray Gonyea, associate curator for Native American affairs. Furthermore,there are very few Miami-related objects in anyone's collection, public orprivate, he said.

Thus, there is a paucity of items representing the Miami, Mohican,Delaware, Munsee, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, Wea, Huron and Potawatomi whoonce inhabited Indiana. Given the difference in climate, raw materials, timeand attitude of the people of the United States, chances are they spent moreof their lives than Southwestern Indians in foraging for food and fending offenemies, less in honing artistic skills.

In addition to permanent and special exhibitions, the sand-colored,Southwestern-style museum presents entertaining and educational programs,including artists-in-residence, workshops and lectures. The admission-freeWhite River Trader store offers shoppers handcrafted fine art, gifts, jewelry,books and apparel.


Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is open 10 a.m. to 5p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day). Admission: $5, $4 seniors, $2 ages 5-17. Accessibility: Handicapaccessible, wheelchairs available on site. Miles from downtown Chicago: 188.Address: White River State Park, 500 W. Washington Street, Indianapolis.Phone: 317-636-9378. E-mail: Web:

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