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The Native American Collection

The Native American Collection

Many of the artifacts in Pomona's collection were acquired by collectors at the turn of the last century, when increased interest in Native American cultures was propelling new archaeological and anthropological studies, as well as substantial acquisitions of artifacts by museums and private collectors. The collection of Native American art would not be at the Claremont Colleges had it not been for the vision of one man, Robert J. Bernard. A graduate of Pomona College in 1917, Bernard became executive secretary of Pomona in 1922. Working with President Blaisdell, Bernard was actively involved in the creation of Claremont College (now called Claremont University Center.) He became President of Claremont College in 1959 and retired in 1963. In 1925, Bernard urged the creation of a teaching museum for the colleges and, in 1929, he persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Tibbet to donate their collection of Native American art and early Californiana to Claremont College.

Other gifts to either Claremont College or Pomona College were soon forthcoming. The collection today is the result of the generosity of 14 individuals. Most unusual as a collector among them was Emil P. Steffa. During his years as a student at Pomona College (1895-1899), Steffa worked closely with Dr. David Burrows, a specialist in the ethnohistory of the Cahuilla. He was an unusual collector for his time because of his scientific approach to his large basket collection. He carefully documented each piece, giving the name and date of the maker, whenever known. The other collectors were, in alphabetical order: Mr. Martin Abernethy, one of the original founders of Pilgrim Place; Mrs. Edward H. Angle of Pasadena; Mrs. M.F. Bailey; Mrs. Emeline H. Burns; Mr. Levi Chubbuck of Glendale, who was a Friend of Pomona College; Dr. E.H. Parker of Phoenix, a noted collector of Hohokam ceramics, who gave over 2000 archaeological and ethnographic artifacts to Pomona College; Dr. George S. Sumner, a faculty member and controller of Pomona College and Claremont College, as well as mayor of Claremont; and Mr. Woodbridge Williams, a student at Claremont College. Thanks to the generosity of these donors, Pomona College students and the community beyond are educated and inspired by a beautiful collection of Native American art.

A knowledge of Native American art must encompass the great diversity of Native American cultures. It is impossible to formulate a single concept of the "average" Native American. At the time of the first contact between whites and native peoples, there was far more cultural and linguistic variety in North America than in Europe, and much of that diversity continues today. (Approximately 30 languages are still in use, classified into 6 major groups.) It is believed that as many as 600 distinct native cultures may have existed at one time or another on the North American continent.

That Native American art reflects this great variety is immediately evident from a study of this collection. The hunting and gathering peoples of California produced a basketry art unparalleled for its range and sophisticated technique. Basketry not only demands patience, but a precise knowledge of the seasonal availablity of plant resources. The Native Americans of California were experts at utilizing the environment and drawing from it an astounding variety of food sources and basketry materials. The Northwest Coast is characterized by a bounteous sea and forest. Perhaps in response to this abundance, its Native American cultures emphasized material wealth and class. The Intermontane region, also called the Great Basin and the Plateau, was greatly influenced by such surrounding areas as California, the Southwest, the Plains, and the Northwest Coast. Its unique basketry and, to a lesser extent, its beadwork, are represented in the Pomona College collection. The greatest variety is found in the art forms developed by the sedentary agricultural cultures of the arid Southwest, which draw upon an artistic tradition that dates from before the beginning of the Christian era. The Pre-Columbian cultures of the Southwest---the Anasazi, the Hohokam, and the Mogollon---fashioned ceramics that were not surpassed by any comparable neolithic culture in the world. This collection includes examples of Southwestern pottery and basketry. Plains art was heavily influenced by the arrival of the horse in the early 17th century, through the subsequent development of a nomadic hunting culture centered around the bison. Much of Plains art involved the use of animal hides in quillwork, beadwork, and painting. The Native American cultures who inhabited the forested areas of the Great Lakes combined hunting, gathering, and agriculture. They were among the first to feel the effects of the fur trade and trade goods. Their development of quillwork and beadwork was early, and their art also consisted of weaving and appliqué, wood carving, and basketry. In this collection, the Plains and Great Lakes are most comprehensively represented by objects intended for personal adornment, including quillwork and beadwork.

Just as they adapted their lives to their available resources, Native Americans employed these resources to create their art. Through this link, artifacts become mirrors that reflect the activities and environments of the native peoples who made them. But Native American art is far from static; many cultures continue to thrive. Today's artists pull from their rich history of tribal art, as well as the events and ideas of contemporary society, to produce vibrant and relevant art. An examination of Pomona's collection offers insight to the lives and creative processes of these artists, while it reveals the masterful craftsmanship of their superb works of art.