Post office delivers a tiny timeline of Native America
Written by Kara Briggs
Washington – Stamps have carried art portraying Native Americans all over the world, and now they’re circling the globe again in a cyberspace exhibition.
Hollow Horn Bear was known as an outspoken advocate for his people and for peace. He said, “You talk to us very sweet, but you do not mean it. You have not fulfilled any of the old treaties.”
Hollow Horn Bear, who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was featured in the first 14-cent stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1923.
The modest scale of this art–usually less than 2 square inches–is no barrier to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, which has launched an online exhibition, “The American Indian in Stamps: Profiles in Leadership, Accomplishment and Cultural Celebration.” And for the first time the National Postal Museum turned to another museum, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, for help in adding history and cultural context to one of its exhibitions.
“We have about six million objects and a small space so we can’t display most of them,” said Thomas Lera, who is the Winton M. Blount Research Chair at the National Postal Museum. “That’s why we have decided to digitize our collection. It’s a great tool for people, like kids who want to do a report. They can go on the website. It’s American history in the mail.”
“The American Indian in Stamps” can only be viewed at www.postalmuseum.si.edu/ARAGOAmericanIndian. It features colorful images of 40 of the approximately 70 stamps that the U.S. Postal Service has issued featuring Native Americans since 1875. The site also features many other exhibitions on other themes. The technology of the museum’s website enables viewers to magnify images to almost the size of their computer screen–allowing the artistry of the stamps to be seen in even more detail than a magnifying glass could provide.
Other facts, including the artist who designed the stamp and the medium in which the art was created, are a click away. The collaboration between the two museums, with contributions from the Library of Congress, expands viewers’ understanding of both familiar recent postage and less-familiar stamps dating back to the late 19th century.
“We took a celebratory approach,” said José Barreiro, of the Taino Nation, assistant director for research at the National Museum of the American Indian, “and helped define some concepts of diplomacy and leadership.”
A 1980 stamp featuring Sequoyah, the Cherokee man who completed a ground-breaking syllabary of his native language in 1821, is based on a 1965 portrait. Accompanying the stamp in the exhibition is a photo of the cover of a 1975 publication of the English-Cherokee syllabary from NMAI’s collection.
A 1968 stamp depicting Chief Joseph is based on a portrait painted from life by artist Cyrenius Hall in 1878, which resides in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. A modern art work of Chief Joseph’s picture in beads from the nearby National Museum of the American Indian is displayed with the stamp to show a different interpretation. It is titled “The Blue Face Bracelet” (2003) by Choctaw artist Marcus Amerman.
The evolution over time of national perceptions about American Indians and the technology of stamp-making are both evident in the online exhibit. An 1898 engraving of an Indian in horseback pursuit of a buffalo gives way in a century to the 1998 lithography stamp commemorating Olympian Jim Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox Nation, as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
Lera said stamps are typically issued for “the big historical moments. They’re an overview. It’s a crash course in history.”
Since 1958, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee has consulted on about 100 new stamps released each year, providing the “breadth of judgment and depth of experience in various areas that influence subject matter, character and beauty of postage stamps,” according to the U.S. Postal Service.
For Native American subject matter, the committee shifted its focus starting in the 1990s to original artwork showing Native American themes, and photography of Native Americans’ art. Even when significant people are featured, they tend to be more educational in nature, Lera said. The 1998 Jim Thorpe stamp shows not only his face as a young man, but also an inset of him competing in the Olympic Games of 1912.
“The American Indian in Stamps,” debuted in November, and will be displayed indefinitely. It can also change as more research is done on existing material, and as the U.S. Postal Service issues new stamps, Lera said.
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