Tricky birds, wild horses, and brave girls

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This weekend the Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection exhibition opened to the public and as part of our family celebration of the event, families heard traditional stories told by Amy Bruton Bluemel, a member of the Chickasaw tribe. She told tales of turtle and rabbit and coyote and had us all entranced. Later, as I caught my first glimpse of the many objects in the Thaw collection, her stories seemed even more real. Masks, blankets, baskets, pottery—all became storytellers in themselves. Of course the preschool teacher in me immediately started thinking about some of my favorite picture books, and how we could make connections between story and object. So here’s a peek into how my mind works!

Northeast Woodlands

When I used to live in Massachusetts, we could often spot lady slippers in May and June as we walked through the woods. The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper by Kathy-jo Wargin is a re-telling of an Ojibwe legend of how a young girl saves her village by running through the snow for help. The Ojibwe name for lady slipper means “moccasin flower” and it is said that the flowers remind the people of where the young girl lost her moccasins as she walked through the cold.

In the exhibition, there are is a beautiful pair of moccasins made by the Huron (Wendat) people. These shoes were probably never meant to be worn, but rather were created as presentation pieces. Beautiful embroidered flowers are meticulously stitched onto black-dyed skin.

The Great Plains

In this section of the exhibition, you can see a child’s saddle, a woman’s beaded dress, Black Hawk’s ledger drawings, and many more objects that tell the story of peoples who lived on the wide expanse of the plains. One of the most engaging objects is a horse mask. Made from trade cloth, glass beads, horsehair, feathers, silk, hide, and ermine, this mask was used to transform a horse for ceremonial parades. Zigzags around the eyes and a mirror that could catch flashing light would have certainly added to the horse’s powerful presence. Paul Goble’s Caldecott award-winning book The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses tells the story of a girl who has a powerful connection with horses. The illustrations echo some of the patterns you can see in the objects in this gallery.

The Pacific Northwest

Last but not least, we have our tricky bird the Raven. In this tale, Raven steals the sun from the Sky Chief in order to bring light to the people on earth. The illustrations in Gerald McDermott’s version are in the same tradition of form line design seen in many of the objects from this culture area. In the gallery, you can see Raven himself in the form of a raven mask. The mask made by the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) people would have been used in an initiation ceremony and dance. The powerful beak can even snap open and closed and it’s not hard to imagine raven flying away with the sun in his mouth!

Posted by: Leah

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Filed under In the galleries, Just for Fun

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