In honor of Women’s History Month, we like to try to tell the stories of women that might otherwise go unnoticed. Thousands of women have stepped foot on the Cranbrook campus, or have been involved with Cranbrook in some way. One such woman was Amelia Elizabeth White (1878 – 1972), philanthropist, passionate champion for the rights of the Pueblo, and a collector and promoter of Native American Art. In 1937, she donated a very large collection of Native American art and artifacts to Cranbrook Institute of Science, where they remain today.
From the 1938 Cranbrook Institute of Science Annual Report.
Born into an upper class family in New York City, White was educated at Bryn Mawr and traveled widely before she and her sister Martha served as volunteer nurses with the Red Cross in World War I. After the war, White, who had first traveled to New Mexico in 1913 to visit a friend, arrived in Santa Fe where she purchased a tract of land just south of the city. She soon built a home called “El Delirio” or “The Madness” (designed by William Penhallow Henderson) which quickly became a popular gathering place for writers, artists and intellectuals. By 1923, White had opened an art gallery called “Ishauu” in Manhattan ( run by Dolly Sloan), in order to promote southwestern Native American Art.
White was a member of the Eastern Association on Indian Affairs (EAIA) initially composed of men and women residing in and around the city of New York who shared an interest in the life and crafts of the Pueblo. She was instrumental in the organization of The Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts in 1931 and served as chairman of the Executive Committee. Along with other patron-philanthropists including Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Abby Rockefeller, White’s goal was to show Native American art as a traditional art form. The exposition included more than 600 pieces of pottery, jewelry, textiles, sculpture, paintings, beadwork, and basketry, many of which were from White’s personal collection.
Navajo necklace. Image courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
To continue her wish to “have the American Indian take his place in the museums for American art in this country,” White dispersed her collection of art and artifacts to numerous museums across the country including Cranbrook Institute of Science, Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian, the New Mexico History Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. White’s collection, which she donated in 1937, was the largest single accession of the Institute other than our founders, George and Ellen Booth. The donation included textiles, pottery, jewelry and artifacts from the Pueblo, Navajo, Kiowa and Alaskan Inuit.
Navajo wedding belt. Image courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
A fascinating woman in her own right, White’s contributions to the Institute’s anthropological collection has been nearly forgotten. In his letter to White on December 16th 1937, then Institute of Science Director, Robert T. Hatt, expresses his gratitude for the donation: “I hasten to assure you that no finer thing has ever happened to this organization than the bestowal which you have made.”
– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist and Gina Tecos, Archivist