Objects Collection Notes
(George Heye’s Legacy)
Patagonia Andes Amazon Mesoamerica / Caribbean Southwest Plains / Plateau Woodlands California / Great Basin Northwest Coast Arctic / Subarctic Contemporary Art

Throughout North, Central, and South America, Native nations have often been guided by leaders recognized for their abilities to maintain reciprocal relationships and to coordinate collective efforts through their oratory and judiciousness. The right within a culture to don a headdress such as those shown here depends first on the acquisition of cultural knowledge and second on the ability to use that knowledge for the benefit of the people. These headdresses represent the right of Native peoples to govern and instruct themselves according to their own laws, customs, and prophecies.

George Heye’s Legacy: An Unparalleled Collection

The objects in this exhibition were largely collected by George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), a New Yorker who quit Wall Street to indulge his passion for American Indian artifacts. Over time, Heye gathered some 800,000 pieces from throughout the Americas, the largest such collection ever compiled by one person.

Heye began collecting in Arizona in 1897. Afterwards he purchased large assemblages from museums and collectors, hired anthropologists to undertake collecting expeditions, and sponsored excavations at ancestral Native sites. Heye also traveled widely, buying as much as he could, whenever he could. In 1916, he established the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, which opened to the public in upper Manhattan in 1922. According to the New York Times, the new museum was dedicated to “unveiling the mystery of the origin of the red men.…”

Heye died with no definitive answer to that “mystery.” But he left behind a singular collection, which was transferred in 1989 to the Smithsonian Institution, becoming part of the National Museum of the American Indian. Today, the objects in Heye’s collection are being reinterpreted by the descendants of the people who made them, providing American Indian perspectives on the Native past and present. Click here to read more...

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