A Surprise in Bentonville, Arkansas
By Steven Cooper, Kingston Springs, Tennessee
While Bentonville is just a small city in the northwest corner of Arkansas, it is a place with a fascinating history. It was named in honor of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton who promoted Arkansas statehood in the early 1830’s. The downtown was burned to the ground during the Civil War. The Peoples Bank of Bentonville was robbed by the infamous Henry Starr Gang in 1893. One hundred years ago this city was dominated by apple agriculture. Benton County produced and processed more bushels of apples, 2.5 million of them, than anyplace else in the nation. There was a large button industry extracting pearls from mussels in the White River. Bentonville was even the county seat, even though Rogers, Arkansas was the largest town in the region. Rogers even tried to have the county seat moved there in 1904, but failed in the attempt. And most recently, in 1950, Sam Walton’s first store, Walton’s Five and Dime opened in the town square of Bentonville. The rest is history. In 1962 the first Wal-Mart opened in nearby Rogers. The region boomed, and today Bentonville is home to more than 30,000 people, triple the population of 1990. Besides Wal-Mart, other industries have moved here, including Tyson chicken and J.B. Hunt trucking.
Today, Sam Walton’s original five and dime store is being turned into a museum. And perhaps museums may be the true legacy of Sam Walton. Planned for a grand opening in late 2011, the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville will rival the major museums of the world in scope and art.
But another museum is already open in Bentonville. It too is an art museum. And it will become a do not miss attraction once world attention is finally placed on Bentonville. The Museum of Native American History presents a dazzling display of artifacts and art of the original inhabitants of the Americas.
What is on display in this museum will be new to most visitors. While you may think you learned all about the American Indian in school, this museum will open your eyes. It seems there is a lot more to the Native Americans than just tepees and buffalo. The artifacts on exhibit challenge the long held notion that the Indians were savages, devoid of culture and lacking civilization. After a visit here, you will be asking yourself why this artistic heritage has remained hidden for so long.
Stepping through the doors, you are immediately greeted by two massive tusks coming from the skull of a mastodon, a huge Pleistocene animal. The first inhabitants of the Americas would have hunted these some 13,000 years ago. This full size reproduction is on loan from the collection of the University of Arkansas. The museum has access to the more than two million artifacts in the U of A collection, which, currently is in storage and until now, without any public accessibility.
As you continue into the museum, you pass by a huge painting depicting our traditional view of Native Americans. It is a scene that could have easily come right off the Dances with Wolves movie set.
The visitor then acquires a portable handheld listening device from the museum desk, and that’s when the walk back into time adventure begins.
We live our modern lives, but we rarely think about natural hardships. We drive to the grocery, buy clothes at the mall and spend our spare time watching a football game on a widescreen television. Most people don’t realize the difficulties early man would have had to overcome just to have food each day. Utilizing hundreds of artifacts and artwork, the museum tour takes us back to these early times where the only resources were stone tools and human ingenuity. Game was abundant, but the process of killing it was challenging. Large animals could slay several hunters in an instant. Man had to be resourceful and smart. The visitor discovers the beginning of the arrowhead with the development of Clovis, Cumberland and Folsom points. These uniquely American tools allowed them to take advantage of the large animals and gain a foothold on the continent.
Arrowheads have been a part of our popular culture since farmers first plowed their fields. The museum is attempting (for the first time anywhere) to bring together every known arrowhead type. Arrowheads are far from crudely shaped stones made just to kill bison. The truth is many are wondrous works of art. The visitor passes by a unique display utilizing cast hands to show the production elements of making an arrowhead, a process known as flint knapping. By removing one flake of rock after another, the arrowhead takes shape and evolves from a simple cobble into a tool. The skills of these ancient flint knappers were simply astounding. While we all know the classic arrowhead shape, the museum collection shows there are many forms, sizes and styles. Some are so skillfully made they cannot be reproduced today. Several are smaller than a fingernail and made of clear gem stones. Others have large and thin graceful designs that exceed any usefulness and could only have been created for artistic purposes.
While the journey into the world of arrowheads is fascinating, the tour is just starting. We’ve all seen pottery found at Mesa Verde and throughout the Southwest. But few have seen the pottery of the Midwest. Created by a culture known as the Mississippians, the museum‘s displays show the fine skills of these long gone potters. Since the Native Americans didn’t use a pottery wheel, all of their pottery was made by coiling strips of clay one on top of another. The results were quite remarkable. While they made common utility pottery, their efforts also included animal effigies, whimsical forms and miniature versions of larger pieces. Fish, otters, owls, bears and just about every wild creature has some sort of pottery portrayal. But perhaps the most interesting creations of all are human heads fully sculpted in the round. These are known as “head pots.” With only 138 authentic examples known, the museum shows seven; the largest grouping ever put on display. Some are so real you expect them to move their eyes. Several are large and elaborately tattooed, while others are small with childlike serene faces as if asleep. Most show signs of being held and used, possibly in ceremonies celebrating warfare, ancestors or fertility. We actually do not know their use, as these people left no written records of any kind.
The historic aspect of these ancient peoples started in 1492, when Columbus first landed and European culture began its expansion across the continent. An entire wing of the museum is dedicated to this period, highlighted by real war bonnets, tomahawks, peace pipes and moccasins. One unique object is a huge buffalo robe from the Dakota people known as “Lone Dog’s Winter Count.” Painted in a swirling circle are pictorial symbols for each winter, an ancient traditional way of counting years. It is literally the story of the tribe from 1801-1871, a tool to provide the foundation for an oral history of the tribe. Luckily, Smithsonian anthropologists interviewed the Indian who made it, Lone Dog, during his lifetime and wrote down the oral history behind each symbol. The visitor can view these interpretations and remarkably, in a matter of minutes have an understanding of the struggles of two hundred years ago.
As mentioned before, the museum has access to the University of Arkansas collection. For the first time, many of its most unique and historic artifacts have found a place to be displayed. Included is a large painting on cloth by White Swan, a Crow Scout who rode with the 7th Calvary. He was present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 where he was severely wounded in the fighting. The painting, known as a pictograph, is of a battle scene. Soldiers are shown shot, Indians are attacking and a village is off in the distance. This is a very exciting find, as the battle is rarely seen from the Indian point of view. This incredible object was rolled up in a tube, possibly not viewed since it was acquired over 100 years ago.
The battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 marked the end of the non-reservation Indian. At that time, the Plains Indians were being influenced by a new religion whose goal was to bring back the buffalo and return the world to the way it was before the white man. This was to be accomplished with a “Ghost Dance.” They created shirts for this dance said to be impervious to bullets. Ambushed in North Dakota by the US Calvary utilizing Gatling guns, the shirts proved to be ineffective and a slaughter ensued. After this horrific moment, the Indians finally became resolved to live on the reservations. The museum has one such “Ghost Dance” shirt is on display, beautifully made and decorated with long locks of human hair.
Another section of the museum highlights the similar artistic styles of all ancient peoples of the Americas, with wondrous artifacts from Central and South America. Gold jewelry, pottery and even an Incan stone mace with its wooden handle still intact are on exhibit. The displays continue into the modern age including a fine array of Navajo sandpainting textiles, rarely been seen by the public. Actual sandpaintings were made on the ground from sand by a shaman as part of a religious healing ceremony and held great power. They were always destroyed when the event was over in order keep their images from being stolen and utilized for evil. But the modern world has led to a loss of many of these traditional religious practices. While it was once considered forbidden to copy or record these images, there are those now who fear without some preservation they will be lost forever. This brought about the creation of these rugs. Those on display are remarkable in their complexity and size. Only the most skilled rug makers can create them, since the transfer of the ground images are difficult and painstaking to weave into the cloth.
While many museums may have a small room dedicated to Native American art and artifacts, there is really no other museum in the world that showcases the entire story in such an elaborate fashion. If your journey brings you to Bentonville and the newly opened Crystal Bridges Art Museum, a stop at The Museum of Native American History should absolutely be on the trip agenda. You might actually find yourself spending more time here than at Bentonville’s other attractions. It has always been said that history is fascinating, and this museum is proof of that!
The Museum of Native American History is located at 202 SW ‘O’ Street, Bentonville, Arkansas 72712 phone: (479) 273-2456 There is no admission charge. Hours are 9 AM – 5 PM Monday through Saturday
Steven R. Cooper currently lives in Kingston Springs, Tennessee. He holds a degree in History and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Central States Archaeological Journal, published quarterly since 1954. He is an avid collector of prehistoric artifacts and his collection has been pictured in several publications.