Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 17 Number 1
October 1977


"SACRED Circles: 2000 Years of North American Indian Art" opened April 16 for nine weeks at the Nelson Gallery of Art-Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in Kansas City for its only showing in the Americas. The largest exhibition of its kind in history, it outdrew attendance at the Hayward Gallery in London (180,000 visitors over 13 weeks as part of the United States’ Bicentennial celebration). A total of 223,716 persons saw the exhibit and another 23,500 attended the traditional Indian dance programs in Kansas City.

When the show closed in June, the 850 objects on loan from 90 museums and private collectors were returned to their owners in six countries. The North American showing, according to Nelson Gallery officials, was "a momentous opportunity for viewing incredibly rare Indian and Eskimo art and archaeological treasures."

Among the 90 lenders to the exhibition were the National Museums of Canada, Royal Ontario Museum, National Museum of Denmark, Chartres Cathedral in France, Royal Scottish Museum, State of Georgia, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Ohio Historical Society, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Smithsonian Institution, plus many smaller museums and numerous private collectors. The six countries involved were the United States, Canada, England, France, Denmark, and the German Federal Republic (West Germany).

Several objects separated from the Northern American continent for centuries were shown: Two shell-and-porcupine-quill wampum belts, made by the Abenaki and Huron Indians in Quebec, were lent by Chartres Cathedral where French missionaries sent them in 1678 and 1699. The Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, sent a painted buffalo hide collected by Prince Maximilian during his trek up the Missouri River in 1833. A Northwest coast mask, in the style of a dead warrior, was collected by Captain James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific in 1776-1780, and was loaned by the British Museum.

The oldest objects in the exhibition are archaeological, dating to 1500 B.C. The Adena Pipe—considered the most important archaeological object ever found in the Eastern United States—was added to the exhibition after its London showing. Dating from 100 A.D., the stone pipe was unearthed at Chillicothe, Ohio, during an excavation of a large mound constructed approximately 2,000 years ago by Indian peoples of the Adena culture, a society inhabiting much of Southern Ohio from about 800 B.C. to 200 A.D.

A pair of two-foot tall marble figures dating to 1400 A.D. were loaned by the Department of Natural Resources, State of Georgia. They were excavated at the Etowah mounds in North Georgia in 1962. Probably representing a man and a woman, the pair are considered the finest pre-Columbian effigy figures.

From the North Plains, a Sioux Indian carved wooden horse effigy was loaned by the Robinson Museum in Pierre, South Dakota. Unique in Plains art, no other complete equestrian sculpture of its kind is known to exist.

Sixteen galleries on the main floor, east wing of the Nelson Gallery were adapted for the mammoth show. Among the financial contributors to the Kansas City showing were the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Missouri Arts Council and American Can Company Foundation. More than $600,000 in public and private funds were raised towards the American visit.

Native American dancers from Alaska, British Columbia, California, Florida and other parts of the United States and Canada performed during the nine-week showing "to provide a living presence" for the art and archaeological objects in the exhibition.

The collection was compiled over a period of four years by Ralph T. Coe, Director of the Nelson Gallery, and was organized in England by the Arts Council of Great Britain.

One of the many stories sidelighting the Sacred Circles was the ticklish problem of feathers. A series of laws enacted since 1940, aimed at conserving certain migratory birds, restrict or prohibit the sale or possession of feathers or other body parts of birds. While American Indians may possess and exchange (but not sell) objects bearing eagle feathers, non-Indians without special permits are liable for prosecution.

"All I could think of was the prospect of a bunch of U. S. marshals coming in and impounding loans from the British Museum and other lenders," Coe said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pledged cooperation but wanted certain restrictions—such as a complete inventory. When it was realized that this might take years to compile, the entire exhibit was exempted, as it was when the problems of landing in New York for a port-of-entry check were taken into consideration.



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