In 2000, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) transferred its Headquarters Collection to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Since its creation in 1935, the IACB—a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior—had collected and purchased examples of Native art. The collection transferred to the Smithsonian is from the IACB office in Washington, D.C., and does not include the collections of the IACB's three regional museums in Oklahoma, Montana, and South Dakota.
The collection contains a wide range of things, including baskets, ceramics, beadwork, textiles, paintings, sculptures, and experimental pieces. Since the IACB's concentration is economic development enterprises for American Indians and Alaska Natives, many pieces were produced for the tourist market.
The Early Collection
It may seem odd that a federal agency has an art collection. The IACB was created during the New Deal era, when the federal government invested in cultural development initiatives such as public mural projects, documentary photography, and graphic arts workshops. The IACB is part of what is called the Indian New Deal, a series of federal policies and programs set to reverse assimilative policies towards Native Americans in favor of promoting cultural pluralism and increased tribal sovereignty.
During its first decade, the IACB conducted surveys on Native art, supported the establishment of tribal arts and crafts cooperatives, and endorsed Native artists for public mural projects. Under the direction of Rene d'Harnoncourt from 1936 to 1944, the IACB curated two monumental exhibitions of Native art—the Indian Court at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941.
Initially the IACB did not catalog its collection. There are few records and little other documentation available for its early purchases. This bowl was noted as "number 2" on a card file from 1951 and is one of the few pieces from the 1930s.
Tohono O'odham bowl, circa 1930. Arizona. 11.8 x 14.8 cm; pottery, paint, tree pitch. Purchased by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives from an unknown source at an unknown date prior to 1940. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9250
Coiled by hand, the bowl gets its reddish color from hematite present in the clay. Mesquite sap is used to paint designs on the surface, and the sheen is from burnishing the surface with a smooth stone. This bowl was created by an unknown Tohono O'odham artist. The Tohono O'odham Nation is one of the indigenous nations in Arizona; the nation's traditional lands extend from the Phoenix area into northern Mexico.
The bowl was exhibited during the 1941 exhibition Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art; it appears on page 204 of the exhibition book.
Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is the first in a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.