Sometimes, the best discoveries are made right at home
It is still possible to find gold under your feet.
Ann Grandy and Phyllis Sorensen did when they began to inventory the Cleora and Geneva Helbing collection at the Pope County Historical Society museum in Glenwood three years ago.
Cleora Helbing made it her mission to preserve the arts and crafts of native people in the United States before they were lost.
Her role as an educator and supervisor of Indian education with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs brought her to every corner of the country during the 1930s through the early 1950s. The Smithsonian Institute recognized the importance of her collection of more than 500 artifacts and wanted to acquire it, but Helbing said no.
Helbing wanted the works to be on exhibit in her hometown of Glenwood, even if it meant she had to lead the fundraising drive to build a museum to hold it. She did, and then she died at the age of 74, just weeks before the Pope County Historical Society could hold its grand opening in 1966.
Nearly 50 years later, the endowment that Helbing left as her legacy is capturing renewed attention. Not only are the art pieces representative of native cultures from every corner of the country, but Grandy, assistant curator, and Sorensen, a volunteer helper, discovered something that the Smithsonian could not have known all those years ago: Many of the works are also the creations of native artists who went on to become famous.
"Look at the detail,'' said Sorensen while pointing to the carved image of an Indian man atop his horse, with his arms lifted in prayer to the Great Spirit. The cherry wood carving is the work of Goingback Chiltoskey, whose father and mother were in the Trail of Tears forced exodus of the Cherokee people from North Carolina to Oklahoma.
The Chiltoskeys eventually returned to North Carolina, and that is how they got the name "Goingback,'' according to notes Cleora Helbing made about the artwork. She also added that Chiltoskey told her he had often been sick as a child, and the frequent "going back'' to the doctor is really what got him his name, said Grandy.
"In every case I can tell you a story like that,'' said Grandy, pointing to the display cases in the museum.
Helbing had apparently encouraged Goingback Chiltoskey's career, and he later became famous both for his native works as well as for designing elaborate sets for Hollywood movies.
Grandy said Helbing purchased some of the artwork, but many were given to her by students and their teachers at the Indian boarding schools she oversaw. Her background in home economics made her especially interested in the arts and crafts depicting domestic life.
She collected works from Maria Martinez, who served as an instructor and helped resurrect the art of Pueblo pottery at a time when its traditions were in danger of being lost.
But her collection also includes many works from many young students whose emerging talents were apparently recognized by either Helbing or their teachers, said Grandy.
Among them is Ronald Senungetuk, an Alaska native. He is among the few surviving artists represented in the collection, and Grandy was able to contact him and bring him to Pope County nearly two years ago.
Senungetuk grew up in the remote Eskimo village of Wales on the Seward Peninsula. He had never seen anyone eat with a fork, said Grandy, until one day he was whisked away by airplane to spend the next three years at boarding school.
Not all of the artists' stories can be known, but Helbing devoted the last years of her life to writing down what she could about each item in the collection. She suffered from both shingles and cancer in her last years, and wasn't able to complete all the work, said Grandy.
Even when the artist might be unknown, it is possible to learn about the arts of his or her culture. The collection includes everything from showy turtle leggings meant for ceremonial dances to Zuni jewelry and the basketry of peoples from the Ojibwa of the Great Lakes region to the Pima of the Pacific Coast.
Grandy said the artifacts were intended for display and in some cases were deliberately made for sale to tourists. She pointed to a deerskin vest crafted by an artist from a woodland tribe. Along with depictions of birch bark canoes are those of two feather headdresses that would have been worn only by tribes from western plains. Obviously the artist knew what tourists wanted, she noted.
Grandy learned through contacts with native people that two items in the collection were sacred items and not intended for display. Both were removed, and Julie Pelletier, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris, offered prayers for the items and artwork on display.
Helbing had never married and her career kept her on the constant move. When she acquired artifacts she attached a tag and sent them to her parents, who stuffed their closets in Glenwood with the ever-growing collection.
When Helbing retired and came home, she and her sister Geneva went to work detailing what was there and launching the effort to develop a museum.
Helbing wanted the collection to be in Glenwood so local children would have an opportunity to see the diversity of the world far from the shores of Lake Minnewaska.
There's little doubt that her goal is being met. Each year the museum hosts roughly 1,800 visitors, but Sorensen said none are more enthusiastic about viewing the collection than the young people who come as part of school groups.
The Pope County Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and is located at 809 S. Lakeshore Dr. in Glenwood; 320-634-3293.