Cleora Helbing and her Native American Arts and Crafts Collection

Current entrance to the Helbing Exhibit

Current entrance to the Helbing Exhibit

The centerpiece of the Pope County Museum’s exhibit is the “Cleora and Geneva Helbing Collection of Indian Arts and Crafts.” The nearly 600 pieces of Native American Art were collected by Miss Cleora Helbing, during her nearly 30 years of service with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pieces in the collection include ivory carving from Alaska, Navajo blankets and silver, pottery, beadwork, dolls, and baskets. There are artifacts from Native Americans all across America.

Cleora was born in South Dakota in 1892, but grew up in Glenwood, Minnesota. After High School, she became a Home Economics teacher, taught for a few years and then served as the state supervisor of Home Economics for the state of Louisiana.

Cleora Helbing

Cleora Helbing

In 1931 she went to work for the Federal Government in the Department of the Interior for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She first served as Supervisor of Home Economics and was later promoted to Supervisor of Education for all federal Indian Schools. In that position, she was responsible for overseeing the feeding, clothing and housing of 20,000 school children ranging in age from 6 to 16. The schools included 17 large boarding schools such as Chemawa and the Haskell Institute, more than 300 day schools and some small boarding schools on and off the reservations – about 350 schools in all. She was directly in charge of equipping Mt. Edgecombe High School in Sitka Alaska, Pine Ridge School in S.D., and Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah.

Her career brought her into contact with Native American tribes in every corner of the country. During these travels, she started collecting artifacts as a means of preserving what she saw as a disappearing culture. With her Home Economics background, she was especially interested in domestic handicrafts such as baskets, but a large range of artifacts is included in the collection. Cleora included student work as well as fine pieces made by renowned artists. According to her notes, she personally knew many of the artists whose work is represented in the collection. Some of the students whose work she collected later become professional artists. She had an eye for quality work.

Cleora retired in 1955, returned to Glenwood, and realized that her collection should be on exhibit. While the Smithsonian Institute expressed interest in the collection, she decided that it should remain here in Pope County to give local people the opportunity to see Native American art from other regions. Her only reservation was that there was not appropriate exhibit space available. At that time the Pope County Historical Society was housed in the Court House. The Society was formed in the 1930s to record the stories of the original settlers while some of them were still living.

Pope County Historical Society office 1941

Pope County Historical Society office 1941

There was a small collection of artifacts held in a tiny office and in display cases in the lobby. Cleora wanted something more appropriate for her extensive collection, so the Society decided that it was time to build a museum. Not only was her collection the spark that started the building project for our current museum, but she and her sister were major fundraisers for the building project.

As the opening of the museum neared, she began to record notes on each piece. This was very difficult for her. The last 5 years of her life she suffered with shingles and cancer. Between treatments and doctor visits, she dictated notes from her bed, usually for an hour or so each day. She left wonderfully detailed notes on most of the items, and little or no information on some of the others.

Sadly, she passed away one week before the grand opening of the museum in 1966.

– Posted by Ann

About popecountymuseum

This blog is primarily written by Ann Grandy, Assistant Curator.
This entry was posted in Collection Notes, Local History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cleora Helbing and her Native American Arts and Crafts Collection

  1. woowooteacup says:

    What a great story about a collector and her impressive collection! How nice that Cleora decided her collection needed to remain in Minnesota.

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