This weekend, the Cleveland Museum of Art will debut its first exhibition of Native American art since the 1970s. Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection features 120 masterworks drawn from the renowned Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The free exhibition will open with a special Community and Family Day on Sunday, March 7, from 1 to 4 p.m. The event will include Native music and dance performances from the Crooked River Dance Troupe and Elk Trail Drumming Group; demonstrations by local Native American artists; and hands-on workshops by CMA staff, including mask-making, basket-making, and flint-knapping (with help from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History).
Cleveland West Sider Chris Begay (Diné, or Navajo) is a member of both performance groups. A dancer and singer, he founded Crooked River to provide opportunities for a younger generation of Native performers who didn’t have access to the community activities with which he was involved as a child. Starting with six kids, he’s seen the troupe grow to between 25 and 30 dancers today.
“There are generations of dancers residing in the Cleveland area,” Begay says. “Some have started from their first steps, and most will move to their last steps, ‘cause it’s in our spirits. Expect to witness a show of rhythmic beauty and grace, and be prepared to be thoroughly entertained and educated.”
Among the dances that will be presented are the:
- Grass Dance: This dance, originally performed as a warrior society dance, is believed to have originated among the Omaha of the Great Plains. The movements of the grass dance stem from the stomping down of grass before a dance could be held on the prairie.
- Boys’ Traditional Dance: The movements of this dance—which vary among the the Lakota (Sioux), Pikuni (Blackfeet), Apsáalooke (Crow), Omaha, and other nations of the Northern Plains—are said to mimic those of warriors searching for an enemy.
- Fancy (or Northern) Shawl Dance: Performers mimic the light and graceful movements of butterflies in flight in this dance, which derives from the Northern nations along the border between the United States and Canada.
According to Begay, “The dances represent life, and all creations. They represent community and family.”
One of the goals of Cleveland’s Native dancing community is to teach and correct stereotypes about Native Americans. Events such as the Art of the American Indians exhibition can raise awareness about the living traditions of American Indian cultures.
“From the Diné perspective, in our tradition, to do some of these things—to be a singer, a dancer, an artist, a weaver, a sewer—these are a calling,” Begay says. “Our spirits were meant to do those things, and from that is beauty. What I would want people to take away is an understanding that art is life, and life is art. Beauty is all around us. If we rely on our gifts and strengths and practice our talents, that beauty will come out, and that’s what you will see in the museum.”
The Crooked River Dance Troupe and Elk Trail Drumming Group will perform at 1:15 and 3 p.m. in the museum’s newly renovated Gartner Auditorium. More information about the exhibition can be found on the museum’s web site.
Image Above: Potlatch Figure Holding a Copper, about 1880–95
Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), northwest Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y., T0162
Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor