DeCora and Indian Art
American Folk Music
and an Innovative Use of Indian Art
Harper and Brothers published The Indians'
Book in 1907. Though praised for its accuracy and insight, the new
work was popular especially for its design. Curtis wrote out the
songs in an attractive handwritten form with painstakingly recorded
musical transcription. She used photos and authentic Indian art.
Angel DeCora (Hinook Mahiwi Kilinaka),
a Winnebago artist, designed the lettering for the 18 title pages
that appear at the beginning of each section of The Indians' Book.
She adapted her lettering to the decorative style of each tribe
or culture group. DeCora was educated at Hampton Institute and Smith
College and studied under Howard Pyle, who called her a genius.
She first became known for the illustrations she created for books
of Indian stories. According to Natalie Curtis, though, her friend
Angel DeCora's real ability lay in decorative design.
The innovative title page designs for
The Indians' Book came about in an unexpected way. To provide designs
for the section title pages, Curtis had collected original artwork
on paper from contributors of many tribes. She asked DeCora to make
a design for the Winnebago title page. DeCora created a beadwork
design for the page as requested, but she also included the words
"Lake Indians -- Winnebago" in lettering that matched
the rest of the design. Curtis described the lettering as "beautiful"
and of "startling originality."
"We can't have one page looking
like this and the others labeled with prosaic printing!" said
the publisher. "We must have this sort of lettering all through
the book." So Harper commissioned DeCora to produce the same
lettering for all the other title pages. However, Curtis wrote later,
when DeCora finished her work, "we found to our astonishment
that the lettering was not in the least like that with which Angel
had decorated the Winnebago section. She had invented a different
kind of lettering for every Indian picture, and the forms of the
letters were composed of motifs from the drawings which they accompanied."8
The Kwakiutl title page on page 295,
for example, is composed from two separate pencil drawings by Klalish
(Charles James Nowell). Klalish's drawings are a grizzly bear and
a killer whale, beautiful examples of Northwest Indian art. But
DeCora's lettering so nearly matches the original artwork that the
whole page looks like a single design. Angel DeCora and the other
native art contributors deserve credit for the popular appeal of
title page from The Indians' Book, page 295. The drawings of
a grizzly bear and a killer whale are by Klalish (Charles James
Nowell). Hinook Mahiwi Kilinaka (Angel DeCora, Winnebago) designed
the lettering, adapting it to the style of Klalish's drawings.