The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art opened its newest exhibit this past Saturday. “Red/Black” tells the story of the interrelatedness of Native American and African-American cultures in the United States.
“The forces that brought African-American and Native American people into contact ultimately led to an exchange of cultural traditions, mutual reliance upon each other, enslavement, intermarriage and shared conflict within the dominant white society,” reads one of the first boards upon entrance into the exhibit.
The exhibit is informative and engaging, consisting of sets of important historical artifacts alongside signs which detail the historical context and notable people. It represents a chronological account of a cross-cultural journey through American history.
The items on display include quilts, baskets, pottery and clothing. They were carefully selected to show the influence that Native American and African-American cultures had on each other.
The link between the two cultures was first established based on their similar practices and attitudes toward their environments.
Traditions such as drumming, ideas about ancestors, animal spirits and a relationship to the land were natural points of intersection, bringing the cultures together.
Walking through the exhibit is a thought-provoking experience. It forces the observer to reflect upon the similarities that brought the two cultures together, but also the differences that separated them.
As marginalized groups, Native Americans and African slaves found common ground in their opposition to white colonists. However, their cooperation was frustrated by the fact that many Native Americans emulated the Europeans by keeping African slaves of their own.
A major part of the exhibit is devoted to exploring questions of identity, specifically the mixed heritage and cultural identification of people of both Native American and African descent. The tragedy of the Trail of Tears put a massive strain on race relations, as many
Native Americans continued the practice of slaveholding until it was outlawed at the end of the Civil War.
Traditional music can be heard throughout the exhibit, as well as recorded stories of African-Americans who had been slaves to Native Americans and songs that developed in these slave communities.
External factors often complicated relations between the two groups. Events like the Civil War caused divisions not only between the Native Americans and African-Americans, but within each community as well.
Some Native Americans sided with the Confederate cause, while many African-Americans were part of Union regiments. Artifacts from this time period include army uniforms, rifles and other battle equipment that show these groups’ active participation in the military.
The exhibit also emphasized the visible and invisible presence of Native American and African-American culture in day-to-day life.
“Red/Black” comes chronologically full circle by giving attention to contemporary racial and cultural matters. Native American tribal nations are known for their exclusive regulations of membership and rights, often resulting in the rejection and alienation of those of mixed ancestry.
Personal stories and biographical descriptions occupy a significant portion of the displays, often including quotes on controversial subjects that represent both sides’ perspectives.
The variety of artifacts ranges from pottery vessels to modern political and activist posters and publications, displaying the full creative extent of two parallel cultures that developed in both integrated and divergent ways.
The exhibit successfully showcases the remarkable synthesis of the Native American and African-American communities in everything including cultural practices, arts and crafts, even language. On the other hand, it emphasizes the significant historical conflicts and differences between the two cultures that persist into the modern era.
“Red/Black” runs from Feb. 12-Aug. 7, at the Eiteljorg Museum, located at 500 W. Washington St.