It is too often the case that persons pivotal to the denouement of important events are left unsung, and their important activities simply become a matter of history. If Mr. and Mrs. Charles de Young Elkus had not given their fine collection of Southwestern craft arts to the California Academy of Sciences, Mr. Elkusí efforts on behalf of the Indians of the Southwest and California might never have been properly acknowledged.
The Elkus Collection includes some 1700 Native American items including pottery, paintings, jewelry, textiles, kachina dolls, baskets, beaded material, and musical instruments from the Southwest, California, the Northwest and Alaska. But the important point is that these items were not bought because the Elkuses were "collectors". They were amassed over a long period because the Elkuses visited the Southwest every year out of a love of the country and a genuine desire to help the Indians. Herein lies the proper understanding of the nature and value of this collection. It should be seen as a statement about a period in Indian-government relations as well as a collection of fine craft objects. Indeed, the fact that these objects are of such high quality attests to the success of Charles Elkus' efforts to focus national attention on the need to protect and promote Indian crafts.
Mr. Elkus always had an interest in the Indians. In 1922 he met John Collier, then president of the American Indian Defense Association. Mr. Collier encouraged his participation in that association, and Mr. Elkus subsequently became president of the central and northern California chapter and a member of the board of directors of the National American Indian Defense Association. The stated objective of this body was "To secure to the American Indians just treatment from the Government and the People of the United States and to promote his welfare." Shortly after this, Mr. Elkus initiated and then chaired the Indian Section of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, a study group concerned with the problems of the Indians of the Southwest.
During Collier's and later Nash's tenure as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, Elkus was instrumental in assessing the Indian situation and tendering advice. He had voluminous correspondence with Collier and with Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior.
Elkus worked tirelessly for the passage of the O'Malley-Johnson Bill, a plan to improve the educational opportunities for the Indians by delegating more responsibility for Indian education to the states. He urged that government officials make field visits so they would better understand the particular nature of each situation. He argued against the proliferation of separate agencies for health, education, land use, and so forth, and for strong superintendents with direct access to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.. Many of the reforms were incorporated into the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, an important milestone in improving the contact and defining the responsibilities of the U.S. Government toward the Indian.
Of great personal concern to Charles and Ruth Elkus was whether the Indians could survive their inevitable transition into the American economic system. They believed that one viable solution was to encourage the production of Indian arts and crafts. On January 11, 1934, Secretary of the Interior Ickes formally appointed an advisory committee to study and make recommendations on the problem of Indian crafts. This board was a dedicated group which served without pay out of a conviction that the betterment of Indian crafts would well serve the Indian people. The original board members were James W. Young, professor of business history, University of Chicago; Thomas L. Dodge, chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council; Oliver LaFarge, president of the National Association of Indian Affairs; Kenneth W. Chapman, Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe; Charles de Young Elkus, president of the Indian Defense Association of central and northern California; B I. Staples, Crafts del Navajo, Coolidge, New Mexico; Lorenzo Hubbell, trader, Oraibi; Mrs. William Denman, San Francisco; and Diego Abeita, craftsman from Isleta Pueblo.
Their assignment was to study the status of crafts among the various tribes and to make recommendations to Secretary Ickes and Commissioner Collier for "practical procedures for organizing marketing methods, improvements and revivals in the arts themselves, and for the training of the newer generation of Indians in their production."
Charles Elkus was instrumental in organizing several Navajo and Pueblo exhibits in the 1950's and 1960's at the M. H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, where the exhibited crafts were sold. Through his association with the Arts and Crafts Board, he tirelessly encouraged the Department of the Interior to sponsor Indian craft exhibits and sales at the museums all over the country, citing the successful sales at the de Young.
He subsidized awards given annually at the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial at Gallup. Mr. Elkus felt strongly that the Indians needed incentives to encourage them to try new types of craft arts as well as to encourage the younger generation to enter the craft field. To this end he sponsored $50 awards, such as one for the best piece which combined wood and silver and another for the best rug which revived the art of using vegetable dyes for colors. Another year he stipulated that the prize money was to be awarded to encourage young competitors.
He was always thinking up new ideas about types of craft items that might be salable to the American public One year in a letter to the coordinator of the Gallup Ceremonial, Edward S. Merry (December 26, 1958), he suggested that the Hopi be encouraged to make yucca placemats. In another effort, he suggested to C. E. Faris, superintendent of the Santa Fe Indian School, that Pueblo potters be encouraged to develop a waterproof glaze so that the plates they made would be usable for everyday dining in American households.
Possibly the most satisfying result of all these efforts was the close friendships the Elkuses formed with many Indian craftsmen and women. In letters to his friends who asked for advice about places and people to visit in the Southwest, Charles responded with long lists of "good people" to "be sure to see" Among those on these lists were Fred Kabotie, Shungopovi, Second Mesa; Antonia Luhan, Taos; Antonia Mirabel, Taos; Santiago Nuranjo, Santa Clara; Martin Vigil, Tesque; Juan Gonzales, San Ildefonso; Antonia, Diego and Pablo Abeita, Isleta Pueblo, and Pablita Velarde, Albuquerque. Many of these artists, famous today but fledging artisans in the 1930's, responded to the Elkuses' friendship with personally designed and painted Christmas cards and letters throughout the year, inquiring about the Elkus family and expressing their hopes to see them during their annual visit to the Southwest.
Indeed, so well-bonded was the friendship between the Elkuses and their Indian friends that Mr. Elkus could, without offense, make direct suggestions about craft improvements.
Thirty years later, when the debate was raging about whether the Santa Fe Indian School should become the Santa Fe Institute of Arts and Crafts, Martin Vigil wrote to Charles Elkus, frankly complaining about Elkus' support of the Arts and Crafts School. Mr. Elkus could have easily taken offense at this criticism of his ears of effort in promoting Indian crafts, but he responded with a long letter to Martin, explaining how he waited both for the Indians. Good education, he thought was best effected through the O'Malley-Johnson Bill, and an improved economic status could be achieved by an expansion of craft arts.
Never in his letters is there mention of his "collection". He did not think of his things in that way. The jewelry he commissioned from Kenneth Begay, Ambrose Roanhorse, and others was for Mrs. Elkus to wear, the dinnerware set made by Maria and Julian Martinez was to use -and use them they did! The Elkuses frequently lent their collection for numerous exhibits-the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1940 on Treasure Island, and many exhibits at the de Young and the Lowie Museum, University of California, Berkeley, because they wanted, in a sense, to advertise the quality of Indian craftsmanship, as well as to make these beautiful things available for others to see and enjoy.
Despite the fact that the Elkus Collection started with casual purchases and ended with purposeful selections to "fill in the gaps", it is nevertheless clear that the pieces reflect the personal tastes of the Elkus family. The collection also reflects the fact that the Elkuses practiced what they preached- they bought pottery, rugs, jewelry, and paintings from the Indians because they believed that the promotion of these craft arts would be one way the Indians could economically survive in the 20th century.
The California Academy of Sciences feels privileged to have been chosen as the final home for this fine collection. It represents the indefatigable efforts of a family that wanted to help the Indian people endure. And endure they have-today they produce a continuing wealth of constantly changing craft arts that exist in part because of the visions of dedicated people like the Charles Elkuses, who nurtured and cajoled the blossoming of these art forms so that we may now enjoy them in the pages that follow and for years to come at this and many other museums around the country.