The Indian Craze

Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890–1915

The Indian Craze


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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 80 b&w illustrations, 8 color plates Published: March 2009

American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Native and Indigenous Studies

In the early twentieth century, Native American baskets, blankets, and bowls could be purchased from department stores, “Indian stores,” dealers, and the U.S. government’s Indian schools. Men and women across the United States indulged in a widespread passion for collecting Native American art, which they displayed in domestic nooks called “Indian corners.” Elizabeth Hutchinson identifies this collecting as part of a larger “Indian craze” and links it to other activities such as the inclusion of Native American artifacts in art exhibitions sponsored by museums, arts and crafts societies, and World’s Fairs, and the use of indigenous handicrafts as models for non-Native artists exploring formal abstraction and emerging notions of artistic subjectivity. She argues that the Indian craze convinced policymakers that art was an aspect of “traditional” Native culture worth preserving, an attitude that continues to influence popular attitudes and federal legislation.

Illustrating her argument with images culled from late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century publications, Hutchinson revises the standard history of the mainstream interest in Native American material culture as “art.” While many locate the development of this cross-cultural interest in the Southwest after the First World War, Hutchinson reveals that it began earlier and spread across the nation from west to east and from reservation to metropolis. She demonstrates that artists, teachers, and critics associated with the development of American modernism, including Arthur Wesley Dow and Gertrude Käsebier, were inspired by Native art. Native artists were also able to achieve some recognition as modern artists, as Hutchinson shows through her discussion of the Winnebago painter and educator Angel DeCora. By taking a transcultural approach, Hutchinson transforms our understanding of the role of Native Americans in modernist culture.


The Indian Craze challenges art historians (of which Hutchinson is one) to appreciate the influence of Indian arts and crafts upon the development of American modernist art. Here, she ably demonstrates the appeal of a native primitivism to American artists, and situates the development of an Indian aesthetic decades earlier than generally assumed. Native art is American art, argues Hutchinson, with an influence that is broad, deep, and varied.” — Brian Hosmer, Ethnohistory

The Indian Craze is an interesting book and a good first introduction to late–19th and early–20th century trends of commodification, consumption, and exhibition of Native American objects. It is well written and the text is accompanied by numerous photographs and illustrations that allow readers to see what the Indian craze was all about.” — Marinella Lentis and Nancy J. Parezo, Museum Anthropology

The Indian Craze makes a valuable contribution to American art history by enriching our understanding of modernism’s neglected early engagement with Native American art circa 1900. It helps fill a gap between studies of nineteenth-century anthropology and ‘high’ modernism. The book also ‘decolonizes’ scholarship by showing that some Native artists were active interlocutors across social boundaries and creative traditions, not just passively appropriated by Euro-Americans.” — Alan C. Braddock, Journal of American Ethnic History

“[O]ne great virtue of the book shines through — Hutchinson’s deep appreciation for the ambiguous motives, contradictory goals, and other complexities that characterize cultural exchange.” — Bruce R. Kahler, Journal of the West

“[T]he book is strong on primary research, well organized, and written in clear prose.” — Leah Dilworth, Western American Literature

“[T]his well-crafted, innovative, and readable work is a must for any serious collection of American art history. Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.” — A. Wirkkala, Choice

“Given that so much of the scholarship on Native American art has focused on the history of the crafts themselves, the markets for which they were made, or the artistic relevance of such goods, Hutchinson contributes much to the fields of art history and American Indian history by weaving all three threads into a single narrative. . . . Hutchinson’s book provides readers with a savvy assessment of the ever-changing ideas about Indian art and Indian identity in its broadest and most narrow forms.” — Erika Bsumek, Pacific Historical Review

“Hutchinson employs a broad variety of source materials, including art journals and popular magazines, museum exhibits, paintings, drawings, and historic photographs. . . . Hutchinson’s transcultural approach and intensive visual analysis will be particularly instructive for scholars in the fields of art history, American studies, and Native American studies.” — Alison Fields, New Mexico Historical Review

“Hutchinson places her analysis along a path that can help historians in their analysis of expressive cultures—how they take form in different ways and how they intertwine. This is a book filled with insights about what historians sometimes call the Progressive Era and the complexities of exploring expressive cultures that have flourished in the past.” — Joan M. Jensen, Western Historical Quarterly

“Hutchinson presents an interesting, well-researched examination of specific kinds of historically situated relations between Native American art and mainstream American aesthetics. Although she is selective in the cases examined, this is a welcome broadening of the context surrounding these discourses.” — Adriana Greci Green, American Indian Culture and Research Journal

“Hutchinson’s agenda is deceptively simple, but the implications are profound. She situates Native American art and aesthetics within the story of American modernism, using anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of transculturation as her defining methodology.” — Kate Elliott, Winterthur Portfolio

The Indian Craze is an important addition to the art histories of Native North America and the United States alike. Hutchinson convincingly argues that the Anglo art world’s interest in Native American art and culture predates World War I, a few decades earlier than has generally been considered. . . . The Indian Craze shows us the innumerable benefits of attempting the difficult reconstruction of Native voices.” — John Ott, Visual Resources

The Indian Craze revives a politically charged and artistically productive era, while challenging the binarism modern/antimodern art. . . . As Hutchinson effortlessly engages with the discourse on modernity, she also mindfully reveals that Native American art in all its forms is not a subclass of America’s art history, but is, in fact, part of its continuum, which early and substantially contributed to the ‘conversation’ about what counts as American art.” — Linda M. Waggoner, Great Plains Quarterly

The Indian Craze is a lucid and compelling account of the entangled histories of Native and European-American aesthetic and intersubjective exchange in the formative years of American modernism. Told with deep historical understanding, it restores subjecthood and agency to Native artists too often deprived of both by the persistence of primitivizing attitudes. Such studies as Elizabeth Hutchinson’s offer a very different, insistently hybrid history of modernism, sensitive to the ethical ambiguities that reside in virtually every instance of uneven encounter between colonizer and colonized. This is a long-awaited contribution to how we understand the complex cultural negotiations attendant on the growing aesthetic value accorded to Native arts around the turn-of-the-century.” — Angela Miller, lead author of American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity

The Indian Craze is not only a delight to read; it is a major contribution to American visual cultural studies. Wearing her erudition lightly, Elizabeth Hutchinson participates in and adds appreciably to the transcultural critiques that so many of us are interested in now.” — Janet C. Berlo, co-author of Native North American Art


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Art History at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
1. Unpacking the Indian Corner 11
2. The White Man's Indian Art: Teaching Aesthetics at the Indian Schools 51
3. Playing Indian: Native American Art and Modern Aesthetics 91
4. The Indians in Käsebier's Studio 131
5. Angel DeCora's Cultural Politics 171
Epilogue 221
Notes 235
Selected Bibliography 263
Index 267
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4408-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4390-5
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