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News Release: Impacts of religions in West explored in “Acts of Faith,” opening April 20 at Eiteljorg

Traveling exhibition features art and cultural objects; public programs will engage visitors

Laura Friedman and Elizabeth Steele
San Ysidro Feast Day, Taos, Nuevo México
Commissioned by the New-York Historical Society

Monday, March 18, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS – A major new exhibition coming to Indianapolis explores how diverse religious influences shaped the cultures of the American West, and how the West itself impacted people’s beliefs. Organized by the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West opens April 20 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and remains on view through Aug. 4.

Featuring thought-provoking artworks, cultural belongings, exhibit panels and displays evoking historic sites and scenes, Acts of Faith is a multi-faceted exploration of many religious beliefs and spiritual practices of the peoples who lived in or moved to the American West, spanning more than 200 years and connecting to the present day. By telling a wide range of stories of individuals and groups, the exhibition weaves together many narratives: examples of Native American religious movements, Protestant missionaries and Catholic communities, African American migrants who were formerly enslaved and started new lives in the West, Jewish traders in the West, Latter-day Saints bound for Utah, Chinese immigrants honoring their ancestral religious practices, and a Muslim community today. Their stories and those of numerous other groups are interwoven through the exhibition.

Robert Walter Weir (1803–1889)

Sagoyewatha, or “Red Jacket” (ca. 1758–1830), 1828
Oil on canvas, reproduction
New-York Historical Society, Gift of Winthrop Chanler, 1893.1

Supplementing the New-York Historical Society’s works will be art from the Eiteljorg’s own collections reflecting how diverse religious beliefs in the West have been maintained and yet adapted through the 19th and 20th centuries until today.

“In the Acts of Faith exhibition, visitors can see the beauty, heartbreak, triumph and struggle of a range of religious expressions and experiences throughout the American West,” said Jessica Nelson, Ph.D., guest curator and former director of religion and cultural initiatives. “For many people, religion or spirituality is an essential element for creating community and establishing a sense of home for themselves. These deeply-held beliefs can foster both inclusion and exclusion. Acts of Faith offers a mosaic of artwork and stories from different perspectives to help us understand how all these experiences are entangled with each other – and together form a larger story about the American West.”

Rupy C. Tut (American, born in Punjab, India, 1985)
Cooking the same, only talk different, 2024
Handmade pigments and shell silver on hemp paper
Eiteljorg Museum purchase with funds provided by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

Engaging public programs
While on view in the museum’s special exhibitions gallery, Acts of Faith will be included with regular Eiteljorg Museum admission; members have free admission. The Eiteljorg and some of its community partners have scheduled programs that will appeal to visitors of different backgrounds and ages:

  • Friday, April 19: 5:30–7:30 p.m. Member-only Exhibit Preview and Opening Reception: Contact or 317.275.1360 or go online to register for this sneak preview of the exhibit.
  • Saturday, April 20, 9 a.m. Member-only Coffee and Conversation: Learn about the exhibition with guest curator Jessica Nelson, Ph.D. To register, contact or 317.275.1360.
  • Saturday, April 20, 1 p.m. — Curator-led Tour: Join Jessica Nelson, Ph.D., on the opening day for a tour of the exhibition. Delve into more than 200 years of religious diversity in the American West through art, objects and thought-provoking displays.
  • Saturday, April 20, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. — Acts of Faith Opening Day Music:  Enjoy two live performances by Firefly the Hybrid, a musician and multimedia artist from the Penobscot Nation, in the museum’s Allen Whitehill Clowes Sculpture Court.
  • Saturday, May 18, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Expressions of Faith Community Celebration: Featuring performances from choirs, dance groups and more, the event celebrates many different religious traditions and how they express their faith or spirituality through the arts.
  • Friday June 14, 2-5 p.m. Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture Conference: Join conference attendees for two sessions about Juneteenth and African-American religious traditions. Participants can explore Acts of Faith alongside scholars of religion. (The event is in conjunction with the Eiteljorg Juneteenth and Jazz Community Celebration the next day, June 15.)
  • Saturday, July 13, 1 p.m. Duniya Dance & Drum Company: A workshop and dance performance of the piece Half and Halves explores the Punjabi-Mexican communities of California. Hear and watch artistic director Joti Singh and other company members perform; and learn about the artistic choices they made to combine the dance styles of two different faith communities.

For more details of the programs and exhibition, visit

C.C.A. Christensen (1831–1912)

Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice, ca. 1878
Tempera on muslin, reproduction, 77 7/8 x 114 in.
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of the grandchildren of C.C.A. Christensen, 1970

New acquisitions, museum partnerships
Further enlivening the New-York Historical Society’s acclaimed traveling exhibition are several artworks the Eiteljorg Museum acquired recently — some of which have not been on exhibit before:

Angela Ellsworth (American)

Chiaroveggente: As Above, So Below (33.487549, -112.073994), 2019
15,696 pearl corsage pins, colored dress pins, fabric, steel, pedestal
Eiteljorg Museum purchase

  • Angela Ellsworth, (American, born 1964), a sculpture made of inward-pointing hat pins that form the shape of a 19th century Latter-day Saint woman’s bonnet, Chiaroveggente: As Above, So Below (33.487549, -112.073994);
  • Thomas Kiefer (American, born 1959), two poignant photographs of small bibles belonging to migrants who attempted a dangerous desert crossing at the U.S. border, Nuevos Testamentos and Inside Nuevos Testamentos;
  • Ivan McClellan (American, born 1982), a photograph showing Black cowboys competing at a rodeo arena while a banner in the background advertises a cowboy church service, Scrawney Brooks, Liberty, Texas;

Josué Rivas (Mexica / Otomi, born 1987)

People cross a handcrafted bridge to Turtle Island, a sacred site and burial ground, 2016
InkJet print
Eiteljorg Museum purchase

  • Josué Rivas (Mexica / Otomi, born 1987), a black-and-white photograph of protesters opposing the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, People cross a handcrafted bridge to Turtle Island, a sacred site and burial ground;
  • Rupy C. Tut (American, born in Punjab, India, 1985), an Eiteljorg-commissioned painting portraying the blended cultures of a Punjabi Sikh-Mexican Catholic community in California, Cooking the same, only talk different.

Through the wide-ranging Acts of Faith exhibition, Eiteljorg visitors will see parts of their own stories, ancestries or practices reflected — and learn something new about other traditions and spiritualities. Although religion can be a contentious topic, the exhibition engages with the sincerely-held beliefs of many groups, and emphasizes the importance of respectful dialogue. The Eiteljorg worked with a local advisory committee comprised of representatives of many different faith traditions who have provided valuable guidance to the Eiteljorg in serving as the local venue for the New-York Historical Society’s traveling exhibition.

Unidentified photographer

Clara Brown, ca. 1875–80
Photograph, reproduction
Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-275

One local component of the exhibition is a new ceiling mobile installation, Signs of Life, created by artist Kyle Ragsdale in partnership with the Harrison Center for the Arts. As part of a community art project, the installation includes art created by museum visitors, who painted representations of their faiths and spiritualities onto cardboard circles that are attached to the mobile.

A companion book, Religion and the American West, is available in the Eiteljorg Museum Store.

Acts of Faith is part of a project supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment’s Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative. It’s also supported locally by Capital Group and the Center for Congregations.

Support for Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Henry Luce Foundation. Research for this exhibition was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ernest Smith (Tonawanda Seneca, Heron Clan, 1907–1975)

Progress, 1935
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of RMSC, Rochester, NY

About the Eiteljorg
A cultural pillar for nearly 35 years in downtown Indianapolis’ scenic White River State Park, the Eiteljorg Museum seeks to inspire an appreciation and understanding of the arts, histories and cultures of the Native peoples of North America and the diverse peoples of the American West by telling amazing stories. Located on the Central Canal at 500 West Washington St., the Eiteljorg is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Read an article about the Acts of Faith exhibition in the February 2024 issue of the Eiteljorg’s Storyteller magazine:

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