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Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South

March 4 - May 30, 2005


(above: Hand cutout; Ohio, Ross County, Hopewell Site, Mound 25; 1 - 400 A.D.; sheet mica; 11 1/2 inches; Ohio Historical Society, Columbus)

The exhibition Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South opens at the Saint Louis Art Museum March 4 and runs through May 30, 2005. With over 300 stunning and evocative art objects made from stone, copper, ceramic, mica, and shell, this fascinating exhibition explores the ancient civilizations that prospered along the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee Rivers before Columbus arrived.

Though not as well known as their counterparts in Mexico and the American Southwest, the Indians in the ancient Midwest and South thrived for millennia. These Native Americans transformed the untamed wilderness between 2000 BC and 1600 AD into a complex political and economic network. From Cahokia in southern Illinois to Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana,[1] the mound builders, as they came to be called, created the first major urban centers in North America. Included in the exhibition are plans and drawings of major archaeological sites, most notably Cahokia, which boasted a population of 20,000 in 1200 AD.


(above: Bird claw cutout; Ohio, Ross County, Hopewell Site, Mound 25; 1-400 A.D.; sheet mica; 11 inches; The Field Museum, Chicago)


Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand delves into the context in which the powerful art of the ancient Americas was created examining these civilizations is a new way, illuminating their history and their way of life. The art objects are rife with symbolic meaning. Favorite imagery, including "the Hero," "the Hawk," and an "Open Hand," is seen in art made by different societies in different eras. The three images in particular illustrate the importance of the cycle of life and death. Certain animals, such as the hawk, were linked to the movement of the stars and the afterlife. The image of the hero is symbolic of powerful ancestors and the importance of the dead to the living.

The objects and architectural drawings in the exhibition are organized by chronology and by region, allowing the visitor to trace the evolution of these Pre-Columbian societies and their art from their origins around 6000 BC through their contact with European settlers and their relocation to the Oklahoma territories beginning in the 1830s.

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago [2] and made possible by major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, expanding our understanding of the world. Financial assistance for this exhibition in St. Louis is provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.


(above: Human face effigy; Kentucky, Gallatin County, Warsaw; 200 B.C-400 A.D.; stone; 10 inches; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.)


The Saint Louis Art Museum is one of two national venues for Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, following a successful run at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Selected Exhibition Events


Lecture: American Landscapes: Seen and Unseen
March 4, 2:00 & 7:00 pm
In this free lecture, Richard F. Townsend, curator, department of African and Amerindian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, presents an overview of the exhibition Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. He discusses the rise of early forms of civilization between 2000 B.C.E. and 1600 C.E., with an emphasis on the role of art, architecture, ritual performance, and the persistence of an ancient worldview, connecting all to traditional Indian life today.
Gallery Talk: Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand
March 22, 11:00 am and March 25, 6:00 pm
Gallery talk presented by John Nunley, Curator
Exhibition Ticket Required


(above: Effigy Pipe of a seated male figure; known as the Resting Warrior and identified as Morning Star or Red Horn in related legendary accounts; Oklahoma, LeFlore County, Spiro, site 34LF46; 1100-1200 A.D.; flint clay; 8 7/8 inches; University of Arkansas Museum, Fayetteville)



1. Click here to visit the Poverty Point State Historic Site's web site. Click here to read the online contents of Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley, Second Edition May 1996, by Jon L. Gibson, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

2. The Art Institute of Chicago will hold another exhibition devoted to early Native American art December 3, 2005 - February 26, 2006 titled Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest.


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