06 December 2011

Review | Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism, Part 2

Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism features four essays by Nancy Marie Mithlo, Stephen Fadden and Stephen Wall, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Mario A. Caro. These alone are worth the price of the book.

The First Wave… This Time Around

In “The First Wave… This Time Around,” Nancy Marie Mithlo discusses the Vision Project in terms of the current state of affairs in Native contemporary art. She sees mainstream art critics being impatient with Native artists’ insistence on referencing their tribal communities and histories, but “Indian people continue to insist on being Indian” (Mithlo 18). “Why,” she asks, “when it would be so much easier to simply seek out hybrid, transnational, post-Indian or some such trendy association, do we insist on claiming our identities as Native peoples?” (19).

Mithlo asks the compelling question, “Is there bad Indian art?” (21), but doesn’t answer it, instead pointing out that markets and artists institutions make qualitative evaluations of indigenous art, as does the “intellectual capital” an artwork earns, through art writing. Most of the writing about Native art comes from the non-scholarly, “light press” (21). That’s especially evident here in Santa Fe, where local newspapers and magazines repeat each other’s same factual errors. She writes, “non-intellectual sources are guiding the assessment of contemporary American Indian arts, and that this casual, cultural art-of-the-week variety of arts writing has exerted a harmful influence on the development of a more serious field of inquiry” (21). She concludes that “[t]he ability to represent ourselves as Native peoples—intact and collectively—is a human right, too frequently ignored” (27).

“Indigenous curatorial methodologies” Mithlo says are defined “by four criteria: it is long-term, reciprocal, mutually-meaningful, and includes mentorship” (24-5). To art critics that question the need for self-defined indigenous criteria, she writes, “A dismissal of the logic and strategies of Native nations (and their artists) to move forward with their own communities intact mirrors the logical colonialism” (25).

Invisible Forces of Change:
United States Indian Policy and American Indian Art

Steve Fadden and Stephen Wall, both professors in IAIA’s Indigenous Liberal Studies Department, co-wrote “Invisible Forces of Changes: United States Indian Policy and American Indian Art.” They share US Indian history 101 and put forward three examples of artists that exemplify major eras in Indian policy. David Cusick, a founder of the Iroquois Realist School, illustrates the Formative Era of 1776–1810 when tribes were relatively as strong as the fledgling United States (29-30). Angel DeCora, whose life and work is defined by Indian boarding schools, defined the Allotment Era of 1880-1932, when assimilation into European-American society was the government’s mission (32, 34). Allan Houser, the first Chiricahua Apache born outside of captivity since 1886, is part of the Indian Reorganization Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Houser directed benefited from the Indian New Deal reforms allowing tribal governance, education, and self-expression in the arts (34-35).

As destructive and capricious as US Indian policy has been, Fadden and Wall argue, it’s impossible to ignore its role in Native art history. They do not describe any of the three artist’s work. Is familiarity with Cusick and DeCora’s art a given for the general readership? It’s curious that they do not reference Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta’s Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century, which also traces the influence of US federal Indian policy on Native arts.

Encoded Knowledge: Memory and Object in Contemporary Native American Art

While pointing out the dangers of generalization about Native art, Sherry Farrell Racette puts forward some of the underpinnings of indigenous art theory, which takes a great deal of bravery. She does so in a lyrical manner, showing respect for the subject matter—cherished belief systems and values—which, in print, have most commonly been written in print in the cold, reductionist language of Western anthropologists. Racette quotes the Traditional Care Committee of NMAI: “Objects are alive and must be handled with respect” (Mithlo 41). Contemporary mainstream Western art tends towards the nonreligious, but for indigenous art, an animist reading is appropriate and should be explored further, because that quote is literately true.

“Oral traditions were never solely oral,” Racette writes (41), as many artworks are mnemonic devices with their own visual language. Through examples, she illustrates the need of living Native peoples to engage with Native art for meanings to be activated and realized. The challenges of writing about traditional knowledge is the vulnerability of sharing long held beliefs with the public and that, in my personal opinion, all Native artists and writers have a gate-keeping role—determining what is appropriate to share with the public and what is not.

Continuity is a guiding principle in comparing Native art throughout time. “New objects become the storied object,” Racette writes (43). The one aspect of Native art theory that seems most agreed upon is the narrative quality of the art.

In the section “To Make It Correctly” (43-45), Racette points out that process and materials can have meaning and significance beyond simply being a means to an end. Technique has been exalted in the Native art world; however, Racette writes that the attitude and energy of the process has its own importance (45).

Artists, such as Diego Romero and Nicholas Galanin, use “strategies of deconstruction and contradiction” to explore and disrupt colonial attitudes and racism (50). Because what is familiar to a Natives can be jarring and challenging to a non-Natives, artists have to be conscious of the multiple audiences for their work.

“Many objects are a form of visual literacy,” Racette concludes, “not only in terms of the symbols coded on their surface or the actions and gestures that provide their human context, but for the words, prayers, tears and fervent hopes that are spoken into them at the moment of their creation and over their lifetime” (52).

Owning the Image: Indigenous Arts since 1990

In his overview of developments in the last twenty years of Native arts, Mario A. Caro covers a lot of ground in a short space. He sees “a vibrant field with every-increasing participation by … Native practitioners involved in determining how Native art is contextualized” (56). He chose 1990 as a starting point, since that is when NAGPRA and the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act were both passed into legislation, rapidly followed by the 1992 Columbus quincentenary (57).

In the 1990s, identity politics figured largely in the mainstream art world, when James Luna participated in the Whitney Biennial and later collaborated with outspoken Latina/o artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

Art history and anthropology have guided Native art writing, often with damaging effects, leading to their reassessment. Caro sees Native Art History finally emerging as a coherent discipline, and “it is the entry of Native scholars into the field that advanced theoretical frameworks based on paradigms of thought originating from within their communities” (60). The exoticism, objectification, and general “Other-ing” of Native art are cut through by self-representation.

Jolene Rickard’s doctoral thesis states “that Native art is, and has always been, a form a knowledge production informed by Native perspectives” (60). This might seem obvious but it is anything but, especially in light of the abundance of narcissistic 20th-century writing by European-Americans suggesting Native art was created and controlled by European-American institutions for a European-American audience.

The increasing corpus of Native art writing is rich in exhibition catalogs and anthologies, but still lacking general art surveys and scholarly art criticism (61). What surveys exist do not begin to cover the last several decades of artist production. Monographs are slowly increasing in numbers. Writing about individual might go against the collectivist impulse of Native scholars but are opportunities for in-depth investigation and analysis often lacking in Native art writing.

Museums have been primary sources of information about Native art, and the increase of tribal museums founded on indigenous perspectives, as well as the establishment of NMAI in DC, has drastically changed the institutional landscape of the indigenous art world (63). NMAI and indigenous curators participating in major biennial art fairs creates an international presence for indigenous arts of the Americas (64). Museum collections have influenced the market value of art.

The gallery system is not as strong, and prominent contemporary Native art galleries are located away from major art centers such as New York or London. Indian art markets have increased dramatically in number; however, these compete against themselves.

A lack of support network and infrastructure hampers the growth of many indigenous artists; however, community-based non-profit centers have increased and provide some mentorship (66-7).


Perusing the footnotes, one can see the impact of the internet in fostering dialogue. Personal interviews and correspondence directly with the artists is common. One of the draws of Native art, for natives and non-natives, is that most of the artists are accessible and willing to communicate to the public.

While certainly valuable for a collective updating of contemporary art for the general readership, is Manifestations really art criticism? W. H. Auden (Anglo-American, 1907-1973) is quoted in A Short Guide to Writing About Art defining what functions a critic can provide:
  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I have not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc. (Barnet 8).
Seen in this light, Manifestations is a success. Evaluation is only one aspect of art criticism and not the most vital. Introducing and mapping the artists’ perspective backgrounds and philosophical perspectives as well as their cultural contexts is invaluable. The book lets the public know that the Native American art world is building firm ground on which to stand.

So far the book is only available through the MOCNA gift shop. Their website is "under construction," but their phone number is 1-888-922-4242. It's finally available on, at a good discount too.

05 December 2011

Review | Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism, Part 1

Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism, the culmination of three years’ work, is finally available. This book is part of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ “Vision Project,” an effort to showcase Native American art writers and new artists, through discussions, writing, and a series of solo exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Arts (former IAIA Museum). The project involved 21 Native art writers and 60 artists.

What I witnessed of the process of the Vision Project was painful to watch, but, nonetheless, the results are inspiring. A committee chose the artists, selecting living artists, established, mid-career, and some emerging artists, who were active last three decades.

Only artists from Canada and United States, including Hawaii, were chosen. Why? Perhaps it’s an Anglophone bias, one certainly found in Canadian and United States academia but one that doesn’t conceptually hold any water. James Luna (Luiseño/Mexican), Mario Martinez (Yaqui), and Jennifer Vigil (Diné/Latina) represent the Americas south of the Rio Grande, and hopefully future projects of this nature will be hemispheric in scope, since innumerable cultural exchanges have taken place from South to North.

The writers were limited to only 500–word essays on each artist; somewhat hamstringing any attempt at in-depth analysis. On the plus side, given such a limited space, the writers chose their words carefully, resulting in beautifully written biographies of contemporary artists. Many of the artists are also writers and vice versa, so meeting and collaborating on this project will no doubt spark future collaborations. Magazine and book editors now have a showcase of talented Native art writers—with many more accomplished Native writers who were not part of this project. The Vision Project shows the world that Native art writers more than up to the task to write about Native art.

How does this differ from projects such as American Indian Art Magazine’s selection of 35 Native artists’ profiles for their 35th anniversary issue? In fact eight artists (Marcus Amerman, Arthur Ammiotte, David Bradley, Bob Haozous, Shelley Niro, Preston Singletary, Roxanne Swentzell, and Denise Wallace) were included in both projects. The immediately difference is that the magazine primarily chose non-Native authors.

Diane Pardue’s profile of Denise Wallace uses more marketing-inspired adjectives, “graceful,” “enchanting and engaging,” (AIA 73) and discusses technique in great detail, while Barry Ace goes more into the context of art in tribal society (Mithlo 186), but the profiles are astonishingly similar. Jennifer Vigil discusses Roxanne Swentzell’s art about women’s body issues (Mithlo 174-5) while Zena Pearlstone doesn’t even touch on the subject but does mention Swentzell’s work in permaculture (AIA 70). Both Mary Jan Lenz and Mique’l Icesis Askren describe Preston Singletary’s being raised away from his culture and his initial pursuit of music; however, Askren, the Manifestations author, looks at the irony of European techniques reconnecting Singletary with his people and that his glass sculptures take become kinetic, when illuminated by light. Ryan Rice touches on Shelley Niro’s “multi-nationality” but gives more straightforward resume information (awards, collections, degrees) than Zena Pearlstone does in her essay, which describes a range of Niro’s works (Mithlo 148-9, AIA 61). And so on it goes.

Trust me, I desperately want to see wide disparities between the two publications approached to art writing; however, the differences are subtle. Over time, the subtleties add up—aesthetics and techniques or content? Tribal ethnologies or contemporary tribal political realities? Some Manifestations art writers make a more dramatic departure. Overall the Vision Project's selection of artists lean towards the more conceptual, more difficult, and not always aesthetically pleasing artwork and there’s more space to discuss harsh realities. But as Nancy Mithlo points out, "the presence of contemporary Native art made from the broken legacy of America's attempt to destroy our communities is powerfully compelling, stark and well, I'll just say it, beautiful" (Mithlo 19).

In this project, women writers were able to analyze women artists and discuss women’s issues, which upon reflection, is not all that common. My personal observation has been that women artists are much better represented in the Native art world than in the mainstream art world; however, gender inequalities do exist. Of the 60 artists, 24 are women. 40% is a positive sign.

It so good to see the focus of Native art writing on content for a change. Thanks to Nancy Mithlo, Manifestations editor; Stephen Wall; Will Wilson, Vision Project manager; Sarah Sense, former Vision Project Director; and everyone else who made this project and publication possible. So far the book is only available through the MOCNA gift shop. Their website is "under construction," but their phone number is 1-888-922-4242.

21 November 2011

Questionart #4

Do you think Native Pop is an art movement? If so, what are some of its characteristics and the thoughts that inspire it?

First of all, yes I do think it is a valid/vibrant subcategory of Native Art. Some characteristics would include the visual cacophony that a lot of us grew up with from Saturday morning cartoons to films like Star Wars, and other types of things grew out of mass media in general. I also think that these various things get filtered through the lens of our particular
Kill Your Idols, Hoka Skenandore, acrylic on canvas
experience,  (urban/rez/young/old/traditional/etc.) and the end result is something not quite like the Pop art of the 1960's, but is perhaps a little more personal because it resonates and sometimes clashes with our individual tribal backgrounds.

In terms of thoughts that inspire it I think that all Native Art has been influenced by outside materials/terms/experiences from contact until today, and a lot of the time what is right in front of the artist can readily become art. Speaking for myself, I find it amusing that what I do is considered Pop, a lot of the imagery that I appropriate/steal/make ugly is old, literally taken from really old sources or from magazines thrown out in the garbage. I've found that Pop Art imagery tends to lean toward the "Now" and I tend to pilfer the past... anyhoo, I digress into the "me-me-I-me" artist-ego, let-me-talk-some-more-about-my-vision crap...

–Hoka Skenandore
(Luiseño-Oneida-Oglala Lakota) | website

You're My Best Friend, April Holder, acrylic
I totally think native pop is an art movement. If Native Americans live in two worlds, then native pop is the bridge between those two worlds. Native pop art is the combination of the essence of traditional identity and the embrace of the ever changing world around us. I love native pop; this is a cool question. Hope my answer helps.

–April Holder
(Sac and Fox-Wichita-Tonkawa)

I don't know if Native Pop is so much a movement as it is an instinct to decide to do whatever you desire to do. When I first learned beadwork, I did Mickey Mouse. I didn't know anything about art or native art. I was doing beadwork and I wanted to do what I liked.

A friend in high school commissioned me to do a "Rush 2012" beaded belt buckle and I did it. I don't think I had created any boundaries at that age about what I could or couldn't, should or shouldn't, or if it was Indian. It was me. From the beginning, I and other people thought my stuff was cool and different. There was no intellectual discussion of it's artistic merits, it was just neat.  I consider myself a citizen of the world and as such I feel enabled and maybe entitled to do or depict or comment on anything in my world.

Marilyn Monroe, Marcus Amerman, beaded rosette
I also consider myself an Indian and therefore more closely related to the Indigenous populations of America, North America and the Americas. Because I felt like the same blood courses through my veins that coursed through all Indians, I felt comfortable and proud to depict great chiefs and leaders from all tribes. Perhaps, marketing is a factor that can encourage or support the use of popular imagery in Native Expression. I did beaded bracelet series of musicians, actors and civil rights leaders and they all sold.

I really never had to think about what I was doing, because I was too busy doing it. I later discovered that I was making art and specifically, pop art.
–Marcus Amerman
(Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) | website

26 October 2011

Inner Demons III opens Friday, Oct. 28th

Inner Demons III Explores the Uncomfortable and Unsettling through Art

Santa Fe, NM — Inner Demons III, opens with a reception Friday, Oct. 28th, from 6 – 9 p.m. at Ahalenia Studios, which has a new location at 2889 Trades West, Unit E, off of Siler Street. Celebrating its third year in what has become and annual show, Inner Demons III explores and encourages art that is dark, moody, and morbid (or otherwise disturbing in its subject matter) with an eclectic line-up of artists. This event is free and open to the public. Because of its proximity to Halloween, costumes are welcome at the opening.

The exhibit will be open to the public from 1 – 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29; Sunday, Oct. 30; Saturday, Nov. 5; and Sunday, Nov. 6. From Oct. 31 through Nov. 4 the show will be open by appointment, which can be arranged by calling emailing

Participating artists include:

• Marcus Amerman
• Bryon Archuleta
Moloch DC, acrylic, Bryon Archuleta
• Ross Chaney
• Melissa Dominguez
• Dennis Esquivel
• Robert Garcia
• Staci Golar
• Bob Haozous
• Sam Haozous
• Topaz Jones
• Daniel McCoy
• Marlon Melero
• Melissa Melero
• America Meredith
• Mary Beth Nelson
• Joseph Sanchez
• Kevin Sullivan
• John Torres-Nez
• Brandon Williams

Show website:

17 October 2011

Toltec Mounds, Arkansas

The unassuming state of Arkansas boasts over 40,000 archaeological sites (AAS). The number of mounds in the state is staggering. And one of the largest mound sites in Arkansas is Toltec Mounds, so named because the Knapps, who once owned the land, thought Toltecs from Mexico surely most have built these elaborate platform mounds (TMS).

Built between 650 and 1050 CE, this ceremonial site sits near an oxbow lake separated from the Arkansas River centuries ago. Toltec served as a ceremonial center for adjacent farming communities; very few people actually lived on site. Of the 18 mounds at Toltec, the tallest stands at 39 feet. Certain mounds are positioned to correspond with sunrises and sunsets during both equinoxes and solstices. (TMS). The Toltec Mounds were abandoned abruptly in 1050, which is interestingly enough when Cahokia gained ascendency in a cultural "big bang," that many attribute in part to the explosion of a supernova on July 5, 1054 (Cahokia, Wilford).

The culture that built Toltec Mounds is called the Plum Bayou culture. Their descendants are unknown. Through NAGPRA, archaeologists legally have to consult with the Quapaw tribe about human remains and cultural patrimony of Toltec Mounds; however, the Quapaw only arrived in the region after the 13th century. Quapaw oral history says they migrated from the Ohio River Valley. The idea of a culture with no known descendants is somewhat haunting, but whether the Quapaw intermarried the Plum Bayou people or not, I'm glad that they have a tribe advocating on behalf of their burials and sacred items today.

Damon, Pythias, and a friend
The museum and grounds were well kept. A wooden structuretakes you out onto the lake among cypress looking back at the mounds. A couple of catfish resided in the audiovisual room. I asked what their names were and sure enough they did have names—Damon and Pythias.

13 October 2011

Chucalissa, Tennessee

Sinti (snake) mosaic, based on pottery design
Digging for a swimming pool in a segregated African-American park in 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps unearthed precolumbian artifacts from a Mississippian mound complex. The University of Tennessee investigated the site, which showed evidence of human occupation dating back to at least to 1000 BCE. The town site dates back to 1000 CE and was alternately abandoned and rebuilt. The main occupation dates from 1400 and was thought to be abandoned by the 1541 arrival of Hernando de Doto in the region (CH Nash Museum).
Curvilinear "wave" patterns are ubiquitous in this region
The name "Chucalissa" means "abandoned house" in Choctaw (Visitor's Guide 2). Today the site is west of T. O. Fuller State Park, and it's difficult to believe you're still in the city of Memphis, surrounded by towering forests on all sides, and a nearby power plant. ("What is it with mounds and power plants?" commented Linda.) The CH Nash Museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from the site on display, and their signage ties in the African-American history of the area. Signage is geared toward children, making the site and lifeways of the people who lived there directly relevant to the visitors. Recently added panels show input from Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. Perhaps the interpretive materials here are some of the best because instead of exoticizing the precontact residents of the site, they humanize them.

A replica village of high-pitched thatched-roof huts was torn down from the site for not being sufficiently accurate to the originals, but photos reveal that they look as good as any found in other sites.
Platform mound at Chucalissa, 1350–1600 CE
Human effigy bowl, note the elaborate hat
The main platform mound dominates the site. The front is covered by concrete, which ironically, gives more of a sense of what the mound looked like in its heyday, since most mounds were sealed in red or yellow clay. Built between 1350 and 1600 CE, the 25-foot-high mound measures 150 feet long at its base. Postmold evidence reveals that two 50-square foot buildings once stood on the platform's surface (Visitor's Guide 6-7).

Across the large plaza, where demonstration stickball games are still occasionally played, sits a residential ridge mound and the smaller and older platform mound, worn down by plowing. The site also features the obligatory dugout canoe and herb garden. Plant signage features the pawpaw, an important source of food and textiles, and sassafras, important for teas and medicine. Near an employee's house is a prodigious stand of river cane, Arundinaria.

Contemporary tribes thought to have ancestral links to Chucalissa during its different occupations include the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Quapaw.

02 October 2011

Pinson Mounds, Tennessee

Incised greenstone pendant
The two-thousand-year-old Middle Woodland site, Pinson Mounds has my vote, hands down, for the creepiest site we've visited. This is probably due to the rain, the mist rising from the forests, the echoing insect calls, or the incised human skull rattles found on a male burial and on display in the museum. Built near the southern fork of the Forked Deer River, Pinson Mounds were constructed from 200 BCE through the 400 CE (Mainfort and Kwas).

Pinson is part of the Miller sub-tradition, a precolumbian culture that settled along the Tombigbee River in western Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, and western Tennessee, that flourished from 250 BCE to 550 CE (Peregrine and Ember 327). The Miller diet featured hickory nuts, goosefoot, maygrass, deer, turtles, fish, and shellfish (328-9). Miller peoples were part of the Hopewellian exchange. Many of the ceramics interred at Pinson were imported from throughout the southeast, while some of the Pinson stone artifacts came from as far away as Ohio (328, 333).

Pinson contains possibly 30 mounds, including five platform mounds. Unlike later Mississippian mounds, these early mounds have no conclusive evidence of buildings on their surface (328). Only three of the mounds were burial mounds; one of these being the Twin Mounds (Mainfort and Kwas). Few people are believed to have lived at the site; instead, it was a ceremonial center for the region (Peregrine and Ember 333).

Saul's Mound, Pinson Mound #9
At 72 feet tall, Saul's Mound, or Mound 9, is the second-tallest mound in the United States. Currently by trees and foliage, the mound is actually rectangular, with the corners corresponding to the four cardinal directions.

The park's museum is quite large and resembles a mound on the outside with turf-covered earth shored on its side. I can't help but think this architecture is genius and must help with their heating and air conditioning bills. They have an extensive collection of pottery, lithic tools, a dugout canoe, and other artifacts. The outside of the museum is covered with yucca plants, which seems incongruous, but as I found out, Yucca filamentosa is actually common throughout the south, growing as far east as Virginia.

As we drove away, we passed the amusing site of a flock of wild turkeys foraging on a mound, which lifted some of the creepiness of the site.

back entrance of the museum, covered in yucca plants

30 September 2011

Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

Scenery and local residents of the Old Stone Fort, TN
Built two thousand years ago by Middle Woodland era peoples, the so-called Old Stone Fort is a series of embankments near the forks of the Duck and Little Duck Rivers. The rivers and embankments encompass 52 acres. No evidence of military or defensive action exist; the "Fort" designation was provided by early European-American settlers (Potter 252).

I made the classic move; I skimmed the signage, then hit the trail, wondering, "Where's the stone fort?" After circling through the woods, and running into the same pack of deer over and over, I finally circled back and realized that the low mounds at the entrance of the park were the "stone fort." Originally, three sections of wall made of rocks and earth encircled the area. They were once 4-6 feet tall (Faulkner); however, time has worn down the walls and soil has completely covered the rocks. The entrance way is marked by two taller "pedestal mounds" (Faulkner). This site, occupied for thirteen generations, beginning in the Hopewell Era, is believed to be a ceremonial site (Potter 252), and five Hopewell settlements were were located nearby. No burials have been found on the site, so the "Fort" is thought to be an ancient astronomical observatory (Faulkner).

Remnants of earth-covered walls at the fort's southern entrance
The two rivers have dramatic falls and are lined with stone. Remnants of 19th century grist mills can be seen. The flowered meadows, the parklike forests, and the rushing rivers are gorgeous. I want to live here. If there's any land that resembles this area available in Oklahoma, let me know!

The museum, when it finally opened, was mainly filled with maps and lithic tools. The park hosts annual flint knapping gatherings. The park also has camping, picnicking, playgrounds, hiking trails, and bathrooms, which house exciting and interactive living spider exhibits.

  • Faulkner, Charles F. "Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park." The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 2.0. 23 Feb 2011.
  • Potter, Susanna Henighan. Moon Handbooks: Tennessee. Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2009.

26 September 2011

Kituwah, North Carolina

Kituwah, also spelled ᎩᏚᏩ and Giduwa, the mother mound of the Cherokee, was easily the most active mound site we visited. At only five feet tall, the mound not easy to locate, but the Eastern Band Cherokee posted signs marking the entrance.
Several times we've asked locals for directions to mounds, who came up blank—only to discover they lived within a mile of the mound. Seeing how many signs were up and how many activities happened at the mound, I find it amazing how a neighbor down the street had never heard of Kituwah.

The mound, located near a fork in the Tuckasegee River, contains the sacred, eternal fire (Pluralism). Kituwah is the location where God gave the sacred fire and laws to the Cherokee people (Curry). The site was a village that was razed by British soldiers in the late 18th century. The Cherokees lost the mound in a land cession treaty with the United States in 1823. In 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians successfully purchased the mound and surrounding lands. In a ceremony in 1998, Cherokee children began rebuilding the mound by adding a small patch of red dirt (Pluralism).

Stickball pole next to the mound
Archaeologists believe that Kituwah has been occupied for 10,000 years, and at one point 200 people lived on the site (Pluralism). Noninvasive archaeological studies, using a gradiometer which measures magnetic fields, reveals numerous hearth sites within the mound, including a large central hearth, around which a ceremonial building was rebuilt every 20 years since the 15th century. Test holes have revealed 15 burials on the land, with the possibility of many more. The Eastern Band promises no major excavations will disrupt the mound in the future (Pluralism).

Cherokee children's gardens near the ceremonial grounds
A local Cherokee man told us that if we wanted to climb the mound to approach from the east, but we didn't feel that it would be appropriate for us to walk on it. Our friends from Squirrel Ridge Ceremonial Ground danced near the mound, and the Kituwah Ceremonial Ground planned to play stickball and have a feast at the mound site that very afternoon. The tribe sponsors youth retreats at the mound site.

Some frankly shocking proposals for development of the mound site have been put forward, even from members of the tribal council (Pluralism). Currently there's a Cherokee children's garden and a substantial amount of corn cultivation, which seems appropriate use of the land. The tribe and local community successfully fought the construction of a major Duke Energy power substation in the area, so hopefully they will be successful in keeping the sacred site intact in the future.

25 September 2011

Chief Vann House, Chatsworth, Georgia

James Vann's house in Spring Place near Chatsworth, Georgia
Fast forwarding a few centuries, we visited James Vann's house, a 2-1/2 story brick house built in 1804. Known as "Chief Crazy James Vann," he was more of an economic leader, but was involved in Cherokee politics and was influential among Upper Cherokee towns at the dawn of the 19th century. He's definitely not a moral leader. He had nine wives and owned his own whiskey distillery. Historians have used phrases such as "one of the most intemperate characters in the nation," "a thoroughly godless man," "homicidal," or "when drunk... became as deadly as water moccasin" (McLoughlin 40). He invited Moravians to built a mission school on his land, yet they still called him "a long-standing enemy of Christ" (40). After he was shot to death in a tavern in 1809, a makeshift wooden marker was placed on his
portrait of "Rich Joe" Vann in dining room
grave reading: "Here lies the body James Vann/He killed many a white man./At last by a rifle ball he fell,/And devils dragged him off to hell" (McLoughlin 72). And he's my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

The house is extraordinarily well-built and was the first brick home in the Cherokee Nation. The exterior walls are 18" thick. The Georgia Guard seized the house from the Vann family in the 1830s during Cherokee Removal. Several individuals lived in the house until 1920 when it was sold to the Georgia Historical Commission. The house was restored in 1958, which included repainting the interior to its original fairly wild color scheme of sage green, sea blue, warm yellow, and Georgia clay red.

The museum, Robert E. Chambers Interpretive Center, contains a wealth of artifacts and information about the Cherokee Nation, the Vann family, and Cherokee forced removal, known as the Trail of Tears. The site also houses several historical Cherokee log cabins, salvaged from other locations in the Old Cherokee Nation.
  • "Chief Vann House Historic Site." Georgia Department of Natural Resources: State Parks and Historic Sites. 2011.
  • McLoughlin, William Gerald. The Cherokee Ghost Dance: Essays on the Southeastern Indians, 1789-1861. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984.

23 September 2011

Etowah Mounds, Georgia

Gimme That Old Time Religion, based on the Rogan Plates, 1995
The Etowah Mounds, near Cartersville, Georgia, was built between 800 and 1550 CE by ancestral members of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy (NPS). Situated near the Etowah River, the site housed several thousand people at its peak, around 1300 CE, making it one of the largest Middle Mississippian communities in the southeast (NPS). It is also the most intact of these sites (GDNR).

The entire site had seven mounds; six of which remain today (GDNR). The largest is Mound A, second Mound B, and third Mound C, all of which are platform mounds — that is, they have flat surfaces. Mound C, the burial mound, was the only mound to be excavated. The signage at the mound site today actually mentions NAGPRA and repatriation efforts.

This is the home of the famous Rogan Plates, a pair copper repoussé plates of a dancing bird-human, wielding a mace and a severed head, and dating from 1300 CE. They are easily some of the most famous of Mississippian artworks. Some believe these plates were manufactured at Cahokia, and similar plates with slight stylistic variations imply these plates were then copied by local Etowah artists.

Female and male marble effigy statues
Etowah also boasts a pair of painted marble statues, depicting a woman and a man—22 and 24 inches high respectively—thought to be carved between 1250 and 1375 CE. Carved in the round, these effigies shed light on clothing and hairstyles of Etowah society.

A large school group was picnicking at the museum when we arrived. The museum displays a wide range of artifacts, including the marble statues, copper plats, mica ornaments, pottery, bone and shell beads, stone pipes, and even woven cloth fragments.

Wattle-and-daub hut with a thatch roof
Outside are the remains of a defensive ditch that surrounded three sides of the community — the river runs along the fourth side. There's an impressive reconstruction of a wattle-and-daub hut, typical of the time. It was constructed in the traditional way with poles bent over each other to form the rectangular frame of the house, with green cane woven in and out of the poles and covered with clay daub to form the walls. These are capped with conical thatch roof.

Mound B, as viewed from Mound A
The grounds have a small garden and signage mentions that the museum is dedicated to eventually replacing the turf grass with native plants. Some plants have signage with Muscogee Creeks plant names. Mounds A and B have stairways leading up, and Mound A towers at 63-feet. The river is gorgeous, and nature walks leads out towards it, for those who brought bug spray.

20 September 2011

Moundville, Alabama

Jones Museum, Moundville, Alabama
You definitely need an entire day to take in Moundville. Adjacent to the gorgeous Black Warrior River, the 172-acre park has 32 platform mounds, museum, gift shop, coffee shop, campgrounds, natural walk, reconstructed village, visitor's center, and even conference room.

This southern Mississippian settlement is second only to Cahokia in size. Moundville was built and occupied between 1000 to 1450 CE (MAP). Mound A sits in the center of a large rectangular plaza. This was clearly a stratified society but we had to laugh at all the various mound museums' signage which repeatedly emphasis the "elite" nature of the societies.

Architectural details
The recently renovated Jones Museum was first built in 1939 and combines art deco and Mississippian architectural elements in a way that I hope enjoys a revival and grows in popularity. Wouldn't it be cool if the town of Moundville, Alabama decided all new construction should be in the Neo-Mississippian Deco style? The skull and bone friezes comes from ceramics found at Moundville, while the wooden columns carved as birds resemble intact wood carvings pulled up from muck ponds in Florida.

The museums have extraordinary relics on display, many on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian. It's good to see the artifacts in the location in which they were created.

When I first saw a Mississippian feline pipe at the National Museum of Natural History's collections, I thought it had been misplaced from the Asian collections. The Florida panther, a subspecies of Puma concolor once lived in Alabama, and bobcats, Lynx rufus, are still common in the state.

The displays are flashy and attractive but far too speculative for my tastes. For instance the wall text states that Moundville religion was obsessed on death and the afterlife. Images of uktena and hand-in-eyes are presented as "death" imagery. If people studied contemporary American culture exclusively based on digging up cemeteries — the burials with fine clothes and jewelry, in elaborate coffins, and the extensive engraved stone sculptures marking the graves — they might think Americans were completely devoted to a death cult as well.

The mannikins and people portrayed in wall murals simply did not look like Indians. I thought the image of the bride being carrying on a litter to her husband was a bit over the top, but then discovered the Theodore De Bry engraving, A Bride Is Carried to the Chief, published in 1591, which no doubt inspired the scene.

Left: display in the Ford Museum; right: A Bride Is Carried to the Chief, Theodore De Bry, published in Frankfurt, 1591
Nonetheless, the museum had gorgeous pieces. I kept look at the labels to see if they were replicas, but they weren't. From October 5th to 8th Moundville with host its annual Native American Festival, featuring artists, performers, and educators and sounds like a major event. I'm curious to know which artists participate. The park also hosts gatherings of flintknappers.

The people thought to have built Moundville are Upper Creeks belonging to the tribal town Tuskegee, called Napochi in one early chronicle, who were Upper Creeks, members of the Muscogee Creek confederacy.

Mounds at Moundville, Alabama

Reconstructed Mississippian house on the top of a platform mound, Moundville, Alabama

"Ancient Site." Moundville Archaeological Park. 2011.
"Carnivores." Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources: Outdoor Alabama. 2008.

For more information about our trip, please visit Exploring the Ancient Southeastern Woodlands

18 September 2011

Nanih Waiya Cave and Mound, Mississippi

Nanih Waiya Cave,
Louisville, Mississippi

"Nanih Waiya" means "Leaning Hill" in Choctaw and is the Inholitopa iski, Mother Mound, of the Choctaw people. Origin stories alternately say the Choctaw people emerged to the surface of the earth through the cave or that in their migrations, Nanih Waiya is where they settled down permanently (Carleton).

Nanih Waiya Cave is in a dark, secluded area off paved roads. We couldn't help but wonder if the cave's hill was also a mound. The cave itself is nestled into roots of several trees and looks like a burrow that leads both to the right and left. The giant hill is capped by oak trees with a bare summit that someone clears and sweeps up. A slow moving creek, filled with bald cypress trees, runs along the base of the hill. Paths lead into the thick woods, which are filled with noise and movement of birds, lizards, and other animals. The aromatic earth smells and bird calls bring the area to life. In the background was a low hum that turned out to be from a factory located near the mound. Despite the picnic tables scattered on one face of the hill, this site felt very intimate and ancient.

Creek west of the cave site, Louisville, MS
The mound is located southwest, on Nanih Waiya Road near Neshoba, Mississippi. It was enclosed by a fence and the gate was locked but thankfully some intrepid soul with wirecutters had visited before us, so easy enough to hop through and circumnavigate the impressive 215-foot long mound.  It is thought to have been built between 100 BCE and 400 CE (Myers), based on artifacts recovered from the surface of the mound, since it has never been excavated. While the platform mound is remarkably well preserved,  surroundings structure and mounds have been destroyed by years of plowing.

Choctaws made pilgrimages to the mound and left offerings on its surface for centuries. Tribal councils historically met on top of the mound (Carleton).

Nanih Waiya Mound, Neshoba, Mississippi
The mound was ceded to the United States in the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Both the cave and the mound became a Mississippi state park but due to budget constraints the state agreed to return the lands to the Mississippi Choctaw in 2008. Over a thousand tribal members showed up to celebrate the return of Nanih Waiya. Miko Beasley Denson declared that every second weekend of August is an official tribal holiday, Nanih Waiya Day, which is celebrated at the cave site with feasting and dancing (Myers). That might explain why the cave site felt so much more alive to us than the mound. However, the tribe is going has plans to redevelop the state park, including the mound, as a tribal heritage park, open to the public and with their own signage and interpretation.

Traveling through the lands surrounding the Choctaw Reservation, Linda observed that the scenery looked like Norma Howard's paintings, even down to the cotton fields.
    For more information about our trip, please visit Exploring the Ancient Southeastern Woodlands.

      14 September 2011

      Grand Village of the Natchez and Emerald Mound, Mississippi

      The Great Sun's Mound
      The Grand Village of the Natchez is within the city of Natchez, Mississippi, since the town probably built up around the Natchez village. Natchez are considered to be the last Mississippian peoples — retaining their social structure and ceremonial cycle well past European contact.

      The Natchez peace chief is the Great Sun, who traditionally was carried in a litter and whose feet never touched the ground. The title of the war chief was the Tattooed Serpent. The Grand Village is dominated by the Great Sun's Mound, an immense platform mound, and the Temple Mound, aligned 30 degrees off from the cardinal points.

      Pecan, Carya illinoinensis
      The site feels incredibly immense. The visitor's center is well staffed and has an excellent selection of baskets on display and for sale. Gardeners have created plant labels and a nature walk. Next to the replica Natchez house, a claustrophobic but tall conical structure, workers planted a small garden, with an overpowering aroma. The small native grapevines are swamped by sea of wild onions!

      In the future, I'll never think of mounds without thinking of pecan trees. Their heights were dizzying, and many of the trees might have been alive when the village was still active. It's interesting to consider that while the thick, green grass is such a prominent feature of mounds today, all turf grasses were imported from Europe. Ground covers such as sorrel, purslane, other spreading plants, or bunch grasses are indigenous, but many mounds and plazas were carefully capped with color clay or sprinkled with fine river sand.

      Alligator basket by Lorena Langley (Coushatta)
      This Grand Village was the Natchez ceremonial center from 1682 to 1729. After warring with the French in 1730, the Natchez ultimately moved to Indian Territory and joined the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Cherokee Nation. Today Natchez people are enrolled in these tribes but have their own organization. Hutke Fields, the Natchez peace chief, maintains his own blog.

      For more information about our trip, please visit Exploring the Ancient Southeastern Woodlands.

      Emerald Mound

      A montage attempting to convey the immense size of Emerald Mound, Adams, MS
      Located only twelve miles from the Grand Village is Emerald Mound. This pentagon-shaped platform mound is almost eight acres large and is the second-largest precontact earthwork in the United States. The pentagonal primary mound has two mounds on its surface. It was once surrounded by a protective ditch and six other mounds, which have since been plowed over. Mississippian people, mostly likely Natchez, settled the area at least by 900 CE. Construction on the mound is thought to have begun around 1250, and the mound was used by Natchez well into historical times in the 19th century.

      What I haven't read anywhere about the mounds is how much living tribes visit and use the mounds. Natchez traditionalists have traveled from Oklahoma and have held dances on top of Emerald Mound. Despite removal, tribes still maintain relationships to their sacred sites today.

      12 September 2011

      Winterville Mounds, MS and Poverty Point, LA

      Mound A, Winterville Site, Mississippi
      Today, things became more unpredictable. We naïvely followed the GPS, past cottonfields,  through a burning field of sugarcane, past semi-suicidal dogs, to a gravel road, to a rutted dirt road in the thick woods for miles until reaching an extensively (mostly) abandoned settlement of shipping containers and trailers on metal slits straight out of the worst '70s horror movie, before beating a hasty retreat.

      Winterville Mounds

      We visited Winterville Mounds north of Greenville, Mississippi. Until last week, I'd never even heard of the site, but at one time it boasted 23 mounds around two grand plazas, surrounded by settlements of farmers. Built around 1000 CE by ancestral Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples or possibly relatives of the Natchez, Winterville Mounds has a protected park and museum with twelve of the mounds, most of which have never by excavated (MDAH).

      Winterville Museum
      Archaeologists believe that only elite families lived in the mound complex, many of which form an oval around Mound A, which towers at 55 feet even today (MDAH). Another mound, almost as tall, is completely surrounded by woods. A major fire burned the complex in the late 14th century, and it was abandoned by the 1450s (MDAH).

      I love the architecture of the museum, with earth shored up around the sides. This construction would make so much sense in the windy Plains, where the earth would stabilize interior temperatures. On display is a fantastic photo of cows saving their lives from the 1927 flood by standing on the top of Mound A. This brings the possibility to mind that one reason for mound building might not be status but the practical purpose of preserving temples and sacred items from flooding, which would have been more prevalent during the Mississippian era, with its heavy rainfalls and lack of levees and dams.

      Having seen thousands of Mississippian artifacts in museum collections, it's exciting to see the environments these art works and tools originated — lush with oak trees, bald cypress, sumac, frogs, butterflies, dragonflies, and turtles. One word of warning, if you visit this site, get bug spray or boots because the little black ants sting like crazy.
      Poverty Point

      The Bird Mound or Mound A, Poverty Point
      Much much ancient than the Mississippian mounds, Poverty Point has arrowheads dating back over 10,000 years. The complex earthworks date back to 1600 BCE. Mound A, an effigy mound that once formed the shape of a bird, was the largest mound in the Americas when it was built in 1400 BCE. Even today it still has over 90,000 tons of dirt. There's no evidence of structures on the top of the mound (PPSHS).

      Mound B was a platform mound that has been mostly excavated. There's no evidence of buildings on the mound.

      Mound B, once a platform mound
      The site is defined by six concentric semi-circles of earthwork embankments, that were once five feet high, that enclosed a central plaza and face the Bird Mound. It's been suggested that houses sat on top of these ridges. This elaborately planned architecture predates agriculture. The Poverty Point people were hunter-gatherers, and they built on the site between 1600—700 BCE.

      Thousands of variously-shaped clay blobs have been found at the site. Called Poverty Point Objects or PPOs, they were heated and put into cooking pots. I don't think they'd be difficult to make; it'd be interesting to try to cook stew with them.
      • "Driving Guide." Poverty Point State Historical Site. Epps, LA.

          11 September 2011

          Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma

          Spiro Mounds in LeFlore County in the Choctaw Nation was our first stop today. The weather was perfect, the clouds rolled in, and butterflies and ladybugs dotted the gorgeous landscape. Lind and I were happy to have Nuket Duman and Joseph Erb join us in hiking through the site. We’re incredibly glad that the site was open on a Sunday and that Dennis Peterson answered my battery of questions.

          Spiro Mounds was a Mississippian ceremonial site that flourished from 850 to 1450 CE but was occupied before and after. This ceremonial center containing at least twelve was built by the ancestors of the Caddos and Wichitas, especially the Kitsai, who are today enrolled in the Caddo and Wichita tribes (Watkins 155-6). At its height, its population was about 7,500 with more outlying settlements.

          Replica of a incised lightning whelk shell dipper
          Spiro never had major defensive structures and no evidence of major warfare. It was the major western center in the Mississippian world and was linked to a continental trade routes. Olivella shells from the California coast have been found there. It is notable for having the widest range of shell carvings, dippers and gorgets carved from Busycon contrarium or the lightning whelk shell imported from the Gulf Coast and Florida. Designs are highly elaborate and many are not repeated elsewhere. The dippers were used for serving ceremonial medicine, such as black drink. The gorgets were worn around the neck. The distinct iconography, which forms a visual language used through the southeast, has been widely debated. I would love someday to see an intertribal gathering in which oral historians share their interpretations of the imagery to compare to the interpretations from the archaeological community.

          Craig Mounds
          Beginning in the 1830s, Choctaw freedmen settled and farmed around the site, and one family in particular tried to protect them mounds. Unfortunately family members leased the land to the Pocola Mining Company in 1933. Those pothunters pillaged the mounds, selling items and burning others. They even burned human remains they unearthed from their graves. The State of Oklahoma finally passed legislation to protect the site in 1935, and in 1936 the University of Oklahoma and WPA workers started a scientific excavation (Peterson).

          We saw pokeberries, pecans, acorns, yellow wood sorrel, and other edible plants. Reading about the Spiroan diet of venison, corn, hickory nuts, chestnuts, persimmons, and wild grapes makes me really wish for a Southeastern Native Foods Festival.

          Joseph, Nuket, and Linda under a venerable oak tree
          As Oklahoma’s only archaeological site open to the public and one of the richest archaeological sites in the US, the museum is grossly underfunded. It seems that Oklahoma would want to promote tourism to the site, and the first step would be putting up signs on the roads leading to the site. Seriously, even spray painted wooden planks would be of great assistance to travelers!
          • Peterson, Dennis. “Spiro Mounds.” Oklahoma Historical Society. Web.
          • Watkins, Joe. “Artefactual Awareness: Spiro Mounds, Grave Goods and Politics.” Fforde, Cressida, Jane Hulbert, and Paul Tumbull. The Dead and their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy, and Practice. London: Routledge, 2002.
          Brother Juniper Helps Out at Spiro, America Meredith, acrylic on canvas, 5"x5", 2004