With the European man's beads in hand and buying power in mind, the American Indian wrought high art at the turn of the century, and he -- or she, mostly -- did it with dignity born of a respect for the land, despite the small patches of it reserved for Indian use. The dignity is evident at Hillwood.
The curators of Hillwood, the former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post and current home of an extensive collection of French, Russian and American decorative art, have had an Adirondack-style lodge built to house "In Keeping With Nature: An Exhibit of North American Indian Art."
The lodge itself, at once stunning and unobtrusive as it overlooks the rear of the Hillwood estate and Rock Creek Park, was designed by architects O'Neil and Manion to emulate Merriweather Post's Adirondack camp, Topridge, which she had filled with Indian handwork collected in the '20s. The artwork, a third of which (190 pieces) is on extended loan to Hillwood from the Smithsonian, remained there for nearly 50 years.
The collection, which spans the Great Lakes region to Alaska, with an emphasis on the Plains and Southwest, is full of intricate examples of beadwork -- most of it done with the jewel-like glass beads from European traders. Indian women who made the bags, moccasins and riding gear on display brought their families wealth and prestige; one of the Great Lakes bags in the exhibit, for example, was worth one horse in trade.
There's a set of rare Apache playing cards -- made of rawhide, and painted with four suits of coins, swords, cups and clubs, following their Spanish models -- and some painstaking work done with porcupine quill, including small boxes and ceremonial riding gear. The best of the show are the clay pottery -- all shaped without the benefit of a wheel and painted after a centuries-old design -- and the Western Apache basketry -- woven so finely from tan willow twigs and black devil's claw as to be used for food and for ceremonial offerings. IN KEEPING WITH NATURE -- at Hillwood, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW. Tours of the Indian collection and Hillwood gardens are $2, from 11 to 4 daily except Tuesday and Sunday. Call 686-5807 for reservations.