Conspicuously absent from this prehistory-to-present-day survey, and from the Thaw collection itself, are contemporary works in “non-traditional” media (photography and video) and works whose content is remotely uncomfortable (forced assimilation, genocide or painful Indian stereotypes). Fortunately, a smaller show in CMA’s new east wing addresses this gap. Fifteen black-and-white photographs from Zig Jackson’s often darkly comic "Tribal Series” are on exhibit alongside some 30 images from Edward S. Curtis’s opus The North American Indian, a multi-set portfolio of 2,200 large-scale Pictorialist images of 80 tribes taken between 1900 and 1930. (CMA owns one of about 220 extant portfolios.) Curtis intended to record traditional Indian cultures before they vanished. Some scholars claim his efforts resulted in posed, romanticized images that captured Curtis’s perceptions about Indians, not reality. In contrast, Jackson (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara) is an insider who points a lens at his own community and sometimes asks tough questions. In the diptych Take a Picture with an Indian (2000), the first image shows a stooped, old Indian man wearing a warrior’s breastplate and war bonnet over jeans and a button-down shirt. In the next, two small boys wearing souvenir headdresses pose with the old man. Who’s playing Indian?
In building the collection, Thaw’s sole focus was aesthetic quality, a taste rooted in formalist modernism that grew over a lifetime of collecting Western art. But as a quote from now-deceased artist Bill Reid (Haida) says, “I don’t think you can take the art without the people. When that is done, you have a completely empty images conforming only to the formal aspects of the art.” Indeed, Native objects should be framed as “art,” but not to the exclusion of other culture-specific considerations. Ruth B. Phillips notes in a groundbreaking survey on Native art that non-visual qualities — ritual correctness in gathering raw materials or accumulated energies from ceremonial use, for example — are of equal or greater importance than visual beauty.
Like all art collections, Art of the American Indians inevitably reflects its creator’s worldview. Indeed, the Thaw Collection is a gift of extraordinary beauty. However, it tells only one story about First American art. There are many more stories that have already been told, and many more for collectors and museums to share.