NEW YORK — Ancient stone projectiles created miles from where the original rock was quarried highlight the intent of a monumental new exhibition on Native American Indians: to offer a hemispheric survey of tribes as dynamic interconnected societies.
"Infinity of Nations," opening Saturday, features 700 objects from South, Central and North America from ancient to modern times at the National Museum of the American Indian, New York.
Its hemispheric approach "brings together the depth and range of Native American culture and history," said Philip Deloria, a Native American historian who teaches at the University of Michigan.
Contemporary nations often "set the parameters for thinking about indigenous people and so we often miss the richness, the connections, the overlaps and the distinctions among these people," added Deloria, who wrote the introduction to the exhibition's companion book.
The museum worked with 60 native historians and leaders to interpret many of the objects, which were selected for their aesthetic, cultural and historic importance.
The introductory wall panel tells visitors that "far from a vast and empty wilderness, by 1492 the Americas were home to societies ranging from loose federations of small hunting, fishing and farming villages to empires administered from great cities."
The exhibition begins with a display of 10 ceremonial headdresses, symbols of ability and achievement and the native peoples' right to self determination. Among the most striking is a modern Mebengokre krokrokti, a macaw and heron feather headdress from Brazil that is worn as a cape during naming and initiation ceremonies.
"Many of the examples speak to distance trade, marriage alliances, ritual exchange and ritual adoptions, artistic creativity, military conflict and political activism," said exhibition curator Cecile Ganteaume.
About 20 percent of the objects have never been exhibited before; 40 percent have not been on view in decades.
The show is organized into 10 geographic areas: the Arctic/Subarctic, five North American regions, Mesoamerica/Caribbean and three South American regions.
The works, which will remain on permanent view, were largely collected by George Gustav Heye, who quit his job as a Wall Street investment banker to pursue his passion for Native American artifacts. His collection began in 1897, and later he paid for anthropological expeditions, sponsored excavations at ancestral native sites and purchased large public and private collections. He amassed 800,000 pieces from throughout the Americas, the largest such collection ever compiled by one person, the museum said.
In 1989, the collection was transferred from a small museum he founded in Upper Manhattan to the Smithsonian Institution to form the core of the National Museum of the American Indian.
The title of the exhibition derives from French missionaries who as early as 1626 described the peoples of the New World as "an infinity of nations." The expression captured the French impression of the Americas as lands populated with a multitude of indigenous peoples, "rather than being the pristine and uninhabited New World of European imagination," said Ganteaume.
What visitors will learn, the curator said, is that Native Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere were outward-looking people who had a great deal of interaction and over very long distances.
A brightly colored Moche Huari tunic, featuring anthropomorphic deities, dates to 500 to 700 A.D. and is one of many examples in the show of that interconnection. It combines design elements of two Andean regions – those of the Moche coastal peoples and the Huari highland peoples of Peru.
The earliest examples of long-distance trade in the show are stone clovis projectiles dating to 11,000 B.C. and banner stones from 6,000 and 1,000 B.C. that were used in spear-throwing. Both were made from stone in areas a great distance from where it was quarried.
"What we know is native peoples were having reasons and they were finding ways to bridge vast distances from their earliest histories," Ganteaume said.
Perhaps more interesting is the ritual exchange that occurred among Native Americans.
In Mesoamerica, for example, the ball game was very important. A bas-relief depicting a ball player from 600-750 A.D., in the exhibition shows a man about to catch the bouncing rubber ball. Two hieroglyphs identify him as a ball player.
Among other highlights is a complete 1790s Anishinaabe suit of clothing – leggings, shirt, silver ornaments, otter-skin bag and moccasins ornamented with loom-woven porcupine quills – that has been traced to Fort Michilimackinac in the Upper Great Lakes.
"It's one of the most important pieces in the collection because it's a complete outfit. You rarely, rarely get that ... (and) documented to a specific time and place," said Ganteaume.
It belonged to British Lt. Andrew Foster who, according to family lore, was made a chief by the Anishinaabe peoples.
The artistry of Native American's bead work is also on display. A standout is a 1925 Inuit Tuilli, a caribou skin garment embroidered with 160,000 beads in floral and anatomical patterns and designed to protect a newborn from the harsh Arctic cold inside a back pouch.