The 19th century was the worst of times for American Indians. Populations were decimated by war, poverty and illness. Tribes that were often traditional enemies were herded together onto reservations where government policies encouraged suppression of their language and culture. Legends and traditions were neglected and forgotten. Artifacts got lost, abandoned, sold. The past was dying along with the people.

But Indian people did survive. Some carried their stories with them for decades while others searched for the remnants and artifacts that would bring those long-ago days to life. Such is the tale behind "From Our Ancestors: Art of the White Clay People," an unusual show of more than 40 American Indian objects -- traditional clothing, moccasins, beadwork, story cloths -- on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through March 7.

What distinguishes "Ancestors" from more generic exhibitions is that all the objects were made by one small tribe, the A'aninin, and their close neighbors in northern Montana, the Blackfeet, Cree and Nakoda. Some even can be traced to individuals whose lives and stories are still part of tribal lore. That particularity brings a human poignancy to things that might otherwise seem to be just impressive antiques.

"Native American art history is still a very young field and there's so much left to do with it," said MIA associate curator Joe Horse Capture, an A'aninin tribe member who discovered the objects in museum and private collections throughout the United States and Europe.

Included are a rare buffalo-hide shield festooned with eagle feathers, a wool dress decorated with rows of elk teeth, elaborately fringed and beaded shirts, a pair of moccasins covered in colorfully dyed porcupine quills. The star is a wall-sized muslin "war sheet" covered with hand-drawn pictographs recording the battle exploits of 10 warriors, including the curator's great-great-grandfather. On loan from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the war sheet has never been exhibited before. Documents explaining it were only recently found in an archive in Berlin.

Personal pilgrimage

Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the show has been something of a pilgrimage for Horse Capture, who worked on it sporadically for more than five years. The idea originated with his father, George P. Horse Capture, a consultant to the National Museum of the American Indian and the first curator at the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

The common name of the A'aninin tribe, Gros Ventre, derives from an ancient misunderstanding. As Joe Horse Capture tells it, the A'aninin were a small but restless tribe that in the late 1700s lived near a waterfall on a river, close to what is now southern Saskatchewan. Their name means "white clay people," and most likely refers to a river mud with which they decorated themselves on ceremonial occasions. In the sign language gestures used with traders, they identified themselves with vertical gestures down their chest to signal that they lived near a waterfall. But traders saw the gesture as meaning "big belly" or "gros ventre," in French. The tribe's home is now the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana.

A'aninin objects are often mislabeled even in museum collections, Horse Capture said, because early acquisition records were incomplete and the tribe's designs were often influenced by those of neighboring tribes on the Great Plains. Furthermore, the meaning of most beaded designs has been lost because "anthropologists didn't talk to the women" who did the work, he said.

Transatlantic reunion

He had better luck tracking down documentation of things made by tribal warriors. His most amazing find is based on studies by an early anthropologist, Clark Wissler, who in 1893 collected A'aninin artifacts on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History and an ethnographic museum in Berlin. Wissler took careful notes on where things were made and what they mean, but when his collection was divided between New York and Berlin things got separated and sometimes forgotten. Horse Capture found single moccasins in Berlin and their partners in Manhattan.

On an early visit to Berlin, his father had stumbled onto a strange document full of numbered letters, followed by names and what appeared to be battle stories. But there was no corresponding artifact. Joe Horse Capture rightly figured that the missing "war sheet" might be in New York. Wissler's archives there included a huge muslin sheet, covered in hand-drawn pictographs, that had been tucked into storage for more than a century.

When the cloth was unrolled, Horse Capture confirmed that the Berlin document was a key to the battle scenes. Wissler's notes identified 10 warriors and their exploits. All are legendary figures in A'aninin oral history, including the curator's namesake, Horse Capture, who was born in 1858 and is depicted charging into a battle with the Sioux amid a hail of bullets, then "counting coup," or gaining honor by striking an enemy warrior and taking his gun. A distinguished tribal leader, Horse Capture was photographed late in life by Edward S. Curtis. Both the war sheet and the photo are in the exhibit -- along with documentation on the other nine warriors and photos of two more.

While Joe Horse Capture downplays the ties to his own life, it's those personal connections that lend the show its haunting intimacy.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431