by Margaret Bruchac
with Object Analysis by Elizabeth Peng (see below)
On August 1, 1938, before leaving the Maniwaki reserve in Quebec, Canada, anthropologist Frank G. Speck paid a visit to his old friends, Michel Buckshot and his wife Mackosi’kwe (also spelled Meshkosikwe, meaning “Beaver Meadow Woman”). Mackosi’kwe was skilled in scapulimancy, a technique for divining future prospects in hunting and travel by scorching the shoulder blades of Indigenous deer, caribou, beaver, and other animals in a fire, and then reading the cracks and marks. In Speck’s case, perhaps because she was doing a reading for a non-Native person, she used a sheep scapula to predict a safe journey home.
The River Desert Algonquin Band at the Maniwaki Reserve was a small group of a few hundred First Nations people; most were of Algonkian ancestry, some had mixed Mohawk or French heritage. In 1854, under the leadership of life chief Pakinawtik (also spelled Paganowatik, meaning “Lightning Hit Tree”), they had left the Mohawk community of Kanehsatake (Oka, Lake of Two Mountains, near Montreal) to settle permanently in their former summer hunting grounds at the confluence of the Gatineau, Eagle, and Desert Rivers. There, they practiced subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing, in addition to wage work and craftwork, calling themselves Tega’zi bi win in iwag (“farm river people”).
Mackosi’kwe, born around 1862, was an artisan with diverse skills. She did trapping, tanning, and Indian doctoring (herbal medicine), and also made “curiosities” like puzzle pouches and decorated baskets for sale to tourists. She was also a keeper of oral traditions; in 1943, while Speck and his colleague Horace Beck were collecting data on Algonquin medicinal knowledge and folklore, she shared tales of the cannibal spirit Windigo and the trickster Wisekedjak.
During a 1929 visit, Speck’s student, Frederick Johnson, commissioned Mackosi’kwe to carve a collection of potato die stamps (called padaki-wàpigon, “potato-flower”). In order to show print proofs of the stamps, she also provided two peeled, trimmed, and stamped ash splints harvested from the inside annular rings of black ash (Fraxinus nigra). Ironically, although provided to document the technique of basket-stamping, these objects are now trapped in a form that renders them unusable. If destined for a basket, dyes would have been freshly mixed and stamps freshly cut before use. Prepared ash splints would have been soaked and woven into basket form before stamping. But these potato stamps have been saturated with alcohol, and these pre-stamped splints have now hardened into a permanent coil.
The items in the River Desert collection have been described as “common” and “utilitarian,” but they are much more. The objects created by Mackosi’kwe and other Algonquin artisans express Indigenous technology, ecological adaptability, and local aesthetics, woven into every piece of raw material, every stitch, every mark. The birch trees that provided sweet sap for food and medicine also provided bark for containers and canoe coverings. Folded bark baskets were covered with a myriad of elaborately etched and trimmed designs. The ash trees that provided wood for canoe frames provided an abundance of splints for baskets. The potatoes were reshaped from a utilitarian food source into a tool that could transform plain baskets into marketable tourist objects. The dyes were made from local plants; among Algonquin artisans, the making of these dyes and mordants were closely kept secrets. The marks made by stamping, etching, and trimming are more than just decoration; they constitute a richly expressive language that Frank Speck identified as a symbolic ecology, evoking local plant medicines, fauna, and rock-art pictographs, with meanings that escape those who only see flowers and leaves.
Collectively, these objects also represent what was once a productive relationship between the River Desert Band and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, woven together by partners who collaborated on the collection of data and materials over the course of several decades. The travel went in both directions. Speck and his students made multiple trips to Maniwaki, and, in 1942, Mackosi’kwe’s adopted grandson, Jean Paul Bras Coupe, spent the winter in Pennsylvania with Speck. Income from the sales of tourist objects and ethnographic collections kept the Buckshot family from starving in the midst of the Great Depression, at a time when their lands were under increasing pressures from sports hunters and fishermen, and the boundaries of their homelands were being constricted by Canadian authorities.
Perhaps to highlight the artistry of Algonquin people, Speck saw to it that ethnographic materials from River Desert were dispersed into multiple museums, including the National Museum of Canada, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Denver Art Museum. Yet, when the traveling and collecting stopped, each of these objects were frozen in time, locked in museum cabinets, far from their places of origin. Now, these objects offer opportunities to reconnect with the people who created them and the stories embedded in them. This research calls for a return to Maniwaki, now identified as the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg (“people of the garden river”), a place where people still speak about those anthropologists from Philadelphia who came to visit and walked away nearly a century ago.
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Potato Stamps and Ash Splints, A Narrative of Process and Exchange
Object Analysis for Anthropology of Museums
by Elizabeth Peng
During the 1920s-1940s, Frank Speck made at least six field trips to the River Desert Band of Algonquins, alone and in company with research assistants and students like Frederick Johnson. Johnson was especially intent on collecting examples of traditional crafts. In 1929, he commissioned Mrs. Michel Buckshot to create a set of potato die stamps and ash splints, since she was the only person practicing this type of craft in the River Desert Band. The dies and splints were sold to the Penn Museum, where they are now curated as objects 29-10-79A and 29-10-79B in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, as part of the Frederick Johnson collection.
The stamps, preserved in alcohol inside a glass jar, consist of potatoes onto which various shapes have been carved, such as leaves and other organic shapes. Even today there are remnants of colored pigment on some of the stamp surfaces. Because the organic material would shrivel if exposed to the air for extended periods of time, they would have been made immediately preceding use. Johnson also collected illustrative stamped ash splints, which serve as print proofs of the dies used.
A variety of colors and shapes can be found on the stamped pictures. On one splint, red (now faded to pink), black (now faded to brown), and blue dyes were used to stamp shapes in the form of flowers, leaves, beavers, shells, hands, feet, and a mask-like face. On another, there are also birds and a round shape with spokes, much like a wheel. These ash splints are meant to be woven into basket form using what Speck described as “the simple under-and-over twill as they do the bark wares.” He concluded through comparative studies of baskets in the region that this type of splint work does not extend farther north than the uppermost boundaries of the Algonquin nations, although it is widespread elsewhere in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Algonkian territories.
The Johnson collection from River Desert includes 90 objects, representing: hunting equipment (woven nets, bows, arrows, birchbark moose call, etc.); craft tools (bone awls, needles, knives, etc.); and personal gear (snowshoes, war clubs, wooden spoons, pouches, containers, etc.). In her summary of this collection, Marilyn Norcini notes that the River Desert collection is exceptional for the: “fibrous and tactile nature to these vernacular objects from the northern words. What they may lack in color and elaborate design, they make up for in a feeling of everyday life expressed through the common, utilitarian objects.” Yet they also express the relationships embodied in the material exchanges between the River Desert Band, Speck and Johnson, and the Penn Museum.
 Speck, Frank G. 1939. “More Algonkian Scapulimancy from the North, and the Hunting Territory Question.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 4(1): 21-28.
 The cultural term Algonkian denotes a common cultural grouping for northeastern Native peoples including Anishinabe, Wabanaki, and Wampanoag, among others. Culturally and linguistically, they are distinct from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples. The historic term Algonquin is used here to distinguish a particular grouping of Algonkian Indian First Nations bands located in the eastern Ontario and western Quebec provinces, sometimes collectively called the Algonquin Nation.
 Speck, Frank G. 1927. “River Desert Indians of Quebec.” Indian Notes IV(3):240-252. Also see Speck 1929. “Boundaries and Hunting Groups of the River Desert Algonquin.” Indian Notes VI(2):97-120. Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation.
 Beck, Horace 1947. “Algonquin Folklore from Maniwaki.” The Journal of American Folklore 60(237):259-264.
 McGregor, Ernest 1987. Algonquin Lexicon (Algonquin-English). Maniwaki, Quebec: River Desert Education Authority.
 Clément, Daniel and Noeline Martin 1996. “Algonquin Legends and Customs from an Unpublished Manuscript by Juliette Gaultier de la Vérendrye,” pp. 123-154 in Daniel Clément, The Algonquins. Hull Quebec: The Canadian Museum of Civilization.
 Speck, Frank G. 1941. “Art Processes in Birchbark of the River Desert Algonquin, a Circumboreal Trait,” Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnography Anthropological Papers 128(17):1-60.
 Norcini, Marilyn 2008. “Frederick Johnson’s ‘River Desert Algonquin’ Materials at the University of Pennsylvania Museum: A Collection History,” Museum Anthropology 31(2):122-147.