The brilliant sky blue beadwork of a linen shoulder bag stands out among the formally diverse array of artworks exhibited in Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Known as a bandolier bag, items like this one were once a common accessory for Lenape men. While most bandolier bags were lost, traded, or taken from the tribes by the end of the nineteenth century, the one on display at The Met is only a few decades old and part of a recent effort to revitalize the art form.
The creator of this bag is artist, educator, and Lenape cultural leader Joe Baker. He is also one of six Native artists and scholars featured in the new Art of Native America Audio Guide, where he shares his perspectives on multiple items made by Indigenous artists from the Woodlands region.
A resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Baker took my call from Colorado, where he was visiting with a group of students. We spoke about Lenapehoking (the homeland of the Lenape people that encompasses New York City, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware), Lenape art, and the goals of the Lenape Center, of which Baker is a cofounder.
In your contribution to the Art of Native America Audio Guide, you discussed the duality between commemoration and ingenuity in art-making. Can you expand on what you mean by that and share how those ideas are reflected in the galleries?
When you look at the historic work, you are looking at a tremendous timespan of tumult, chaos, and upheaval. And yet the commitment to beauty—its continuity—reigns. In these stressful times, there is an ongoing commitment to capture and express the beauty and the essence of culture through art. Contemporary art continues that conversation, that narrative.
Understanding and knowledge of the past—the history of place, of our families, our people, our struggles—are critical to one’s expression of today. So there is a responsibility, at least from my perspective, to know one’s history.
The immediacy of formal aspects, such as color and design, are universal. One cannot look at historic work and not be impressed and touched by the innovation, the sophistication and the execution of that work. It demonstrates a very compelling level of excellence and a mastery.
How has the natural environment—and the tools and materials it generates—informed the work in these galleries?
We’re not separate and apart from the life system; we are at one with the environment. And therefore, we have a responsibility to respect, honor, recognize, and give thanks to those gifts that the environment brings to us. Those gifts sustain us, give us life.
Our environment and the materials at hand are the tools that, when creatively combined, bring new expression to form. Any artist works with what’s available, and apply their vision to take common, ordinary materials and make them sing in brilliant and new ways.
In the Audio Guide, you also mention two concepts important to Lenape culture: generosity and beauty. What is their significance to the Lenape?
I see generosity as a part of the natural environment in which we live. Let me use the example of a seed, one seed that holds the potential for life. If we allow that seed to expand and to grow, if we nurture and care for that seed, we allow it to live and to express itself in very generous ways. That’s part of traditional culture: if we care for ourselves, then we are better able to care for others, and to express our appreciation and love and gratitude for life through that kind of generosity: of gifts, of singing, of dance.
How does this play out in the Lenape artworks on display?
I would cite the Lenape coat (ca. 1840), which communicates on many different levels from many different perspectives. It’s hard to walk by that work of art and not notice its grand and expressive beauty. As a form itself, it’s animated—it has some certain energy.
And that coat also holds the stories of its maker, as well as the stories of the person who wore it. And it holds the stories of that person’s travels. It is a passport to one’s identity because, in wearing the coat, one is identified. It holds a certain place in society. And it’s understood as an element of status.
You created an item in the exhibition, a bandolier bag. I would like to hear about the process and thinking behind it.
The bandolier bag is an element of men’s dress in the Delaware Lenape tribe of Indians, of which I’m a member. I grew up in Oklahoma. I was aware of the bandolier bag as a part of our culture and I had seen photographs of a bandolier bag, but I had never seen one worn within our home community. Later, well into my adulthood, I learned through study and investigation that M. R. Harrington, who was employed by George Gustav Heye of the Heye Foundation, collected Delaware material from our community in the very late 1910s and early 1920s. Most of the bandolier bags that were held within the community were carried by M. R. Harrington back to New York, where they later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.
I felt a certain sense of loss for this important cultural article of dress. And I wanted to, if possible, teach myself how to make one through hands-on study of actual historic bags. My hope was to bring this art form back to our people in our community.
The first bag that I made was in the 1990s. I brought the bag home to our spring dances at the Fall-Leaf Dance Grounds in Copan, Oklahoma, and presented it to the community. That began an important renaissance.
It feels really good when you can begin to return something so important to the heart of the community. When I see the bandolier bag on display at The Met, it conjures up memories of the early beginnings of that desire to create our culture’s art that had been absent for four generations.
“When I see the bandolier bag on display at The Met, it conjures up memories of the early beginnings of that desire to create our culture’s art that had been absent for four generations.”
I’m curious about the work that you do as cofounder of the Lenape Center. What is the center’s mission, what work are you doing right now, and what plans do you have for the future?
The Lenape Center is a nonprofit arts and cultural organization created in 2009. Education and the continuation of Lenapehoking in the ancestral land are a big part of our mission today.
The center was created in response to what we understood to be the absence of Lenape presence in Manhattan, which is promoted as this melting pot. Lenape were talked about in academic circles—among anthropologists and linguists and various scholars—but were not part of the general public consciousness. The Lenape people are made up of five federally recognized tribes, but there was not a definitive, clear understanding that Manhattan is, in fact, part of Lenapehoking, our ancestral land.
We felt it was imperative to continue the work of tribal elder Nora Thompson Dean from my community in Oklahoma. She began return trips to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—primarily at the invitation of universities—to talk about our homeland. We felt an urgency to create a platform to promote a better understanding of Lenape culture and presence in the homeland.
At the same time, we want to create an opportunity, through partnerships and collaborations, to make available all the riches of this great cultural center, New York City, to our tribal members and the diaspora.
Your organization advises different organizations on creating land acknowledgments as well as on architectural construction. What are some of your recent projects?
Land acknowledgments are relatively new to the U.S. They came through Australia and New Zealand, up through Canada, then down into the U.S.
We’re happy to work with organizations and have been available to consult on land acknowledgments, but we have positioned our discussion around the notion of a living land acknowledgment. In other words, we feel very strongly that words are not enough. Actionable steps that an organization intends to take with the Indigenous community are absolutely essential for a land acknowledgment.
We also consulted on the architectural renovation of Tammany Hall conducted by BKSK Architects. We were contacted by them almost eight years ago. Through their research on Tammany Hall, they discovered that it was named after an important Lenape chief, Chief Tammany [or Tamanend], in the Pennsylvania area. They wanted to know more about that history and about the person himself. Chief Tamanend signed a seventeenth-century treaty with William Penn. Later, Tammany Hall housed a corrupt political machine and it became very notorious within the city.
We shared information with BKSK Architects and they came up with this expression of the Lenape creation story through a glass dome on top of the building. It visualizes the turtle rising from the sea.
What responsibility do you think The Met has to the territory on which it sits, Lenapehoking? Is the Museum meeting those expectations?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened its doors to Indigenous voices in a way unlike other museums. They have clearly demonstrated through actionable steps their commitment to acknowledging the original people. I’m very impressed and excited to see what’s happening at The Met.
You can hear more from Joe Baker in the new Audio Guide for Art of Native America at The Met.