The History of the Indian Tribes of North America

August 31– December 5, 2010 —

The Museum of Nebraska Art hosts a collection of handcolored lithographic prints generously on loan from Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum. The History of the Indian Tribes of North America features 67 images of 19th century Native Americans selected from the nearly 130 comprising the entire publication, one of the most important American volumes printed. Each label provides brief information about the subject and tribe, giving a glimpse into the life of these individuals.

The 19th century was a period of geographic expansion for the “new” United States, greatly impacting the native peoples. Starting in 1821, various tribal Chiefs were invited to Washington, D.C. with a two-fold purpose: to impress them with the power of the Federal government and to negotiate land treaties. Thomas McKenney, the government’s Superintendent for Indian Affairs and their champion, feared that the Native Americans’ way of life was changing and envisioned a portrait gallery of these tribal leaders along with artifacts, biographies, and stories that would be available for future generations. He engaged well-known artists of the day – notably Charles Bird King – to paint from life portraits of these dignitaries during their visits to Washington. Between 1821 and 1837, over 140 images were painted of these tribal representatives.

During the 1830s and ‘40s, these paintings were taken in hand by lithographers and the images were rendered as handcolored lithographs. These prints were published in three volumes: one each in 1836, 1838, and 1844. Included was text telling the story of each of the personages depicted – written by newspaperman and author James Hall from the information collected by McKenney. Entitled The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, the publication was bound in folios.

The original paintings were eventually transferred to the newly established Smithsonian Institution. Seven years later in 1865, a fire consumed the building where they were displayed, and essentially all were lost. The lithographs thus are the only remaining records of these portraits, and form a lasting legacy – as envisioned by McKenney.

Dr. Sheila Siegler is speaking on Sunday, October 3, about her art conservation on these prints. A distinguished paper conservator, her talk gives an insight into this fascinating field – using these prints as worthy examples to show the importance of preserving significant material for future generations.

The History of the Indian Tribes of North America is sponsored by the MONA Bison Society.