Indian Art of the New Deal, Indians in New Deal Art
Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed Tlingit and Haida Natives to establish seven “totem parks” in Southeast Alaska. In an attempt to develop a thriving contemporary market for Native American art, the CCC totem parks participated in a larger effort of the Indian New Deal to bridge “the Native” with “the modern,” recasting the Indian in popular perception from a member of a vanishing race to a modern American citizen whose traditions offered the U.S. a distinctive cultural heritage. Yet there is little scholarship that gauges whether popular conceptions of Native Americans actually shifted during the New Deal; there is also a lack of scholarship that situates Native art programs within the larger context of New Deal art.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s rich collections of New Deal art offer the opportunity to consider how artists across the country conceived of Native Americans in local portrayals of American history, and to evaluate how arts of the Indian New Deal squared with Indians portrayed in New Deal art. I am particularly interested in several dozen representations of Native Americans in New Deal mural studies made by nonNative artists for U.S. post offices, studies which range from Lee Gatch’s Squaw’s Rest (1941) for the post office in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, to Boris Deutsch’s Indian Bear Dance (1940) for Hot Springs, New Mexico. As art sponsored by the Section of Painting and Sculpture for public buildings, these post office mural studies suggest the ways in which non-Natives figured Native Americans in local narratives of American history and heritage—a cross-cultural “imagining” of Native peoples that provides an important counterweight to my research on the Indian New Deal.
Outside American Art’s collections, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) offers important collections for my research on early-twentieth-century Native art. Numerous Tlingit and Haida carvings of the 1920s and 1930s can reveal characteristics of these carving styles, styles that informed the restorations of totem poles for the New Deal totem parks. Early-twentieth-century Native art has traditionally been ignored by art historians; there is much work to do to begin to identify characteristics of carving from this period and its relationship to nineteenth-century “classicism.” NMAI also contains collections from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), the branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs established during the New Deal to develop markets for Native American art. The IACB played a key role in the New Deal totem parks; their sponsorship of other “preservation” programs for Native American arts provides important comparisons for my research on the preservation of totem poles in parks.