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

Native peoples settled Patagonia, Gran Chaco, and Tierra del Fuego—the southernmost reaches of South America—thousands of years ago. Inspired by ancient stories that recall the creation of their homelands, the Mapuche of southern Chile and Argentina resisted subjugation by the Inka Empire and the Spanish Crown. Living on their ancestral lands, they forged a strong way of life—admapu— that has guided their response to outside forces. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Mapuche traded textiles and other goods for Spanish silver coins, which they fashioned into distinctive jewelry and elaborate horse ornaments. Though challenged in the 20th century by the loss of much of their land, more than one million Mapuche continue to live in Chile and Argentina, many in cities, maintaining traditions that connect them to their region of origin.

Farther south, the Yámana and Selk´nam kept constant fires burning on the large string of islands at the tip of South America—Tierra del Fuego, “land of fire.” These two peoples had sporadic contact with Europeans from the time of Magellan’s exploration along the coast in 1520. They were less impacted by contact than many Native cultures—until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were virtually annihilated by the sudden and dramatic increase of European settlers. Today, few people identify themselves as descendants of the Yámana or Selk´nam.

George Heye’s Legacy: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Gran Chaco

“The Museum expedition to Tierra del Fuego had for its primary purpose the formation of a collection representing the material culture of the [Selk´nam and Yámana] Indians before those tribes should become extinct.” So wrote Samuel K. Lothrop, an archaeologist who led expeditions for Heye’s Museum of the American Indian during the 1920s. Traveling to Native lands and communities at the southern tip of South America, Lothrop assembled and shipped to New York ceremonial masks, hunting and fishing equipment, tools, containers, horse equipment, and other items shown here.

Lothrop remembered Heye as “a strong-willed character who liked to do things in his own way,” including the occasional use of guesswork to identify objects. Consequently, Lothrop observed, information about the museum’s collections was sometimes inaccurately recorded—an issue the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian addresses today in consultation with Native peoples. Even so, Lothrop credited Heye with amassing an exceptional collection and for creating a museum to display it. When Heye died in 1957, Lothrop wrote, “His museum is his monument.” Click here to read more...

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Map of Patagonia
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