During their long marriage, Mercedes Whitecloud and her late husband Dr. Thomas Whitecloud shared a common passion: collecting Native American art.  Eventually, they accumulated more than 600 pieces, ranging from ceremonial pots to feasting spoons to beaded leggings and drum covers.

Rediscovering our HeritageA child’s moccasins, Sioux, 1930.
The two never saw themselves as owners of these treasures, though. “Both of us had a strong sense of stewardship,” Whitecloud says. Even before Dr. Whitecloud’s death in 2003, the couple discussed donating the artifacts to a museum.

That desire to share their treasures finds its culmination when the New Orleans Museum of Art debuts Blue Winds Dancing: The Whitecloud Collection of Native American Art, an exhibition of more than 200 historic and contemporary pieces from the Whitecloud collection. The exhibit opens Nov. 10 at the museum’s “Odyssey Ball” and runs through Feb. 17.

Rediscovering our HeritageMercedes Whitecloud holding pottery from Casas Grandes, Mexico, circa 1200 to 1400.

Paul Tarver, curator of Native American and Pre-Columbian Art at NOMA, says the exhibit is a remarkable opportunity for people to see a major collection put together by locals. “We are very excited about it,” he says. “There are so many amazing objects in the collection.”

The fact that Dr. Whitecloud was part Chippewa enriches the experience even more, Tarver says. Whitecloud’s father, who was also a doctor, was born Thomas St. Germain. He was of Indian heritage, and added the last name Whitecloud as a young adult as a symbol of his return to his roots. Tarver says it is unusual to see a collection assembled by a Native American.

Blue Winds Dancing was delayed by wind, and water—the exhibit was slated to open in November 2005. Hurricane Katrina disrupted that plan: while casework stored in the museum’s basement had to be rebuilt, Tarver says, the artwork itself was not damaged. The pieces Mercedes Whitecloud keeps in her French Quarter home also were spared.

Rediscovering our HeritageA doll (male figure) made of palm fibers, clothed in cotton, Seminole, 1890, with pin toy made from deer bone, Sioux.

The Whiteclouds accumulated Native American art from all over the country but emphasized Southeast U.S. basketry and Great Lakes and Northern Woodlands materials. They often traveled to markets in Santa Fe, and got to know many of the artists who produced the works they bought. Over the years, they added beautifully beaded and embroidered leggings and drum covers, elegantly carved feast spoons and ceremonial pots. The materials speak of the way Native Americans used their resources to create art—porcupine quill baskets, for example, and dyed buckskin embroidered with moose hair.

Some objects are covered with floral designs intended to make them attractive to visiting Europeans, Whitecloud says. In fact, many Europeans have valuable pieces of Native American art their ancestors bought during trips to the United States, while in this country Indian art was often dismissed as worthy of only souvenir stands.

A collection begins
When the couple began collecting in the 1960s, objects could be purchased for as little as $12, Whitecloud says. As time went on, the artwork became more expensive and the Whiteclouds became more discriminating. Sometimes they would trade one item for another. Each developed a specialty: Dr. Whitecloud, for example, began a “collection within a collection” of small pots. Their five children (Renee, “Saint,” Jacques, Simone and Elena) joined in the search, each singling out specific items of interest. Today the children have about 200 pieces of the collection among them.

Rediscovering our HeritageDetail of newborn cradle board, St. Regis Mohawk, 1860.
Whitecloud says she and her husband believed it was essential to include contemporary items in their collection to show that the artistic traditions of Native Americans are enduring. The hand-woven baskets that today are prized as works of art were once utilitarian objects used in everyday life, she says. Interestingly, most of the objects in the Whitecloud collection were made by women.

Mercedes Whitecloud, a Louisiana native, says she caught the collecting bug early. When she was a child, she played with toys her grandmother kept in a basket woven by a Chitimacha Indian. Whitecloud remembers that when she was about five years old, she asked her grandmother if she could take the basket home. Whitecloud didn’t want the toys; it was the basket that intrigued her.

Thomas Whitecloud had a few pieces of Native American art he received during his childhood, including a drum his father had made. In addition to collecting Indian art, he was also intrigued by crystal and enjoyed accumulating it as well.

After the Blue Winds Dancing exhibit, a number of pieces from the Whitecloud collection will be installed on NOMA’s third floor with other Native American art, Tarver says. Whitecloud is working on plans to place other objects—some, for example, may be returned to Indian tribes. “You have a sense of responsibility when you take on a piece,” Whitecloud says. “Both of us had that.”

Whitecloud says she hopes that visitors to NOMA will learn more about the Native Americans who once lived in our region. Many people lump together “Indians” in one stereotype, not understanding the differences between such groups as the Houmas, the Chitimacha and the Choctaw, she says. Others don’t realize the major contributions Native Americans made to the language, cuisine and culture of Southeast Louisiana.