Tuesday, November 23, 2004

HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South
edited by Richard F. Townsend. Yale University Press, in Association with the Art Institute of Chicago. 288 pages, 9x12. cloth $60, paper $34.95.

The sheer number of gorgeous images in this book is breathtaking. But for many readers I suspect the most astonishing image might be a fairly simple one on page 17: a rendering of a orderly semicircle of structures facing a river, it is a city in Louisiana----in 1500 B.C. This book reveals Native American civilizations rivaling what we know of the Maya and Inca, but in the heartland of North America.

In the south and Midwest a series of sophisticated cultures left behind artifacts and even structures that we are just now beginning to study and understand. For example, the Hopewell site in Ohio, where "the most dramatic" sacred structures were "geometric in form and combined circular, oval, square, octagonal, or other elements in compositions covering hundreds of acres."

The artistry of the artifacts presented here is amazing, and this book has a generous selection of large, excellent photographs. But the prose is equally good: intelligent but intelligible, often with an interesting narrative. Even the occasional semiotic language is used as vocabulary rather than jargon. (In addition to editor Townsend, there are essays by 18 other scholars.)

Not only does this book explore so much about these next-to-unknown cultures, but it provides an exemplary context of explaining a worldview shared by many Native cultures and peoples. So it is a terrific introduction to Native cultures of the past and the present, and why these cultures are particularly important to explore now.

Although this is a scholarly presentation based on a traveling art exhibit, it is pretty graceful about integrating contemporary Native views and information. It's only in recent years that scholars have taken the testimony of contemporary Native Americans about their own culture as seriously as they take their own theories about old artifacts that survived.

For all of these reasons I count this book as instantly one of my most treasured.

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