Vida Stabler was a teenager in the 1970s when she first saw her own people, the Umonhon, depicted in artwork.
She walked with her art class from Omaha Central High School across the lawn north of the school and entered the Joslyn Art Museum.
What she found, in a collection of watercolors that included a portrait titled “Omaha Boy”, would influence her past career teaching the traditions of the people also known as Omaha.
That expertise recently brought Stabler, now 64, back to the museum and back to paintings by famed artist Karl Bodmer. Now it was she who was catching the public’s attention.
Museum visitors scattered around her as she sat down and pointed to the frame behind her on the wall: “Omaha Boy.”
What would his life have been like, she wondered, this child of his tribe standing for a portrait in 1833? Who was that boy posing in front of a trading post a few miles from where, a century later, the Joslyn would be built on Umonhon land?
Stabler’s answers to these questions explain why the museum invited her and other Native Americans – including people whose tribal ancestors are depicted in the paintings – to take a leading role in the current exhibit. “Faces From the Interior”.
The exhibit, on view through Sunday, May 1, features 90 watercolor portraits that Bodmer painted after an epic 1830s voyage down the Missouri River. His portrait subjects: Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains.
The collection, considered a defining body of Western art, can now be seen near where Bodmer once set up his easel.
But the paintings arrived here only after a mad journey. They traveled by boat to Bodmer’s Paris studio, then languished in a German castle before a post-World War II discovery brought them back to the United States. Omaha’s energy company, Northern Natural Gas, purchased the collection and loaned it to Joslyn in 1962. The loan became a gift in 1986, after Northern became Enron – but before Enron became infamous.
“Faces” is Joslyn’s first exhibition dedicated solely to Bodmer’s portraits. It’s also the beginning of the museum’s efforts to study the works from an Indigenous perspective, said Joslyn general manager Jack Becker.
“It’s a collection that needs to be seen from multiple perspectives,” Becker said.
Native American artists, activists and educators now have a say in how these works – their own family portraits – are displayed and interpreted. Their ideas link the challenges their tribes face today to the pressures that American policies place on the people Bodmer paints.
Visitors walking through the gallery can experience these contributions: companion artworks, video documentaries, written and audio messages.
Stabler, speaking at a talk at the gallery, looked at Bodmer’s painting of the boy Umonhon wrapped in a buffalo robe. She saw his vermilion-streaked forehead, the bracelets around his wrist, a feather tied in his hair.
“If I ever saw a stylish young Umonhon boy, it was him,” Stabler said.
She said he would have lived in a warm mud hut. He would have gathered wood and drawn water. He is said to have learned of the existence of his tribal clan during ceremonies that brought people together in a circle representing the cosmos.
He’s not much different, she says, from the kids she teaches today, at the Umonhon Nation Public School in Macy’s, the reservation town of Omaha, which has a population of 1,045.
“We are resilient,” she said. “Even though we live in a whole different world, there is something beautiful and innate about our children.”
Stabler’s approach to preserving his language and teaching it to his students was influenced by Bodmer and his employer.
In 1832, Bodmer was hired by a German prince, Maximilien de Wied-Neuwied, for a mission to study the plants, animals and people of what he called “the natural face of North America and its people. aboriginal”.
The prince felt he was running out of time. Settler encroachment, disease, and US government policy had already decimated some Native tribes.
Arriving in Boston on Independence Day in 1832, Maximilian wrote: “I have sought in vain for the original American race, the Indians; they have disappeared from this region. Traveling up the Missouri past Bellevue in the spring of 1833, he saw survivors scarred and blinded by smallpox.
The prince and artist’s journey to visit the tribes of the Northern Great Plains fell exactly between the Lewis & Clark Expedition, begun in 1804, and the Homestead Act of 1862. From open prairie to private property, in less than a lifetime.
What Maximilian and Bodmer brought back to Europe in diaries and paintings is now considered one of the most accurate pre-photographic records of the American West.
Recently, Omaha artist Steve Tamayo studied Bodmer’s painting “Wahktä´geli, Yankton Sioux Chief” to recreate the man’s feathered headgear in three dimensions for the exhibit.
Tamayo, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, worked in his workshop, teaching his grandson, Izzy Tamayo, alongside him. He cut fabric, carved eagle and hawk feathers, stretched sinew and deer skin, and mixed mineral pigments to make the piece. Each notch in a feather and each red stripe represents a battle feat, he said.
Bodmer’s documentation is significant to Tamayo in light of government policy that sought to strip indigenous peoples of their culture and language. As an artist, he attempts to revive cultural identity.
Working with Joslyn is “a great opportunity to show that this way of life still exists, but we have to teach it to the next generation”.
The portraits helped Omaha’s Lestina Saul-Merdassi reconnect with her heritage. She recently greeted museum visitors in the Dakota language, then translated, “It’s good that you’re all here, and I greet you all with a sincere handshake.
Looking up, she explained, “I must have read this on my phone, because I’m relearning my language.
Saul-Merdassi, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, is an addiction counselor, powwow dancer, and activist with the “MMIW” movement to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
She saw herself in one of the few portraits Bodmer made of a woman.
“When we talk about our history, it’s not all about powwows and beauty,” she said. “Some of us are still healing from what our ancestors went through.” Turning to tradition: “We are on the road to recovery.
The prospect of the exhibit is part of a “shift in focus” happening in the art world, said exhibit curator Annika Johnson, the first-ever associate curator of Native American art at Joslyn. The new role will continue into the future through an endowment established by museum board chair Stacy Simon.
Johnson works to build relationships with Indigenous peoples inside and beyond the walls of the museum. She started an Indigenous Art Advisory Committee, opened the Joslyn Archives to Indigenous elders and tribes, and mentored Indigenous students.
This work of preserving and sharing Indigenous art and history is crucial, said Stabler, who learned something from the Bodmer collection.
“If we don’t write things down, maybe we’re going to miss something,” she said. “Will we have time to teach this lesson or tell this story? Or will they be forgotten?