Object Collections

The NMAI’s object collections (266,000 catalog records) scope encompasses two- and three-dimensional objects/works made, created, used, designed, or commissioned by Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere (excluding Hawai’i); preserved botanical, plant, animal, and mineral samples representative of agriculture, gathering, hunting, medical practices, and other Native knowledge systems; items that illustrate or document the history and work of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the life and work of George and Thea Heye; and items that reflect or help interpret attitudes toward Native peoples.

North American ethnology (88,000 objects)
The NMAI has one of the world’s finest collections of Northeast and Southeast Woodlands ethnographic objects, including both objects of aesthetic importance and everyday items collected by anthropologists in George Heye’s employ.  Northeast and Great Lakes collections are very large and include New England splint basketry, Ojibwa birchbark and beadwork items, Huron moosehair embroidery, and significant late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Iroquois material, including Niagara Falls beaded whimsies.  In addition to the Foster collection from Forts Miami and Michilimackinac dating to the 1790s, the collection includes significant early items purchased by Heye from European museums and private collectors and Joseph Keppler’s Iroquois collections.  Southeastern collections include Seminole material dating from the early nineteenth century onward including items owned by Osceola, Choctaw, and Creek ball game material, and excellent basketry collections.  During the period of Heye’s active collecting, he sponsored expeditions to Oklahoma, accumulating significant collections from Northeastern and Southeastern tribes removed to the west from the 1830s onward.  Beyond ceremonial materials and objects of everyday life, staff anthropologist Mark Raymond Harrington also commissioned Absentee Shawnee artist Ernest Spybuck to complete a series of paintings depicting daily scenes and traditional life after 1910.  Through work by anthropologist Frank Speck, holdings include the world’s most extensive collections from Mid-Atlantic Native peoples, including the Nanticoke, Rappahannock, and other Powhatan tribes. 

The Plains collection is large, important, and includes significant early examples.  Every Plains group is well represented and discrete tribal collections are often comprehensive, including Blackfeet, Crow, Lakota, Kiowa, Comanche, Plains Ojibwa, and Plains Cree, with particular strengths in decorated garments and accessories, painted hides, pipes, shields, horse gear, and ledger book drawings.  Important Northern Plains collections result from the work of William Wildschut, Donald Cadzow, and others.  Several collections components originated with military personnel who fought in the “Indian Wars,” including General Nelson Miles and Major John Gregory Bourke, and numerous objects relate to well known individuals such as Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Standing Bear, and others.Collections from Prairie tribes, including the Sac and Fox, Osage, and Oto, are especially strong in woven bags, ceremonial items, clothing, and accessories. Due to early twentieth-century emphasis on collecting Plains and Prairies tribes’ ceremonial objects, the collections include dozens of Plains and Prairies sacred bundles, which are considered culturally sensitive objects.  Access to them is limited by their respective tribal authorities but until such time as they are repatriated, they remain a focus of interest and a resource for culturally affiliated tribes.  In working with the Plains collections, staff are strongly interested in appropriate identification of objects that were catalogued based on where they were collected rather than where they originated, including collections associated with Red River and other Métis peoples that are scattered throughout other cultural holdings in the Plains, Subarctic, and Northeastern Woodland collections.

Plateau collections, including those from Canada, include decorated clothing and accessories, baskets and cornhusk bags, and horse gear, especially from the Shoshone and Nez Perce.  The collections also include small but strong collections of Wasco/Wishram bowls and spoons of wood and horn, sally bags, and other items and strong Klikitat basketry and Yakama beadwork holdings as well as upper Thompson and Fraser River basketry and other items.  Great Basin material includes important and rare turn-of-the-century Ute and Paiute collections including hide and rabbit-skin clothing, basketry, and ethnobotanical items.  Overall, Paiute collections (1000 items) are strong in Southern and Northern Paiute material and include baskets, household items, and clothing. 

Southwest collections are exceptionally large and include a comprehensive Navajo wearing-blanket collection, small Rio Grande Pueblo collections, almost 700 Hopi katsinas, large Pueblo ceramic collections ranging from historic to contemporary, and large, varied Apache holdings.  More recent Southwestern commercial arts are also particularly strong, especially silver, turquoise, and other jewelry, baskets, and ceramics. California collections include Pomo baskets (some created by Mary and William Benson for the dealer Grace Nicholson), Yurok, Karok, and Hupa baskets including masterworks by Elizabeth Hickox, featherwork, shellwork, and ceremonial clothing and accessories. NMAI holdings also include significant collections from southern California, including Diegueño and Luiseño objects from amateur anthropologist E.H. Davis.

The Northwest Coast collections represent all tribes, in depth, and include intricate wood and stone carvings and masks and everyday items such as fishing gear, baskets, and woodworking tools.  Although Heye began collecting Northwest Coast objects later than many American museums, Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, and Tahltan collections are especially comprehensive and include assemblages from important collectors such as George T. Emmons (Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Tahltan), Thomas Crosby (Tsimshian), Leo Frachtenberg (Makah), T.T. Waterman (Puget Sound Salish), and D.F. Tozier (monumental sculpture, particularly Kwakiutl), and objects collected during the 1899 Harriman Expedition.  Despite inclusion of many pieces classed as masterworks, Northwest Coast collections are deficient in items made after 1930 with the exception of basketry.  The importance of masks and significant crest items owned by specific lineages, sometimes collected under questionable circumstances, has led to considerable interest in repatriating Northwest Coast items at the NMAI, especially among the Tlingit.

Arctic collections range from small ivories to fur clothing and skin kayaks, although much is identified simply as “Eskimo.”  Alaskan material includes the important Twitchell collection of over 300 Kuskokwim delta Yup’ik masks, clothing, and other items, as well as large collections of Aleutian baskets, tools, and hunting equipment.  Other significant collections derive from the central Arctic and Greenland.  More recent Arctic arts, especially from Alaska and Nunavut, are also well represented.  Much research on the Arctic collections—mostly identified simply as Eskimo—is required to separate archaeological from ethnographic material and update cultural classifications and identifications to serve the needs of Native and non-Native researchers.  Subarctic collections from Innu (Naskapi/Montagnais) and related groups collected by Frank Speck and others are possibly the largest extant.  Central and western Subarctic collections are uneven and require identification, but include important documented items plus Gwich’in and Slavey holdings, especially those collected by anthropologist Donald Cadzow. 

North American archaeology (83,100 objects)
Based in New York City, George Heye had an interest in local archaeology and sponsored excavations in New York and New Jersey, yielding important, documented collections that complement representative collections from other Northeastern states and Ontario, including important materials from Susquehannock, St. Lawrence Iroquoian, and Neutral-Petun sites.  Due to Heye’s purchase of several large collections assembled by others, Northeastern archaeological collections are strong in aesthetic appealing objects such as bannerstones, birdstones, and pipes, due to Heye’s purchase of several large collections assembled by others.  

The Southeastern archaeology collection is among the finest in the museum, with great depth and considerable anthropological and artistic significance.  Native artists have shown considerable interest in studying Southeastern ceramics and basketry collections in terms of technology and as inspiration for contemporary works.  Of particular note is the large, well documented C.B. Moore collection from Moundville, Crystal River, and other important sites in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  Native artists have shown considerable interest in studying these collections in terms of technology and as inspiration for contemporary works.  Other important collections include those made by George Heye at Nacoochee Mound, collections and masterworks of archaeological art from the Spiro Mound Complex, Ozark Bluff rockshelters, and Indian Knoll, Kentucky.  Midwestern collections emphasize later Mississippian cultures, including significant Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana sites such as the Big Bone Bank site.  Plains archaeology collections are extremely small and consist primarily of lithics, with the exception of important collections from Texas Rio Grande-area caves and rockshelters collected by Mark Raymond Harrington and Edwin Coffin. 

Important Southwest archaeology collections include those excavated by the Hendricks-Hodge Expedition at Hawikuh, including protohistoric and early historic Zuni material, and comprehensive collections from Grand Gulch in southeast Utah made by Richard Wetherill.  Other material includes Mimbres pottery and a small Chaco Canyon assemblage.  Great Basin material includes extensive, well documented collections from Lovelock Cave, especially perishables, foodstuffs, and feathered reed duck decoys. 

California archaeological collections are large but not well documented, with the exception of those from southern California and the coastal islands, including assemblages of stone, shell, and asphaltum and materials.  Heye often drove cross-country to visit southern California, and his wife, Thea Heye, sponsored excavations at multiple sites in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.  Several purchased collections are extensive but include both genuine pieces and fakes. These are rounded out by extensive collections from the greater San Diego area made by amateur anthropologist E.H. Davis.

The Northwest Coast collection is small but includes examples of stone art and excavated collections such as the Eburne site (Great Fraser Midden).  Subarctic collections of unsystematic lithic collections are very small and largely represent scattered lithic collections.  Arctic holdings include strong excavated components from Baffin Island and Greenland and materials from Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition received as exchanges from Denmark’s Nationalmuseet and expeditions sponsored by Heye patron James Ford.  Smaller collections exist from the Boothia Peninsula, the Hudson Strait, and the Mackenzie Delta. 

Central American ethnology (11,000 objects)
Maya collections, especially Highland Guatemala Maya materials, are outstanding, especially for textiles.  Recent donations of well documented mid to late twentieth-century collections complement earlier holdings, including Quiche dance costumes from Totonicapan and other objects, including masks, ceramics, engraved gourds, and weaving tools.  Lowland Maya collections, especially Lacandon objects, include hunting equipment, tools, textiles, and ceramics.

For non-Maya Mexico, the NMAI holds significant Huichol, Seri, and some Cora and Tarascan collections, including textiles, ornaments, weaving and hunting equipment, ceremonial objects, and masks.  Nahua collections are especially strong in masks and paintings on indigenous amate (mulberry bark paper), an adaptation to Mexican tourist markets that have become an elevated artistic tradition and political commentary.  The museum also holds small collections from the Yaqui (especially horse equipment); Opata (domestic items and amate cutouts); Cahita Mayo masks, rattles, drums; Zapotec clothing; and a large, systematic collection of Mixtec ceramics and tools. With the exception of more recent items, much of this material was collected by the well known collector Donald Cordry and came to the museum before 1945.

Collections from peoples of the isthmus, including the Kuna, Emberá, and Guaymi of Panama and Colombia, are outstanding, encompassing several thousand objects including hundreds of Kuna fabric molas and wood carvings and Emberá clothing, dance items, ornaments, and household items.  Mískito and Tawahka collections from Nicaragua and Honduras also number several hundred pieces including tools, carved objects, and hammocks.  Most of these collections date before 1950, with very few recent items. 

Central American archaeology (29,900 objects)
Heye’s interest in Native cultures extended to Mexico and Latin America, and he invested heavily in securing representative collections.  Extensive western Mexico collections include fine ceramic vessels and figures from Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Casas Grandes.  Valley of Mexico collections are particularly strong, including sherds and restored vessels from Tlapacoya, extensive collections of figurines and outstanding stone sculptures, and spectacular Mixtec turquoise mosaics and gold ornaments.  While many of the MAI’s acquisitions in Mexico were coordinated by archaeologist Marshall Saville, Heye made purchases of his own, including large Classic-period Oaxacan Zapotec ceramic urns he acquired in Paris, many of which are fakes.  Many of the smaller Central American archaeology collections include little or no documentation, and the pieces have been identified largely by style.

Mexican and Guatemalan Mayan collections include small but significant collections of Jaina figurines, Classic Lowland Maya polychrome vessels, plumbate effigy vessels, large incense burners from the Highlands, carved jades, and stone sculptures. Honduras and El Salvador collections include Formative period ceramics and Ulua polychrome vessels, as well as outstanding stone sculptures and Ulua Valley carved stone vessels.

Costa Rican collections include outstanding and extensive assemblages: elaborately modeled and incised vessels from Linea Vieja and Nicoya Peninsula polychrome vessels. Panamanian materials include important Rio Caño collections, more than 20 monumental stone sculptures, associated ceramics from a single-component ceremonial complex in Penonome Province, and highly sculptural animal-effigy stone metates.  Panamanian collections also include extensive collections of Chiriqui and Coclé gold ornaments, Coclé polychrome ceramics, and shell ornaments from Venado Beach.

Caribbean archaeology and ethnology (9600 objects)
Archaeological collections from the Caribbean are particularly strong and well-documented, representing a broad timespan and range of object types: ceramic vessels, stone sculptures, bone and shell ornaments, and wooden items.  Taino items include significant wooden items and sculptures that have been the focus of recent stylistic and analytical research.  Ethnology collections are scanty except for recent Kalinago (Carib) materials from Dominica.

South American ethnology (15,000 objects)
Generally, South American ethnological collections are not as large or extensive as those from North and Central America, nor do they include much early material.  Heye sponsored relatively few ethnographic collecting expeditions to South America, and much of the collection postdates his active collecting and instead represents donations. Many of the largest South American collections, including those from Guyana and Suriname, were made by A. Hyatt Verrill between 1916 and 1929 and include hunting and fishing tools, ceramic vessels, baskets, manioc-processing equipment, ornaments, clothing, shields, paddles, drums, and wooden seats.  For Colombia, the collections include a small but important group of Guahibo objects.

Large Amazon basin and Brazil collections include featherwork headdresses and ornaments, hunting and fishing tools, barkcloth items, dance outfits and masks, and ceramic figures, especially from the Tukano, Ticuna, Kayapó, Ka’apor, Karajá, Bororo, Tapirapé, and Witoto. Notable collections include those made by Elizabeth K. Steen, “the first white woman to explore the Amazon,” before 1936. Earlier twentieth-century materials are balanced with later gifts and purchases of featherwork, baskets, and ornaments, including Boris Malkin’s 1960s collections. Shuar-Achuar collections from Ecuador and Peru include spectacular featherwork but few other types of items beyond household goods. Other strong tropical forest collections include the Asháninka (Campa), Shipibo, Conibo, Cofán, and Yagua, among others. The Chachilla (Cayapas) collection is outstanding in terms of its size, completeness, and documentation. Assembled by anthropologist Samuel A. Barrett, this collection includes thousands of ceramics, tools, items of clothing, and baskets.

The Andes collections are large and diverse. Peruvian highlands collections do not include a complete range of object types but include important colonial-era textiles, silver jewelry, and painted wooden drinking cups (qeros); these are balanced with later textiles and more commercially oriented items such as dolls, charms, and musical instruments.  Bolivian collections, primarily Aymara material, are small. Chilean collections are notable for Mapuche textiles collected by MAI anthropologist S.K. Lothrop, who also assembled significant Patagonian collections from the Yagán, Ona, Qawasqar (Alacaluf), and Tehuelche, including hunting and fishing equipment, tools, containers, bags, masks, horse equipment, clothing, and rare items such as a Yagán sealskin house-cover and a dugout canoe and its associated fishing equipment. More recent acquisitions include an important donation of almost 500 examples of “folk pottery” from Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, and Colombia made in the early 1970s, representing traditional forms and transitional pieces produced by Indian people and Mestizos living in or near market towns. 

South American archaeology (24,300 objects)
South American archaeological holdings are uneven, with significant differences between areas where George Heye sponsored excavations and those where he acquired poorly documented collections and individual items from dealers. Amazonian and Lowland collections are smaller and less representative, and focus more on items of aesthetic value than balance and completeness.

Colombian collections are small but include spectacular Sinú, Popayan, and Muisca gold pieces, as well as northern Highlands ceramic effigy vessels and gold and metal objects. Venezuelan holdings feature ceramic vessels from Trujillo and bat-shaped stone pendants from the Aragua and Valencia basins.  Brazilian Amazonian holdings are notable for restored vessels from Santarem and incised and painted jars from Marajó Island.

Peruvian collections are large and, for some areas, extensive, including thousands of complete, decorated ceramics and 1000 well-preserved fabrics exemplifying every technique used in the Central Andes.  Central and Northern Coast collections are particularly strong and include several large, rare, painted textiles, musical instruments, and ten remarkable personal kits of weaving, spinning, and sewing materials in basketry boxes, as well as rare featherwork clothing, ornaments, and masks.  Peruvian holdings also include the only complete Cupisnique (Highland Chavín) tomb collection, numbering 121 pieces, including gold beads, pins, armbands, and rings, sheet gold ornaments, ceramics, ceramic beads covered with gold, and stone mirrors and bowls.

Important Chilean collections include several thousand objects assembled by S.K. Lothrop, including preserved wood and fabrics.  Individual pieces have tremendous importance, such as one of the few pure Tiahuanaco-style fabrics extant.  Ecuadorian collections from Manabí excavated by MAI archaeologist Marshall Saville as part of a monumental study include thousands of complete ceramic vessels, gold and metal objects, and a series of monumental stone seats representing 80% of the Ecuadorian thrones extant.  Other notable Ecuadorian items include ceramic urns from Carchi and Valdivia figurines that represent the western hemisphere’s oldest known ceramics.

Modern and Contemporary Arts (5,200 objects)
The NMAI’s strongest collections impetus is to build the modern and contemporary arts holdings, including examples of traditional arts and works in non-traditional media as well as their modern antecedents (earlier paintings and drawings) and items made for sale that express Native ingenuity in adapting to social transformations.  Within the collections database, staff have added “Modern and Contemporary Arts” to the museum’s traditional ethnology and archaeology categories and are reassigning some ethnology items described above to this new category, including Nahua amate paintings, contemporary Southwestern ceramics, and other items.  Important mid twentieth-century paintings by the Kiowa Five and members of Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School, many donated to the MAI by the important patron and collector Oscar Jacobson, also provide a basis for the modern collections.

Significant transfers and donations have strongly advanced the NMAI’s modern and contemporary collections. The 2000 transfer of the Headquarters Collection of the Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) has enhanced holdings of mid to late twentieth-century works.  Numbering 6,300 objects, the IACB collection was assembled between 1935 and 1998 and includes a full range of items made in the United States, such as basketry and pottery, beadwork and dolls, garments and blankets, jewelry and sculpture, and drawings, prints, and paintings.  Since the IACB was initially charged with encouraging Native arts and crafts sales, many items were created with tourists or consumers in mind.  Many pieces were collected from IACB-sponsored workshops and artist demonstrations in various communities.  Other pieces, especially sculptures and two-dimensional works collected from Institute of American Indian Arts students and professional artists, exemplify Native expression and creativity of that period.

Through work on inaugural exhibits for the NMAI’s Mall Museum and recent projects, staff have also seized opportunities to acquire contemporary works. With indigenous community members, staff reviewed tribal holdings and sought input on how the collections should be enhanced to better represent community interests.  Beyond objects secured for use in the exhibits, these collaborations have provided invaluable contacts and opportunities for further collections enhancements. Through the NMAI’s continuing work with communities, staff will continue to gradually build these collections.

The NMAI’s commitment to contemporary Native art, visible through Mall Museum and GGHC contemporary art exhibitions, has also helped build the collections. Through such work, staff have identified significant works for acquisition and annually prioritized their purchase using available acquisition funds.  Significant acquisitions under this informal program include paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture by Rick Bartow, Joe Feddersen, Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, Marcus Amerman, Gail Tremblay, Mario Martinez, Alan Michelson, Lorenzo Clayton, and Will Wilson; contemporary baskets by Theresa Hoffman, Julia Parker, Terrell Dew Johnson, Lisa Telford, Pat Courtney Gold, and others; ceramics by Jereldine Redcorn, Peter Jones, Susan Folwell, William Pacheco, Nathan Begaye, Russell Sanchez, Nora Naranjo-Morse, Diego Romero, and others; and decorated dresses and accessories by Joyce, Juanita, and Jessica Growing Thunder, Vanessa Jennings, Dora Old Elk, and Keri Jhane Myers. 

The NMAI’s growing reputation as an active contemporary art collector has also prompted Native artists and collectors to offer significant works for acquisition.  Through such offers, the museum was able to purchase the paintings in Kay WalkingStick’s Chief Joseph Series and Harry Fonseca’s monumental painting Creation Story, as well as other works.  Since 2000, the museum’s increased visibility on the national scene has also attracted a number of significant donations of modern and contemporary Native art, including hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and other works by Allan Houser, George Morrison, Roxanne Swentzell, Helen Hardin, Jesse Hummingbird, Jerry Laktonen, Robert Penn, Norval Morrisseau, Preston Singletary, Jean LaMarr, Mateo Romero, and others.

Bowl in the form of bird-headed water monster (probably Late Mississippian Tradition). (16/5232)

Jar with feathered serpent design (probably Paquimé [Casas Grandes]). (11/9739)

Northern Shoshone woman’s leggings and moccasins, ca. 1910. (12/3197, 12/3213)

Ka´apor necklace with attached flute. (23/3285)

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