Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Dramatic entrance to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

When we arrived at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis for Sandy’s SATW conference, what a pleasant surprise to discover the Eiteljorg Museum next door! I’d read about it in Cowboys & Indians magazine and now I could see it for myself. I was there for my first visit the next morning.

I’m from Florida and have only visited the West. But I’ve always been fascinated by its mystique. Using wagon trains, push carts, on horseback, and on foot, hardy American pioneers went West.

The Eiteljorg Museum tells the other story, that of the Native Americans who for generations called the open plains their home. On the upper level I found an excellent display of tools, crafts and items used in their every day life, including a wigwam and a tipi. Having owned and camped in a tipi, being able to go inside a wigwam was an eye-opening experience. Long sheets of bark attached like modern shingles gave it less of a nomadic feel. The bark was attached to a tipi like frame, with additional poles along the outside for strength.

Displays of native crafts both vintage and modern were mixed among stories and histories, as well as artifacts such as the pen used by President Clinton when he signed a bill returning tribal lands to their ancestral owners.

On the main level three galleries are devoted to Western art, making this one of only a handful of museums in the country showcasing this genre. The rooms are filled with dozens and dozens of paintings from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Thankfully, these artists wandered into the wilderness and recorded the landscape, the people and the beauty of this untamed land. The gallery is also home to the works of modern masters. Painting, stone sculptures, and bronzes, there was something available for everyone’s artistic palate. One huge painting was so realistic that I walked across the room unsure if I were seeing a painting, or a photograph. What a painting!! Had my checkbook been better prepared and if we had the wall space, it would have come home with us.

The lower level transported the kids, and some of us adults, to the old West. Welcome to the stagecoach from Cheyenne to Deadwood! There were several rooms of hands-on learning, including an opportunity to design and build your own totem pole. Once it was completed there was a rope pull to raise it. Don’t try this at home, kids!

Before visiting the Eiteljorg, I had never really thought of Indiana as being out “West.” This visit taught me that there were three indigenous tribes living where the city of INDIANapolis now sits. Isn’t that the sign of a good museum, to walk out and find yourself saying “Wow, I didn’t know that…?”