Department of the Interior

A Brief History of the BIA Artwork Collection
By Marian Hansson, Curator of the BIA Collection

The Bureau of Indian Affairs artwork and artifacts on display at the C Street entrance and cafeteria of the Main Interior Building are part of a collection of more than 2000 art items. Many are on permanent display in the BIA Assistant Secretary's office and staff offices, in the Interior secretary's office and staff offices throughout the building.

Ninety percent of the artwork consists of gifts to bureau officials from Indian tribal leaders, artists, and other American Indians and Alaska Natives. The gifts are given to show appreciation, to strengthen friendships and to honor family members or respected officials. This is a Plains Indian tradition.

From conception to completion of an Indian work of art, the artistry and creativity are a religious practice. These objects are more than historic and valuable pieces of art. The traditional arts are the keys to restoring, enhancing, and preserving the cultural pride and self esteem of American Indian people.

Prayers are made to the creator for supplying the raw material used for creating pottery and many other items of beauty. The artifacts reflect the ideas, knowledge, experience, and distinctness of the American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

The collection reflects the major culture areas that distinguish tribes that are similar to each other from those that are different. Culture areas are used to distinguish similarities and difference and coincide with ecological zones. For example, the Eastern Woodland tribes, as distinct from the Plains Indians; the Southwest Pueblo people from the Northwest Coast tribes.

The art collection at the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a storied history. The first art collection predates the establishment of the bureau.

In 1816 Thomas Lorraine McKenny was appointed to head the Washington, D.C. Trade Office and he began collecting Indian artwork and artifacts to decorate his offices. For 14 years he administered the Indian Trade Office and then the Office of Indian Affairs. In 1841, the McKenny collection was given to the Washington Art Gallery, which later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Mc Kenny, the man most responsible for bringing the Indian delegations to Washington in the early years of the 19th century, is one of the most important -- yet little-known figures -- in the history of the frontier and the American Indian. He was an early champion of the Indian people and worked to protect their rights.

He was a tireless, precise man and a faithful government servant. He was not a desk dministrator. At President Adams's request he traveled more than seven thousand miles in a canoe and on horseback along a dangerous frontier, settling treaties with the western and southern tribes.

Another important figure in the history of the BIA art collection was John Collier, who became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. As an advocate of Indian issues and strengthening Indian cultures, he supported the continuance of Indian artistry. During Colliers' term in office he decorated his offices with Indian artwork.

Today, the BIA and Department of the Interior offices are decorated with Indian artwork. In following the government ethics policies, any gift worth $20 dollars or more that is presented to a government official becomes government property.

You are invited to visit the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) displays of artwork and artifacts at the Washington, D.C. Central Office. Please contact Marian Hansson, Curator, BIA Museum Program at 202-513-7635.

 

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