Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hinook-Mah'iwi-Kalina'ka - Angel DeCora

ART has been part of the landscape of the Americas for thousands of years. The Southwestern portion of what is now the United States, along with the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, was inhabited by great civilizations preceded only by the cultures of China and the ancient Middle East.[1] Hundreds of indigenous nations with distinct languages and cultures existed as sophisticated and urban communities. All were influenced by the art created by women. More than just pottery, traditional artwork included weaving, jewelry making, bead and quill work, and painting.

Tracking the Buffalo
Hide Painting depicting the Hunt [2]
The first paintings done by Native Americans were petroglyphs and pictographs, images that are either carved into or painted on rocks, in caves, and on the faces of cliffs. The figures are typically of people, animals, the hunt, and spiritual beings. In Midwest and western America, hide painting is a traditional Plains Indian artistic practice of painting on either tanned or raw animal hides. Women painted geometric designs on tanned robes and rawhide parfleches (small rawhide bags) which sometimes served as maps, Tipis, tipi liners, shields, robes, clothing, drums, and containers for holding food, water, and clothing are appropriate surfaces. Just as families do today, the Native Americans decorated their spaces for comfort and beauty.
Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artwork was unsigned and therefore largely unidentified as to the specific creator. Instead, the artwork was ascribed to a tribe or to a particular region. Native American painting was, and in some respects, still is, endowed with a variety of ritual and social purposes. When the settlers immigrated and drove the Native Americans from their lands, over a relatively short period of time, the way of life for the Indians completely changed. Native American painting traditions survived, but evolved into new art forms such as illustration and painting on canvas.

Native American culture, is separated into five main culture districts or zones, which allows for clearer interpretation of the works of art and culture. Those districts are the East, the Plains, the Southwest and Northwest coast, and the Arctic. Forms of Native American art differ considerably within the zones due to the climate, various traditions among different groups of natives, natural environment, social order, different religious beliefs, and available materials with which to work. With the arrival of the railroad in the West during the eighteenth century, imported materials became more widely available, so those pigments were adopted along with preferred colors that also varied by region. Painting still continues in traditional form with a variety of objects and surfaces decorated: ceramic vessels and figurines, masks, sculpture and carvings (such as kachina dolls; shields, ritual equipment, musical instruments, hide and woven clothing, the human body, sacred chambers, and cliffs and rocks).[3]

May 3, 1871 to February 6, 1919
Hinook-Mah'iwi-Kalina'ka, or as she is commonly known, Angel DeCora, is of the Ho-Chunk nation and was raised on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska. She spent time in both the East and the West throughout her life. Her Indian name means alternatively "Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place" or "Woman Coming on the Clouds in Glory" and roughly translates into the English "Angel."[4] Throughout her career she generally signed her art work with her English name, Angel DeCora. DeCora became the most influential Native American artist of the early 20th century. Hinook-Mah'iwi-Kalina'ka was a painter, an illustrator, a teacher, and a proponent of Native American rights.

DeCora's family was one of means-her grandfather was a respected chief of the Winnebago, and on good terms with the whites and white settlers; her mother was a La Mere, another important family in the tribe. Julia St. Cyr, an older Winnebago acting as agent for the Hampton Institute in Virginia, convinced DeCora's parents to send her to school there. At 12 years of age, she was taken from the reservation to one of the era’s most well-known Indian boarding schools, where, like many other Indian children, she faced not only separation from family but the systematic indoctrination of racist policy meant to assimilate the Indians into mainstream American society.

DeCora remained at Hampton for the required five years. She was sent back to the reservation where she found the old way of life had largely disappeared and, at sixteen years old, could not cope with the dual loss of her father and grandfather. She returned to the East to complete her education and then attended Burnham Classical School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts between 1891-1892. After graduation, she spent four years at Smith College (1892-1896) also located in Northampton, where she excelled in art. Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) was a well-known American landscape painter and art professor at Smith, who had a profound influence on DeCora's art. Her tendency to silhouette figures of people or buildings on a horizontal picture plane with a darkened foreground and a softly lighted background may be a technique learned from Tryon. She likely also gained a broad knowledge of art history from him since his philosophy was that "theory and practice should go hand in hand."[5] DeCora studied illustration at the Drexel institute in Philadelphia, the Cowles Art School, and finally at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [6] 

DeCora painting in Howard Pyle's Franklin Stree Studio
Wilmington, DE, ca. 1898
 DeCora was a successful illustrator in both Boston and New York. In 1906, she became head of the newly established Department of Native Indian Art at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. There, she stressed Native American themes to her students and, in 1908, married one of them, William "Lone Star" Dietz, an artist and a star athlete. [7]  Her husband was offered a coaching position in the Pacific Northwest and DeCora joined him in Pullman, Washington, where they lived until their divorce in 1918, whereupon she relocated back to Northampton.  
The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School
Francis Le Flesche
DeCora devoted most of her time to illustration. In 1897 she illustrated Longfellow's poem Hiawatha for an eastern publisher. In 1899, she wrote and illustrated two stories for Harper's New Monthly Magazine and in later years provided artwork for Le Flesche's The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School, Judd's Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, Zitkala-Sa's Old Indian Legends, and, with her husband, Eastman's Yellow Star. [8] 

DeCora did a limited number of paintings, the most significant were created during a summer at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Portraits included Old Bull, Standing Bear, and other important figures from Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa tribes as well as landscape paintings.

Much of her illustrative was done in a painterly style, not particularly different from that of other artist-illustrators of her day, and there was nothing distinctly "Indian" about her body of work. [8] DeCora's use of color was realistic and her images were somewhat stereotypic rather than specific in terms of color or dress related to distinctive tribes. Some of her work appeared to be a romantic interpretation of Indian life before the white man's influence on Indian life.

Illustration: Old Indian Legends
Angel DeCora
ca. 1901
Back at the Indian education unit at Carlisle, after working in Philadelphia, and then Boston, DeCora became a spokeswoman for the preservation of Indian culture as a teacher of Indian students, exposure to different reservations, and through membership in the Society of American Indians. DeCora retained her connection to her heritage and used her natural ability as a teacher and a leader to share her people’s culture and experience in a modern context. She defied common stereotypes about Indians (and about women) and became an advocate for the field of Native American art. A complex woman, she defied a public eager to categorize Indians into two classes: the backward, recalcitrant outsiders who needed to be assimilated into white society, or the romanticized “children of nature,” stereotype of the noble savage. [9]

DeCora was at the center of the first major government-supported effort to save Indian arts and crafts. An examination of DeCora's work, which occurred at the intersection of art, modernity, ethnic identity, and colonized people can provide insights into the ways in which those elements affected artists during the early years of the twentieth century .


1. The Art Institute of Chicago, Art Access: Indian Art of the Americas. (Accessed 12/19/2012).
2. Smithsonian Natural Museum of American History, Tracking the Buffalo: Stories from a Buffalo Hide Painting. (Accessed 12/21/2012).
3. Native American Painters and Painting. (Accessed 12/20/2012).
4. McAnulty, Sarah. Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator, Resource Library, online publication of Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Nebraska State Historical Society, 2003.
5. Ibid.
6. Yoshiki-Kovinick, Marian and Kovinick, Phil. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West (Austin, Texas: the Univeristy of Texas Press, 1998). 70-71.
7. Jessica Crabtree, Native American Portraits and Wildlife. Angel de Cora. (Accessed 12/20/2012).
8. Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West.
9. McAnulty, Angel DeCora, 2003.

Further Reading
Hutchinson, Elizabeth. "Modern Native American Art: Angel DeCora's Transcultural Aesthetics." Art Bulletin. Vol. 83, 4. Dec. 2001: 740-756.
Gere, Anne-Ruggles. "An Art of Survivance: Angel DeCora at Carlisle." The American Indian Quarterly.
Volume 28, Number 3&4, Summer/Fall 2004. 649-684.


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