George Gustav Heye
George Gustav Heye, founder in 1916 of the Museum of the American Indian and its director until 1956, was unique in both his enthusiasm and his broad interest in native life. His passion for collecting began in 1896, when he purchased an Apache deerskin shirt on a railroad construction job in Arizona. From then his energy and inherited fortune were spent accumulating the largest private collection of Native American objects in the world.
Heye liked nothing better than to descend personally upon an American Indian community, buying everything in sight. While others focused on highly significant objects, Heye wasn't satisfied until he'd brought every last object and shipped everything back to New York. As one Native American is reported to have said, remembering a visit from the museum's founder: "If we were left with our underwear we were lucky!"
That scope makes Heye's collection uniquely valuable as a material record of those native communities. As Linda Poolaw, Delaware Grand Chief, says, "If Gustav Heye hadn't collected those things back then, we would not have then today to look at. Now, over a hundred years later, my people can see what we had, and it is not lost."