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Heye, born in 1874 was the son of a German immigrant who earned his wealth in the petro- leum industry and graduated from Columbia University in 1896 with a degree in electrical engineer- ing. While superintending railroad construction in Kingman, Arizona in 1897, he acquired a Navajo deerskin shirt, as his first artifact. He acquired individual items until 1903, then he began collecting material in larger numbers. In 1901, he started a career in investment banking that lasted until 1909. After this, Heye had enough money so that he could spend his time following his historical gathering pursuits.
In 1915 Heye worked with Hodge and Pepper on the Nacoochee Mound in Georgia. The work was done through the Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian, and the Bureau of Ameri- can Ethnology and was some of the most complete work of the time including numerous photo- graphs. He accumulated the largest private collection of Native American artifacts in the world. The collection was initially stored in Heye’s Madison Avenue apartment. By 1908, he was referring to the collection as "The Heye Museum", and he was soon lending materials for exhibit at Universities. Eventually beginning in 1922 the Heye collection was moved to the Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian at 155th Street and Broadway. I visited that museum on a January afternoon in the 1970’s and remembered exiting after dark in Harlem with no cab in sight and a several blocks walk to the Metro. That difficult location prevented most visitors from seeing it. This “museum” was closed in 1994, when the Smithsonian opened the Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian in the historic Hamilton Customs House at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Heye died in 1957.
The standing exhibit at Battery Park is titled “An Infinity of Nations” and was initially criticized by anthropologists as being a “hodge podge” of artifacts without adequate explanation and interpre- tation. Then the curators went too far the other way and took out the artifacts. Their exhibit was in- terpretive and geared to the level of an unknowledgeable school child with no artifacts of any conse- quence being displayed. I hated the loss of the beautiful artifacts when I last went to the Heye in 2007. Likewise I was disappointed by the new Washington, D.C. National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) largely being too interpretive with the artifacts hidden away in drawers beneath the exhibits which made them awkward (at best) to access.
I am happy to report that the Heye now has a fine balance between display with excellent in- terpretation and discussion under the artifacts. Electronic touch screens further enhance the viewing experience with photographs of historic figures, sites and graphics. I visited and toured this museum in November, 2010.
The Horse Nation exhibit is about 200 yards in length, winding back and forth and has dis- plays with gorgeous bead and quillwork that was used to decorate favored hunting, war and race horses. Of especial interest to me was the honor shirt of “Little Big Man,” the close friend of “Crazy Horse” who gripped Tsunka Witko’s (Crazy Horse’s) arms at the time of his assassination by the army. This shirt was reputed to have been worn by Crazy Horse on several occasions. Both warri- ors were privileged to be awarded honor shirts and to be “shirt wearers” pledged to protect “The People” beyond their own interests.
During my afternoon visit at the museum, I met an education staffer. He was a Native Ameri- can from Chile who was out talking to museum rats like me. He told me about the struggle he was going through to get the stored artifacts back out of the basement (the NMAI in New York City and Washington, D.C. has over 800,000 items inventoried and stored away). I suggested (and have writ- ten to him) that the museum might create satellite museums in historically related sites like Asheville, Santa Fe, Spokane, St. Augustine, Tucson, and most certainly at the Institute of SW Studies at the historic Indian School called Fort Lewis in Durango. Upon filling out an evaluation form, I also spoke
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