Searching the Source: Origins of Indian Painting in the National Anthropological Archives

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  • This article discusses some of the most important 19th century Native American art in the National Anthropological Archives [NAA], located in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. Characterized by the author as a repository of American visual thinking, the NAA contains over 20,000 works by Anglo and American Indian artists on paper and a number of works on processed deerskin or cowhide parchment.
  • The author believes that artwork by Native Americans has not yet been recognized to the extent it deserves because Anglos dominated the field for so long, and works by natives not included in the collections of patrons, such as Elizabeth Willis DeHuff and Edgar Lee Hewett, were treated as not having historic importance. He views these collectors as not being the driving force behind NAA's acquisitions, pointing out instead that the impetus was provided by well-known contributions made or commissioned by white researchers, scientists, and explorers, including anthropologists Frank Hamilton Cushing, Matilda Coxe Stevenson and Jesse Walter Fewkes, and Bureau of American Ethnology artists such as William Henry Holmes, as well as Native Americans themselves.
  • The writer uses his article to reassess the full range and significance of Native American artwork by evaluating the NAA's holdings. In order to present his line of reasoning, the author attempts to address the matters of when Indian painting began, the various forms it took as it developed, and how it began to be acknowledged as a great art form that received proper attention from Anglos.
  • The author writes of Native American involvement with painting over an extended period of time, evidenced by Mimbres ceramic bowls from the 12th century, Hopi kiva murals from the 14th to 18th centuries at sites such as Awatovi, Navajo cliff paintings at Canyon de Chelly from the late 19th century, and Rio Grande kiva murals from the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, almost from their first contacts with whites, Native Americans were rendering art in the form of detailed maps of the local terrain. Plains ledger art flourished during the late 1860's and 1870's, and in 1899, Jesse Walter Fewkes inspired the use of paper for the Hopi to use in making Katsina [Kachina] drawings for his Codex Hopiensis.
  • Modern Native American art has been defined by many writers as dating from around 1900 when students at San Ildefonso Pueblo school received encouragement to paint from teacher Esther Hoyt Sawyer. Santa Fe, New Mexico, rapidly positioned itself as the center of commercial native easel painting while San Ildefonso artist Crescencio Martinez began his rise as a popular figurative illustrator. He was a primary motivator in the creation of an artistic Southwestern style that became known as the Santa Fe tradition, which was formalized when Dorothy Dunn established the Santa Fe Studio school in 1932.
  • However, since the writer views Martinez as a latecomer to the world of Native American art, he offers even further evidence of works in the NAA produced by artists before or around 1900. In the 1870's and 1880's, ethnographer R. W. Shufeldt singled out Navajo artist Choh as a highly accomplished paid artist. Klah-Tso (Big Left Hand), also a Navajo, was noted for his understanding of Western perspective; his early works were produced between 1901 and 1905.
  • Frederick Gokliz, an Apache who was interned with Geronimo at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the late 1880's, produced masterful paintings during the 1890's on rawhide and paper that were collected by Army Captain Allyn Capron. Frank Hamilton Cushing was familiar with and collected Zuni art in the 1890's; Matilda Coxe Stevenson collected from a Zuni artist named Nick in 1896. Between 1899 and 1901, Albert Reagan, United States Government Farmer to Jemez Pueblo, acquired children's drawings from a school and especially praised the drawings of Jose Pauline Toya, San Jacinto Toya, and Victoriana Guchupin.
  • The author believes that 19th century Native American art did not meet the needs of the Santa Fe art movement as it was more attuned to commercial illustration than to encouragement of individual exploration. He states that the NAA's collection of Native American art should be appreciated for its self-expressive origins and dynamic heritage, and suggests that native works in the NAA not be categorized with the usual art-historical labels.


  • Shufeldt, Robert W (Robert Wilson) 1850-1934
  • Stevenson, Matilda Coxe 1850-1915
  • Cushing, Frank Hamilton 1857-1900
  • Fewkes, Jesse Walter 1850-1930
  • Holmes, William Henry 1846-1933
  • Dunn, Dorothy 1903-1992
  • DeHuff, Elizabeth Willis 1886-1983
  • Hewett, Edgar L (Edgar Lee) 1865-1946
  • Martinez, Crescencio 1879-1918 painter
  • National Anthropological Archives (NAA)
  • Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • Santa Fe Indian School


Smithsonian History Bibliography


  • Article is one of four included in the 25th anniversary issue of American Indian Art Magazine that highlights various aspects of the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives. In her own article, the issue's Guest Editor Candace Greene refers to Wade's discussion of 19th century materials from the Southwest as not fully included in previous art history studies of the region.
  • Thirteen illustrations and a bibliography are included in the article.
  • Noted on Page 70: the Figure Number in the first sentence of the main text should read "10" instead of "9".

Contained within

American Indian Art Magazine Vol. 26, Number 1 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


Winter 2000


  • Art
  • Art, American
  • Historians
  • Mural painting and decoration
  • Pottery
  • Anthropology
  • Zuni Pueblo
  • Ceramics
  • Santa Fe (N.M.)
  • History
  • Kachinas
  • Mimbres pottery
  • Indians in art
  • Painting
  • Indians of North America
  • Anthropologists
  • Navaho Indians
  • Apache Indians
  • Drawing
  • Hopi Indians
  • Zuni Indians
  • Pueblo Indians
  • Art--History
  • Indian ledger drawings


  • Southwest, New
  • Chelly, Canyon de (Ariz.)
  • Awatovi (Ariz.)
  • New Mexico
  • United States
  • Arizona
  • San Ildefonso Pueblo (N.M.)

Physical description

Number of pages: 9; Page numbers: 66-73 and 92

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