Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- The romantic vision of the culture and look of Native Americans in the 19th century, fostered by cowboy movies as much as anything else, doesn't give a true perspective of the people and culture that once occupied America, including what is now Southwest Georgia.

And without a little serendipity, a large piece of that Native American history would have been lost to the flames of a disaster.

On Wednesday, the Albany Museum of Art at 311 Meadowlark Drive opens an exhibit titled, "The Indian Gallery of Henry Inman."

When you look at some of the portraits of Native American leaders from the early 19th century that will be display, the images may not look like what you were expecting to see.

"It's not hard to find paintings of Native American scenes, but what makes these paintings special is they are really almost like photographs, they're documentary," Nick Nelson, director of the museum, said in an interview last week. "They're not painted to be sort of romantic images of the West or cowboys and Indians.

"They're really and truly what those guys looked like in the 1820s, how they dressed. It was really a snapshot of their culture and who they were as a people. I think that's what makes them really special is the authenticity of it. The authenticity is really rare and makes it important."

These rare historical treasures almost disappeared from the cultural landscape altogether.

They were the result of work by Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785-1859). The United States was only 40 years old when McKenney began serving as superintendent of Indian trade in 1816, a post he held for six years. In 1824, he began a six-year run as the young nation's superintendent of Indian affairs.

According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, McKenney was an advocate of the U.S. policy of the time that Native Americans would benefit by adopting European-American culture, and by complying with the federal government's demands that they abandon their traditional lands and move westward.

As head of the new federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, McKenney was struck by the disappearance of the tribes' ways of life. He commissioned an artist, Charles Bird King, to produce a series of more than 100 portraits of Native American leaders who traveled to Washington, D.C., to negotiate treaties between their tribes and the federal government. The portraits were displayed in the War Department's museum.

"That was what really drove him (McKenney), preserving this vanishing way of life," Nelson said. The U.S. policy early on was that the Native Americans would be assimilated and Americanized, so to speak.

Then when Andrew Jackson became president, settlers started pushing and moving into those territories and they changed to just removing people off of the land. It wasn't just the vanishing culture they were documenting, but the vanishing people who were going away. He really did a great service in making sure these things were preserved."

McKenney had served under President John Quincy Adams and lost his job under the Jackson administration. He also lost the portraits he had commissioned. They were the property of the U.S. government.

McKenney's creative solution was to hire another artist -- Henry Inman, a portrait artist from Philadelphia -- to copy the paintings on display in what was known as the War Department's Indian Gallery.

It was a fortuitous decision in two respects.

The Indian Gallery was moved to the Smithsonian Institution in 1858 and seven years later, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed all but four of the artworks.

Before that, however, 127 of the portraits that were copied by Inman along with text written by James Hall, a Cincinnati lawyer, were compiled into a three-volume set that took 15 years to complete before its publication in 1844 -- "History of the Indian Tribes of North America."

"We have copies of the book, which was McKenney and Hall's 'History of the Indian Tribes of North America,' which was the impetus for this exhibition," Nelson said. "The thing that strikes me most -- and I think what has captured people we've shown images of these paintings -- was it was not what you expect. We have this sort of image like when you watch Westerns. I think the authenticity of it is incredibly important and that's really what makes it a great treasure."

For one thing, the clothing is not what many expect to see, a mixture of Native American and Euro-American cultural influences.

"One gentleman in one of the portraits is dressed in an officer's jacket for the U.S. Army," Nelson noted. "He had been awarded this jacket for his military service on behalf of the United States. When he passed away, he was given a military funeral by the U.S. Marine Corps. Often times people have misconceptions about what was going on in history at the time and a lot of this history is lost."

And that history has many of its roots in Southwest Georgia, an area once populated by Creek. The dozen Inman portraits and the prints from the popular portfolio emphasize Native Americans from the Southeast.

"When we were planning this show, it was important that these people be from the South and from Georgia and from this part of the state even," Nelson said. "A lot of times we think of history as this far-removed thing.

"But these were things that were going on in our backyard. Anybody that's gone out and found an arrowhead would know that, but this drives the point home. There were a lot of different costumes worn, a lot of different styles of dress, but the clothes that you'll see in these portraits are pretty much traditional Creek dress with some Western influence, of course."

The exhibit also will have some accessory items on display.

"We have a number of bandoleer bags, sashes and other items like that that would be worn over the shoulder," he said. "There are also these little pieces of jewelry called gorgets and what they are are little medals. A long time ago they were pieces of armor, but they were sort of miniaturized and shrunken down to be little pieces of jewelry that showed a person's rank or their importance. It's like a badge in a way that different leaders would wear."

The exhibit draws together pieces from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, along with works from private collections, including the collection of Ann and Tom Cousins. Together, they create a unique exhibit of Native American imagery and culture.

The show was made possible through the Georgia Art Museum Partnership, which allows the participating museums to share knowledge, resources and artwork. In addition to the Albany and High museums, the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, the Columbus Museum in Columbus and the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens participate in the partnership. The Albany museum's participation in the partnership has been made possible with support from the Cousins Foundation.

"We're real excited about the opportunity to bring works like this to Albany to share with the community," Nelson said. "I got an opportunity to go down and look at the work as they were unpacking and it's just phenomenal artwork."