Introduction Patagonia Andes Amazon Mesoamerica / Caribbean Southwest Plains / Plateau Woodlands

California / Great Basin

Objects Collection Notes
(George Heye’s Legacy)
Northwest Coast Arctic / Subarctic Contemporary Art

California west of the Sierra Nevada has always drawn people to its varied climate and rich coast, valleys, and uplands. Before Spaniards arrived in the late 1700s, Native peoples lived in more than 200 autonomous communities and spoke more than 100 different languages—making California one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Spanish missionaries saw in Native California a wealth of souls to convert. During the Gold Rush, miners, loggers, and settlers formed vigilante groups and local militias to hunt Indians living outside the mission communities—a genocide largely ignored by American history. The Native population, estimated at 150,000 in 1845, was by 1870 less than 30,000.

In the Great Basin—the arid lands east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Rocky Mountains—the Native population was never large. Yet this seemingly harsh land has supported Native peoples for more than 14,000 years. Basketry water jars—always kept close at hand—exemplify cultural knowledge and resourcefulness. In an environment where food sources were often found at great distances and travel was by foot, Great Basin Indians developed technologies that sustained their way of life well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when hydroelectric projects opened the desert to non-Native farming and settlement. In the 21st century, the contest for water and the development of appropriate, sustainable technologies continues to define life in California and the Great Basin.

George Heye’s Legacy: California and the Great Basin

One of Heye’s most intrepid collectors was Mark R. Harrington, a young archeologist who traveled throughout the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, conducting archeological digs, visiting tribal communities, and collecting objects between 1908 and 1928. Among Harrington’s triumphs was the excavation in 1924 of Lovelock Cave in western Nevada.

Long sealed by an earthquake, Lovelock Cave had been used for storage and shelter by Native peoples for several thousand years. Inside, Harrington uncovered extensive evidence of ancient Native life, including a cache of 2,000-year-old duck decoys, the world’s oldest. Fashioned from tule reeds and feathers, the decoys once lured waterfowl to hunters in the marshlands of ancient Lake Lahontan.

Harrington left Heye’s museum in 1928, but always spoke kindly of his former boss. “During all my twenty years in George Heye’s employ,” he recalled, “I found him a wonderful man to work for.” When Harrington’s son was born, he and his wife named the baby Johns Heye Harrington. Click here to read more...

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Map of California and the Great Basin
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