INDIANAPOLIS—Indiana, "land of the Indians," was named in remembrance of Native Americans who lived in the territory long before white settlers pushed the last of them westward in the 1830s. It should come as no surprise, then, that this capital city is home to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
The surprise, of course, is that although the Miami, greatest in number, the Potawatomi, last to leave, and other tribes who once roamed the grasslands, 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.
As a young newspaper reporter, Eiteljorg had shown an interest in Western art, buying his first painting, "Cutting Horse" by Olaf Weighorst, in the 1920s. Later, as manufacturing and processing expanded after World War II, he traveled west in a quest for coal and became enamored of the terrain, the colors, the climate, the folklore and the creative work of both whites and Indians.
Films of the '40s did their share to promote interest in the Southwest. Grade-B Westerns featuring Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry had blossomed 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 box office fare. Other successes such as 1948's "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," released a year later, continued to focus attention on this sun-splashed region of the country.
Aware of the growing national interest, former reporter and adman Eiteljorg cast his artistic eye on hand-crafted products created and sold by the Pueblo Indians to enhance their farming income -- Navajo textiles, Zuni silver and turquoise jewelry, Apache basketry, Hopi pottery and kachinas, carved wooden dolls representing deities or spirits of the dead.
One of his favorite haunts was Taos, largest of New Mexico's 19 pueblos and home of the Taos Society of Artists, founded in 1898 by Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein. As his personal fortune grew, Eiteljorg returned to Taos again and again, adding more art objects to his burgeoning collection.
Works by Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp and E.I. Crouse are highlights of the Western Art collection in the museum that bears his name.
During his visits he grew to love and respect Native Americans, their history 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 are displayed in two of the four galleries. Drums, cooking utensils and hunting tools tell the story of Indian life in the Pacific Northwest as well as the Southwest.
Prior to the opening of the 73,000-square-foot museum in June 1989, an effort was made to include items of local significance from the Museum of Indian Heritage, which operated in Indianapolis' Eagle Creek Park from 1967 until 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," according to Ray Gonyea, associate curator for Native American affairs. Furthermore, there are very few Miami-related objects in anyone's collection, public or private, he said.
Thus, there is a paucity of items representing the Miami, Mohican, Delaware, Munsee, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, Wea, Huron and Potawatomi who once inhabited Indiana. Given the difference in climate, raw materials, time and attitude of the people of the United States, chances are they spent more of their lives than Southwestern Indians in foraging for food and fending off enemies, 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-free White 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 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day). Admission: $5, $4 seniors, $2 ages 5-17. Accessibility: Handicap accessible, 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: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.eiteljorg.org.