Native American art on display at Cultural Center

by Brian Clarey

The Lumbee Indian tribe, the largest in North Carolina, takes its name from the Lumbee (or Lumber) River that reaches through the southeast toward South Carolina and the coast. And just as the headwaters of the river flow down and through the flats, so has the tribe, with ancestry that can be traced back to the Croatan and the Cheraw, grown and bubbled over from its ancestral home in Pembroke into other parts of the Old North State.

There are Lumbee on the Dan River and the Pee Dee, and their numbers in Guilford County are enough to make them a demographic, albeit a miniscule one.

‘“For the most part it’s Lumbees that live in the Triad,’” says Alicia Thomas, assistant director for the Guilford Native American Art Gallery on the second floor of Greensboro’s Cultural Art Center.

A largely autonomous people, they hold no treaty with the federal government, though a Congressional bill passed in 1956 recognizes them as Native Americans while at the same time denying them the full privileges that other federally recognized tribes receive.

Not exactly smallpox-infested blankets, but a good screwing nonetheless. The tribe is fighting it even though they’ve never been known as an exceptionally warlike people.

‘“We’re a rural tribe, you know?’” Thomas says. ‘“We’re country Indians.’”

Doesn’t she mean ‘“Native Americans’”?

She shrugs her shoulders.

‘“We’re not overly PC,’” she says. ‘“I grew up saying, ‘Indian.””

The Lumbee, like many Eastern tribes, were farmers and artisans. Agricultural motifs abound in Lumbee artwork. Long leaf pinecones and corn are recurring themes in their woodcarving and basketry, but they are known primarily for their patchwork quilts.

There are no examples of Lumbee patchwork on display at the gallery today, but sooner or later some works will find a home on these walls.

‘“We get Indian artwork from all over the country, even tribal artists from Canada,’” Thomas says, ‘“but we always try to have one show a year that focuses on a local tribe.’”

The show on display as she speaks is a juried exhibition encompassing all different disciplines and mediums from many different tribes that runs through the end of May.

Best in Show went to a soapstone carving by Timothy Jacobs of the Tuscarora tribe called ‘“In the Beginning of God’s Creation,’” a take on the Tuscarora creation myth that has a goddess descending from the heavens, pregnant with twins, and giving birth on the back of a turtle.

The story has been passed orally through untold generations, and Jacobs captures it with detailed renderings of the turtle, a face mask and the head of an eagle. The eagle, Thomas says, is a piece of Native American iconography that recurs in the artwork of many nations.

‘“It’s like a religious symbol for a lot of tribes,’” she says. ‘“Like this one ‘— it’s kind of pan-Indian.’”

She’s gesturing toward a piece by Karen Coronado, a Lumbee, called ‘“In the Eye of the Eagle,’” a giclee print depicting an eagle’s head and other visual totems caught in a bold geometric pattern that is generally indicative of Western US Indian artwork.

An example of the Eastern style can be found in a piece called ‘“Grandmother’s Slippers,’” a white and red clay sculpture of a life-sized pair of woman’s moccasins with dogwood flowers and corn motifs.

A more modern take on Native American footwear is the exhibit titled ‘“Lumbee Tear Drop,’” by Ned Barton ‘— a pair of Converse All-Stars done up in traditional beadwork and lined with rabbit fur.

Another Lumbee, Vinson Bullard, created a piece called ‘“Journey,’” a ceremonial staff with deer antlers at the head, a hoof at the base and decorated in fur, hide and feathers. It looks as if it could be used by a shaman in tribal rituals instead of hanging on a wall in a gallery.

‘“Our art has a real cross-cultural appeal,’” Thomas says, ‘“but our gift shop probably sells more stuff than our gallery.’”

The gift shop has turquoise from the West, woven baskets from the East, clay pots, dreamcatchers and dolls from all over.

The next exhibition, Alicia says, is a body of work by Pawnee/Yakama artist Bunky Echohawk, whose paintings straddle the realm between traditional Native American folk art and Warhol-era Pop. It will open June 9 and run through August.

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