Collection of American Indian Art and Ethnographic Materials
Smith has been noted for his early involvement with America Indians. “Mr. Smith had a unique relationship with several American Indian tribes, as is evidenced by the number of gifts he exchanged with them,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “He was their friend during a time when being an American Indian had an extremely negative connotation in the United States.”
Smith’s parents wholeheartedly supported his interest in American Indians and enabled his amassing of a large collection of Indian art and ethnographic objects in the 1920s and 1930s. From age 5 onward, at least once a year, Smith’s father, W. D. Smith – an attorney and one of the early partners of the Fort Worth law firm Cantey Hangar – and his mother Mary Anna took him on trips to visit Indians that often lasted one or two months. In this way, he learned from the Indians themselves about their histories, beliefs, and lifeways, and he collected examples of their material culture – objects in many cases given to him by the Indians he knew.
Smith visited every Indian “culture area” of North America. He met Indians, and he learned from them as he collected objects that he knew they valued themselves. During the 1930s he made many friends among Plains Indians, especially among the Lakota Sioux, including still-living elders who had fought the invading white man in the 19th century, but had by then been moved to reservations. As he grew older, he spent longer periods of time with Indians, particularly at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was inducted in 1934 into the Lakota Sioux tribe at a ceremony in Kansas City, where he was given the Indian name High Bear (Mato Wankantu).
Gordon W. Smith with Indian elders at Pine Ridge Reservation, ca. 1935
His boyhood sojourns in Indian Country ended with the coming of World War II. Nevertheless, this was only an interlude in his lifelong study of American Indians and their cultures. In the last decade of his life, he completed a book about his experiences, and also painted several works on Indian themes.
The first major exhibition drawn from the Gordon W. Smith American Indian collection, entitled Quest for High Bear: A Boy’s Odyssey Through Indian Country 1925-1939, opened in August, 2008, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Objects from the Gordon Smith collection have in the past been on display in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Dallas Museum of Art, and previously at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
In September, 2009, the Houston Museum of Natural Science announced that it had acquired the Smith Collection. As steward of the collection, the Houston Museum of Natural Science also announced that it has entered into a cooperative sharing program with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History opened the exhibition "Quest for High Bear" as part of the opening exhibits at its new building in November, 2009, and a program of ongoing loans and exhibits from the Gordon W. Smith American Indian Collection is planned between the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
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