Cherokee Dance Rattles

Sound and Motion in Museum Objects:
Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Band Rattles

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sarah Parkinson

How should museums represent objects that incorporate sound and movement? This seems to be a unique challenge, since museums tend to rely on visual cues alone in displays that are static and mute.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

During a recent visit to the Collections Study Room in the Penn Museum, my analysis of a pair of Cherokee ankle bands presented a possible solution to this question in restorative methodologies. Although these objects were made to dance and audibly keep beat, they appeared to be silent and still when seen on the table in the study room. For me, this removed the possibility of imagining them in motion. However, by researching and reconstructing the context of their use and collection, and by connecting them to modern practices, I found that they began to “dance” once more in telling a story of continuing Cherokee traditions.

Ankle Bands: Object Analysis

According to the registration card, the ankle bands came from a Cherokee community in North Carolina called Big Cove Band. They were collected between 1932 and 1940 by Frank G. Speck and John G. Witthoft. The two ankle bands, labeled as 46-6-12 A and B, are nearly identical and were made to be a set. Each consists of a large square hide with some patches of fur. The dark stripes on each strand of fur indicate that this is most likely raccoon fur. On top of the hide backing, five turtle shells are strapped on with strands of leather, four in a square formation with one sitting on top of the square. Interestingly, two deer dewclaws are tied to each side of the bands. According to Native sensibilities, multiple elements can combine on a single object to increase its power. Therefore, the three different animals on these dance rattles—box turtles, raccoon, and deer—may signal the ankle bands’ connections to local fauna.

When I picked up the ankle bands to study the back, they rattled loudly. Unused to such a loud noise in the Museum, I was nervous, even though I had been careful in lifting them. I quickly realized that there were small pebbles inside each turtle shell, and I began to understand a larger story that had been obscured by my sole attention to visual elements. Instead of being purely aesthetic, these bands were meant to rattle and make noise each time the wearer took a step. Imagine them outside the silent Museum, and inside a living world complete with motion and sound—suddenly the ankle bands became more interesting!

Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Motion and Sound in Cherokee Stomp Dances

These ankle bands, when viewed in the sterile context of a museum, only tell a small portion of their own story. Laying on a table, it seems as if their only use is as a visible artifact. Seen in a different context, however, it is clear that these were made to actively participate in Cherokee stomp dances. A woman would wear these bands on her lower legs so that each time she steps, the pebbles beat the inside of the shell to create a steady beat. Sound and movement are clearly key in this narrative.[1]

Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for "Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.

Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for “Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.

During stomp dances, participants dance around a ceremonial fire. Sometimes chanting and drumbeats accompany the sound of the movements. Although both women and men dance, only the women wear these “shell shakers” made from the shells of the box turtle. Native people from several nations, including the Cherokee, still perform ceremonial stomp dances around a sacred fire, continuing this tradition into the present.[2]

Retracing Object Histories: Putting Collections in Context

Often, the act of collecting separates objects permanently from their cultural context, and so objects lose major chunks of their histories. Fortunately, this is not the case with this set of dance rattles thanks to the careful ethnographic work of Frank Speck. Speck and his student, John Whitthoft, collected these dance rattles during the same period when Speck and Leonard Broom were writing Cherokee Dance and Drama.[3] They collected recordings and photographs from North Carolina’s Big Cove Band of Eastern Cherokee along with objects such as this. In doing so, they made it possible to reconstruct a more complete object history of these dance rattles. By seeing and hearing how these particular objects might have been used, it becomes possible to imagine their life outside the Museum’s walls.

When conducting the field research for this work, Speck and Broom worked closely with Will West Long (1870-1947), their chief informant, who was listed as a coauthor.[4] Will West Long was born in Big Cove; the town was culturally conservative, since they were a semi-isolated remnant band that stayed in North Carolina after the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma. A broad survey of the collection of his notebooks in the American Philosophical Society archives reveals that West Long spent a large portion of his life trying to preserve Cherokee traditions. These notebooks are mostly in Cherokee, and include topics such as medicine, charms, and Cherokee syllabary.[5] Other eminent anthropologists of the age, including James Mooney and Frans Olbrechts, used West Long as an informant on Cherokee tradition. His mastery of Cherokee dance and song, combined with his desire to preserve traditions, made Will West Long the perfect informant.[6]

A Story Reunited

Viewed in isolation, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles cannot tell their full story, in which motion and sound are integral. However, by carefully tracing the history of these objects, a more complete narrative emerges. Thanks to Will West Long’s passion for preserving traditional Cherokee culture, Frank Speck and John Witthoft were able to collect not only the dance rattles, but also recordings and images of the songs and dance that animated them and gave them life. By reuniting these elements, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles can begin to take on a new life in the Museum.

Footnotes:

[1] See the Cherokee Nation website for a more complete description of the Cherokee Stomp Dance.
[2] An example of contemporary Native American Stomp Dancing with turtle shell ankle band rattles can be seen in this demonstration at the Battle of Horseshoe Band, Alabama.
[3] Speck, Frank, and Leonard Broom 1951. Cherokee Dance and Drama. Norman, OK.
[4] For detailed information on Will West Long, see “Cherokee Traditions,” a project of the Hunter Library Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University.
[5] See the Frank Gouldsmith Speck Cherokee Collection, Mss.572.97 at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, for a full inventory of the Cherokee notebooks, photographs, recordings, and other archival materials.
[6] Witthoft, John 1948. “Will West Long, Cherokee Informant,” American Anthropologist 50.2.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.

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Peyote Feather Fan

One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton

This peyote fan (object number 70-9-480) was once in the possession of a Delaware (also called Lenni Lenape or Lenape) medicine man from Oklahoma, variously named James C. Webber, War Eagle, and Wi·tapano’xwe (which translates to “walks with daylight”).[1] The geographically astute reader may realize that neither the plant peyote nor the Delaware people originally come from Oklahoma.[2] During the 19th century, many Delaware relocated westward (away from their East Coast environs), and encountered other nations who had also been expelled from their homelands. Some of their new neighbors came from peyote’s natural range of northern Mexico and southern Texas, where Indigenous people had consumed the psychoactive plant for thousands of years. The contemporary version of the peyote religion in which the fan is used sprung up in the late 19th century, after these nations introduced the concept of peyote ceremonies to the Delaware and other tribes.[3]

Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number 70-9-480.

Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number 70-9-480.

Peyote is a small squat spineless cactus that contains alkaloids, primarily mescaline, that produce euphoria and hallucinations when consumed. As the most integral part of the Native American Church peyote ceremony, peyote is a teacher and healer and brings people closer to the spiritual realm. Some versions of the ritual incorporate a Bible and reference Jesus, but the Delaware iteration that Wi·tapano’xwe practiced avoids overt Christian syncretism. The all-night ritual usually occurs in a tipi and involves periods of singing, prayers, blessings, and quiet contemplation.[4]

The role of a peyote fan like this one varies. A handwritten note from Frank Speck accompanies the object, saying it was “used to brush impurities from persons entering and leaving Peyote ceremony,” but that purpose is not mentioned in other ethnographic accounts. According to Wi·tapano’xwe himself, the religious leader and the attendants all carry eagle tail feather fans. The leader’s fan has decorated binding, unlike this one, and the leader passes it around the room and holds it while singing peyote songs. After midnight, everyone uses their fans to draw smoke from the central fire over their heads and bodies. In 1892, an ethnographer who attended a Kiowa ceremony, similar to the Delaware one, observed the leader using the fan to splash water upon the attendees as a blessing.[5]

This fan consists of a single layer of ten golden eagle feathers in a row, arranged from longest to shortest to create an arcing shape. The base of the feather part is embellished with single cardinal and bluejay feathers. The handle that holds these feathers together—a single piece of animal hide folded in half with seam edges exposed—is stitched up the sides with thick double-ply textile fiber string. The leather is worn and crackled from handling. A two-ply leather cord, tied through a hole in the bottom of the handle, could have hung the fan on a hook. The back side of the object is lighter in color than the front, possibly due to how it was used, stored, or displayed.

Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Any number of conditions could have caused the color difference and other damage. Unlike many other Native objects at the Penn Museum, this was obviously not treated with arsenic or other pesticides, since the feathers have extensive insect damage. The worst damage is near the handle, where pieces of feather are detached from the shaft, or holding on by just a few fibers.

The Penn Museum accession number indicates that this fan was cataloged in 1970, and that it came from the estate of Samuel Pennypacker, but it was originally collected by Penn anthropologist Frank G. Speck. The records of their transactions are vague and incomplete, but it appears that Speck essentially served as an intermediary between his rich friend Pennypacker and Native people in need of money, using Pennypacker as a kind of pawnbroker. A select collection of Native American objects—primarily ceremonial masks and ritual regalia—were displayed in a dedicated “Indian Room” in Pennypacker’s mansion until 1968, when his widow donated the entire collection to the Penn Museum.[6]

The Pennypacker folders in the Archives of the Penn Museum include additional data. A 1968 line item from the estate inventory lists: “Delaware Oklahoma Turkey Wing Fan, Eagle feather Fans” collectively valued at $7.50. A 1933 note in Frank Speck’s handwriting lists one “Enoch eagle wing fan” valued at $5.00. Most poignantly, one folder contains a letter from Wi·tapano’xwe himself. On November 6, 1934, he wrote to his old friend Speck, complaining of continuing pain from a broken leg, strategizing about ceremonial revivals, and offering objects for sale to make ends meet. In closing, he writes, “I thank you every so many time to remember me in the Great Spirit’s name. we will get going again. let me know what became of those peyote things when you write.”[7]

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.
Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Since Wi·tapano’xwe was a medicine man, and the leader of a Delaware peyote ceremony was expected to use a decorated fan, this fan with an undecorated handle was likely not his. The name “Enoch” in Speck’s 1933 list is probably Enoch Hoag, the Caddo chief and peyote roadman who taught the Oklahoma version of the adapted peyote ritual to Wi·tapano’xwe. The 1934 letter says that the peyote objects are associated with an “Enoc Moon Delaware.” This may refer to Enoch Hoag himself, or to his version of the peyote ceremony. As the two major variations of the ceremony were called the Half Moon and Big Moon, it became customary to name a roadman’s particular style after him. John Wilson’s ceremony, for example, was called the “Wilson moon.”[8] Whether the feather fan belonged to Hoag or to one of his followers, it’s difficult to speculate how or why it left Oklahoma. Perhaps Hoag gave it to Wi·tapano’xwe. Perhaps one of them was in dire financial need. Regardless, after Speck sold the fan to Pennypacker, it never returned to Oklahoma. As Dr. Bruchac notes, this matches a familiar pattern in salvage anthropology: despite their original intended use, items of ritual regalia routinely flew away from their communities of origin, coming to rest in isolated collections far from home.

Footnotes:

[1]  Dr. Margaret Bruchac identified these various names as belonging to a single individual, based upon her research into Frank G. Speck’s relations with Indigenous informants. Wi·tapano’xwe also worked closely with Speck’s Mohegan research assistant, Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
[2] The original Lenni Lenape territory includes: Staten Island and northern New Jersey (home of the Munsee, “people of the stoney country”); parts of eastern Pennsylvania (Unami, the “people down river”); and central to southern New Jersey (Unalactgio, the “people near the ocean,” also called Nanticoke). For historical background, see the Penn Treaty Museum website.
[3] Stewart, Omer C. 1987. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 49.
[4] Stewart 1987, pp. 34o-344, 348.
[5] Stewart 1987, pp. 340-356.
[6] These conclusions are based on research in progress by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, who has been tracking Frank G. Speck’s collecting of ethnographic objects from multiple Native American communities, and the subsequent circulation of those objects into the hands of private collectors and museums. Bruchac’s research into correspondence at the Penn Museum Archives revealed that the entire Pennypacker collection originally came from Speck.
[7] November 6, 1934 letter from Wi·tapano’xwe to Frank G. Speck. Dr. Bruchac discovered this letter in a file folder of uncatalogued miscellaneous correspondence in the Samuel Pennypacker Papers, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia, PA.
[8] Stewart 1987, pp. 87-94. John Wilson was a particularly influential leader for the Caddo and Delaware peyote practitioners. Wilson’s peyote rattle, decorated with the classic “peyote stitch” style of beadwork, is currently housed in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.

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On the Rail to the Wampum Trail

May 12, 2015

Amtrak Train to Springfield, MA – Sarah Parkinson

Photo from the Vermonter Line

Photo from the Vermonter Line – Sarah Parkinson

This morning, I boarded an Amtrak train on its way to Springfield, Massachusetts. From there, I will start my three week journey with the “On the Wampum Trail” team to research wampum in museum collections throughout the Northeast and Canada. There’s something about being on a train that makes me want to write, something about the constant motion and the way the scenery passes you by without giving you a second thought. What better way to get my own thoughts in order?

Wampum belts have been used by Northeastern Native Americans to mark important events, record agreements between tribes and with colonists, and to communicate messages between geographically separated tribes. These belts traditionally consist of white whelk and purple quahog shell beads, arranged in such a way that the light and dark beads signify meaning through a semiotics of dichotomy. By means of complex historical events, many wampum belts have now left Native hands and landed in museums.

“On the Wampum Trail” is headed by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. For this field trip, I’ll be traveling with Zhenia Bemko and Stephanie Mach, graduate students in Anthropology. Our project seeks to closely examine wampum in museum collections, paying close attention to the materiality, construction methods, and any small detail that may give us a clue about the object’s life both inside the museum and out. Along with close object analysis, we will also track object histories through a process which we call restorative methodologies. By investigating the history of the wampum’s collection and curation, we hope to gain insight about rich object histories, provenance, and respectful curatorial practices.

Trader’s wampum between rawhide bars.
Museum Object Number : 97-84-2005

Some “wampum” belts in museums contain glass beads; several are even entirely constructed from glass beads. This variation in materiality may seem accidental at first, but I suggest that the use of glass wampum in belts is intentional, since it seems to signify something that is absent from traditional beads. During this field project, I will be focusing particularly on glass bead wampum as distinct from traditional shell bead wampum. Because these objects are not constructed with “traditional” “Native” materials, museums tend to classify, curate, and display these objects differently than shell bead wampum. I hope to begin to answer: How do glass bead wampum belts differ from shell bead wampum, and how do museums understand this difference?

My introduction to the Wampum Trail project began with transcribing recordings from last summer’s field research. The object analyses and archival data were of course interesting, but what stuck with me most from these recordings were the personal stories attached to wampum—the way belts have touched people. For example, I transcribed a conversation between Dr. Bruchac and a Native curator in which the curator described a ceremony her community held to commemorate a belt. She reflected on the ceremony with great pride, and the way the belt moved her was evident just from the audio recordings. These moments are what is important to me in this research, the times that remind me that the wampum matters. The belts that the Wampum Trail team is studying are not just dead objects laying on museum shelves. These objects can be intensely culturally significant, and they very much have a life of their own. This project is important to me because the wampum items in museum collections deserve to have their stories told.

I brought these questions with me during a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in March. Now, I have the opportunity to cover more ground. Today, to get a sense of the landscape, Dr. Bruchac brought us up Mount Skinner to view the expanse of the Connecticut River Valley. Tomorrow, we will traverse the state of Massachusetts on our way to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. From there, we will travel north to New Hampshire, and then on to New York, Ontario, and Quebec, including meeting with members of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee to report our research progress along the way. The next three weeks will certainly be exciting—we know where we’re going, but we don’t know exactly what new understandings we’ll uncover. My plan is to keep my eyes and mind open for new insights along the way.

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The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects

Frank Gouldsmith Speck (1881–1950), acknowledged as one of the most prolific anthropologists of the early 20th century, served as chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania for nearly four decades (1913–1949). He conducted ground-breaking ethnographic research, working closely with Indigenous informants from a wide range of communities (Cherokee, Haudenosaunee, Mohegan, Nanticoke, Penobscot, etc.) and amassed thousands of objects. Although his collections contain seminal data on tribal nations, languages, art, technology, and customs, public understandings of that data and those peoples are often flawed or incomplete, and the objects he collected are widely distributed among various museums.

Frank Speck in his office in College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, c. 1930.

Frank Speck in his office in College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, c. 1930. Photo Credit: University of Pennsylvania Archives

Relations of Collecting and Fictive Kin

The anthropological project, in Speck’s time, was conceived as a large-scale rescue of what was presumed to be rapidly vanishing Indigenous material and data. The physical challenges of this enterprise were considerable: collectors had to travel great distances, navigate unfamiliar landscapes, and communicate in foreign languages, while also endeavoring to identify fixed social, geographical, and political boundaries among and between tribal individuals and nations. Speck’s ethnographic research would have been virtually impossible without the intellectual and cultural contributions from his many Indigenous informants—Gladys Tantaquidegon (Mohegan), Will West Long (Cherokee), Witapanox’we (Delaware), and many others—who should more appropriately be viewed as research collaborators.

Early in his academic career, Frank Speck demonstrated an unusual willingness to interact with Native people on their home ground, practicing what he described to his students as “bedside ethnography,” a deeply personal mode of participant observation. He also welcomed his Native informants as regular visitors to the University…although he often used these visits as an excuse to absent himself from campus. William Fenton recalled:

“No academic appointment, no learned gathering, no university functions took precedence over the visit of an Indian colleague, the summons of an Indian council, or the call to attend a ceremony…. Speck did not covet academic honors; rather, he valued the good opinion of his Indian friends equally with the esteem of his colleagues among academicians.”[1]

Members of the Algonquin Council of New England at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island in 1924. (left-right) Chief Leroy Perry (Pocasset Wampanoag), Mrs. Steele (Narragansett), Chief Robert Clark (Nanticoke), Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan), Perry Congdon (Mohegan), Gertrude Harrison (Mohegan), Chief Mitchell (Narragansett), Joe Strong Wolf. Photo by Frank Speck, Penn Museum Archives.

Members of the Algonquin Council of New England at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1924. (left-right) Chief Leroy Perry (Pocasset Wampanoag), Mrs. Steele (Narragansett), Chief Robert Clark (Nanticoke), Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan), Perry Congdon (Mohegan), Gertrude Harrison (Mohegan), Chief Mitchell (Narragansett), and Joe Strong Wolf. Photo Photo by Frank Speck, Penn Museum Archives.

Speck’s Native informants were not, as might be imagined, passive and politically naïve subjects patiently waiting to be discovered; they often had access to culturally authentic knowledges and objects and were willing to interface with non-Native collectors. Some of the most productive informants consciously sought out anthropologists and offered their services as interlocutors. Those who held formal positions of knowledge and authority as faithkeepers or chiefs strove to mediate anthropological relations in ways that could help their kin and communities. At the American Philosophical Society (APS) and elsewhere, the intellectual contributions of these Native informants and gatekeepers can be found buried in the archives that house the papers of prominent non-Native anthropologists.

Postcards from Frank Speck to Samuel Pennypacker, in the Penn Museum Archives. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Postcards from Frank Speck to Samuel Pennypacker, in the Penn Museum Archives. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Collecting was rarely a simple matter of discovering and recovering objects in an orderly fashion; collections resulted from individual encounters shaped by selective manipulations of heritage and negotiations of value. Some Native informants chose to actively conceal items and knowledge; in other cases, sensitive items were given away or sold. The most vulnerable informants were the elderly, infirm, lonely, and desperate. They would sell a story for some friendly companionship, some songs for a bottle, a beaded belt for a loaf of bread. For example, when Cynthia Fowler was starving, Speck purchased the single thing of value she still owned—a strand of wampum beads. When Witapanox’we was ill and impoverished, Speck helped out his old Delaware friend by purchasing his ritual regalia, feathers, and peyote wands. When Cherokee traditionalist Will West Long needed some extra money, he parted with his book of medicinal formulas. Transactions like these suggest a certain degree of trust in Speck as fictive kin, but they also reflect the desperation of the times, and the hope that these objects might be kept safe until they could find their way home again.

Recovering and Recontextualizing Scattered Data 

The sheer volume of objects, publications, and unpublished manuscripts in the Speck collections, scattered into multiple institutions and archives, is so diverse that these collections could inspire multiple projects in cultural recovery and reconnection.  Native American and First Nation objects collected by Speck were deposited in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian, Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History), Peabody Essex Museum, Denver Art Museum, and the Penn Museum, as well as select European museums. However, in virtually every institution, curators and scholars devised individual interpretations of their collections based on what is locally “known.” As a result, related images, items, and data were physically sorted (and conceptually separated) in differing ways, often without clear records of their tribal identities and symbolic meanings.

In some cases, provenance data was preserved in archives, but detached from objects on display. In others, objects and photos of people using or wearing those objects were housed in separate locales. Data housed in one museum can often shed light on poorly identified objects in another museum. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is particularly a matter for concern in college collections that have become imbued with new significances and meanings as curators and students have imposed new (and sometimes misleading) sorting methods over time:

“Institutional memories were inevitably shaped by the handling patterns and hypotheses that surrounded these objects. Museum audiences, in turn, drew their understandings of native collections not from the aboriginal context but from the theories in effect at the moment of discovery, the opinions of scientific experts and curators, the text on the display card, or what they guessed (or wished) to be true.”[2]

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano’xwe. Collected by Frank Speck and accessioned as part of the Samuel Pennypacker bequest. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

As a case in point, one unusual collection of objects at the Penn Museum is cataloged as a donation from Samuel Pennypacker, one of Speck’s wealthy students. The records of transactions between Pennypacker and Speck are vague and incomplete (comprised of a few file folders of postcards and miscellaneous notes), but taken together they represent an interesting set of negotiations. Pennypacker was always a source of ready cash, and Speck essentially served as an intermediary between his rich friend and Native people in need of money, rather like a pawnbroker. There is no record that Pennypacker ever sold any of the items he got from Speck; instead, he kept this select collection of Native American objects—primarily ceremonial masks and ritual regalia—and displayed them in a dedicated “Indian Room” in the Pennypacker Mansion outside of Philadelphia. The collection remained intact until 1968, when Pennypacker’s widow donated the entire “Indian Room” to the Penn Museum.[3]

Engaging Student Researchers

During the Spring semester of 2015, as part of their hands-on experience in restorative research, I challenged each of the students in my museum anthropology course to tackle a single object (out of more than 1,000 objects) from the Speck collections in the Penn Museum. I was certain that the process of closely examining a single object, while attempting to recover data on the Native individual who produced it, would provoke new insights into the nature of Speck’s encounters with his Indigenous informants, and the role these encounters played in shaping anthropological knowledge.

The experience of conducting restorative research in museum collections and archives does much more than train students in museological methods of display and curation. My students learned how to examine minute object details, conduct archival research in primary sources, and critically query the inferences and speculations contained in secondary sources. They also learned about some of the ethics and protocols concerning specialized and sensitive knowledges, thanks to the information shared by my own Indigenous informants, several of whom are direct descendants of the people with whom Speck worked. As a final project, each student produced a report and a blog detailing the insights they gained, and pointing the way for further research.

In sum, this kind of focused approach to investigating museum objects, and the stories people tell about objects, can help students develop more nuanced awareness of Indigenous collections, and gain more sensitive understandings of why, and to whom, these collections and these histories matter.

Footnotes:

[1] William N. Fenton. 1991. “Frank G. Speck’s Anthropology,” pp. 9-37 in The Life and Times of Frank G. Speck, 1881–1950, Roy Blankenship, ed. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology.
[2] Margaret M. Bruchac. 2010. “Lost and Found: NAGPRA, Scattered Relics, and Restorative Methodologies.” Museum Anthropology 33(2):137-156.
[3] My research into Speck’s materials in the Penn Museum Archives revealed that virtually all of the objects in Samuel Pennypacker’s “Indian Room” were originally collected by Frank Speck. Postcards from Speck and a small collection of letters from Native American informants are housed in a file folder of uncatalogued miscellaneous correspondence in the Samuel Pennypacker Papers, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

NOTE: For additional posts on the Speck collection at the Penn Museum, see:

Margaret Bruchac: Mackosi’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships
Monica Fenton: One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum
Sarah Parkinson: Sound and Motion in Museum Objects: Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Band Rattles
Elizabeth Peng: Potato Stamps and Ash Splints: A Narrative of Process and Exchange

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Why Would We Dig Here?

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project is a new Penn Museum research project, conducting its first season in the field during the late spring of 2015. The Penn Museum’s social media coordinator, Tom Stanley, is blogging about the project.


The Smith Creek Archaeological Project focuses on a little-known site in rural Mississippi, land that was reshaped by a culture of Native people, beginning as early as 600 CE and continuing for centuries thereafter. Moreover, evidence from nearby sites indicates that people were living in the area many thousands of years before that. The site is located on private land, and has undergone very little excavation in years past. So why would the Penn Museum be sending a whole team of people to dig there?

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Photo courtesy of Megan Kassabaum

The answer lies with the project’s director, Dr. Megan Kassabaum. Meg is a fairly new face at the Museum and the University, having just joined us last summer; before that, she was earning her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, under her advisor, Dr. Vin Steponaitis. Meg wrote her dissertation on the site where she, Dr. Steponaitis, and John O’Hear worked together for close to a decade – a site called Feltus, located about 45 miles north of Smith Creek. Both these sites, and many more throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley, are characterized by the presence of several earthen mounds surrounding a central plaza.

Feltus has a relatively long history of excavation, dating back to a visit from a physician named Montroville W. Dickeson III, who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia. Dickeson was an “avocational archaeologist” – one who does not necessarily have formal training in the discipline – and excavated at Feltus and other mound sites in the 1840s. Two other excavations at Feltus and a mapping of the site preceded the project that brought Meg to the site in 2006. The Feltus excavations continue to this day under Dr. Steponaitis’s direction.

Work at Feltus revealed clues about the activities that had been practiced in the areas on and around the mounds. It doesn’t appear that many people, if any, were actually living at the site; rather, it’s more likely that the area was once used as a gathering center for feasts, ceremonies, or other communal activities. Deposits of refuse at the site reveal animal bones and broken pieces of large pottery containers; these appear to be contemporaneous with a number of postholes in the ground, into which wooden posts were likely placed ceremonially before being removed shortly thereafter, and then refilled. Limited excavation at nearby Smith Creek has shown indications of a very similar suite of activities as these found at Feltus.

The mounds at Feltus were also not constructed in one fell swoop; each mound consists of layers – in one case with any many as five layers to the construction – similar to the construction of the mounds at Smith Creek. Taken together with unmistakable similarities in pottery remains found at both sites, it’s evident that there were strong temporal and cultural similarities between the people who built and used these two sites.

The pattern that these sites follow, called the Coles Creek pattern, stands in contrast to some other, later and better-known mound sites in the Americas, such as Cahokia where a chief lived on top of the biggest mound and looked down on the people over whom he held power. At Coles Creek sites, there is little evidence that any one person held political rule over any other portion of the population.

After working at Feltus since 2006 and honing her skills as an archaeologist and a researcher, Meg is now bringing her years of experience to Smith Creek in an attempt to broaden the sample for the Coles Creek pattern of site use. The project will use knowledge of similar sites like Feltus to investigate areas of special significance at Smith Creek, and will hopefully provide stronger evidence for these sites’ prehistoric designations as places of gathering, community, and ceremony.

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Greenland Inuit Doll

The Lady in Furs

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton

Eskimo (Inuit) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 97-14-7.

Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

This Inuit (Eskimo) doll, accessioned in 1937 (37-14-7), is one of seventeen objects from Greenland donated by Samuel C. Ingraham. The collection, consisting mostly of footwear, also includes a model kayak with a human figurine and miniature harpoon. The doll came from the town of Arsuk, and the model kayak hails from Ivigtut, although most lack specific provenience.

Just as the kayak and harpoon are small but highly detailed replicas of adult tools, the doll is an image of how a married Inuit woman of that time (late 19th to early 20th century) was expected to dress. These objects (typically labeled as toys) served a purpose beyond a simple plaything. They modeled how children were expected to conduct and dress themselves in adult life, and helped to teach useful skills.

The Museum’s collections database describes the doll as: “Representing a married woman (note blue hair ribbon). Stuffed cloth body, bone? head, ivory forearms. Wearing plaid silk shirt, sealskin trousers and boots—both embroidered with skin applique.” This textile terminology is incorrect. Embroidery is created by strings sewn through the fabric over and over again; the decorations on this doll’s clothing are appliqués, cut-out shapes sewn onto a base fabric.

Close-up of beadwork collar on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland

Close-up of beadwork collar on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

A wide range of material was used in her construction. Her body is made of rough plain yellowish cloth, perhaps linen or cotton. Her blouse is blue, red, and yellow plaid, with large fibers, a coarse weave, and a dull lustre. The orange and peach fabric trim at the cuffs and bottom of the blouse appear to be silk, with a fine weave and distinctive sheen. Fur trim at the neck and ends of the sleeves is important; it would protect a real live woman from the cold seeping in at these openings. An elaborate collar of little glass trade beads—blue, white, clear, purple, black, and red—is sewn onto the blouse below the neck fur.

This doll’s clothing can readily be compared to a full-size suit of Inuit women’s clothing from Godhaven, Greenland (items #97-84-709 A-D), purchased by another collector and housed in the Museum. This woman’s suit is said to have been “made by order of the Governor of the Peary Relief Expedition” in 1892; it was originally housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (item #11180), and was later gifted to the Penn Museum. Even though these suits of women’s clothing are separated in time (and in measure), they are remarkably similar. The adult blouse is of calico rather than plaid European fabric, but it bears the same crisscross bead collar pattern—with nearly identical weave and colors of beads. It also includes fur cuffs and orange silk trim, just like the doll-sized version.

Woman's suit collected from Godhaven, Greenland, during the Peary Relief Expedition 1892. Gift from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Museum Object Numbers: 97-84-709A-D.

Woman’s suit collected from Godhaven, Greenland, during the Peary Relief Expedition in 1892. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers: 97-84-709A-D.

Similarly, the doll’s sealskin trousers, which still have patches of short fur attached, are a miniature version of the longer thicker fur found on the human-size garment. Both pieces of clothing have a vertical strip of skin applique designs on the front of each thigh. On the doll, long red and white strips border a central yellow piece adorned with tiny red, blue, and yellow skin rectangles arranged in geometric designs. The applique is sewn with thread, not sinew, and when possible the maker sewed underneath the upper layer of the skin in order to hide the stitches. Despite the differences in scale, the small individual pieces of skin that make up the patterns are about the same size. The same craft material was used for both the model trousers and the ‘real’ piece of clothing, suggesting that the person who made the doll did not think it should be an inferior or simpler version of reality just because it was smaller. In fact, the doll’s design has more colors and a more complicated pattern.

Close-up of trousers and boots on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Close-up of trousers and boots on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

The doll’s knee-high boots, like the other garments, are a miniature version of the traditional boots (called kamik) that accompany the adult clothing. Their geometric skin strip design is similar to the trousers, but without the red and white borders.

The catalog card speculates that her head is made from bone, but the color, texture, and grain indicate carved wood. The cloth cap on her head anchors a hank of real human hair, wrapped with a blue ribbon, which, according to the card, indicates her marital status. Her hands are made of ivory, heavier than the fabric parts of the doll, and sewn into the arms of the cloth blouse.

The doll’s condition is good, with a bit of wear, suggesting that she was likely used or played with before being collected as an ethnographic artifact. Her arms are hanging on by literally a thread or two, which could have resulted either from rough handling or improper display. If the doll had been displayed upright without support for the arms, gravity may have slowly weakened the threads.

As I examined this doll for over two hours, I was deeply impressed with the creator’s careful attention to realism and detail. The references to actual adult clothing were so clear that even a non-Inuit non-expert like me could see them. Like the kayak and canoe models, this doll was not just a toy, but a tool for showing children the way things were actually done. Her aesthetics sharply contrast with female dolls in modern American culture, which project a completely unattainable ideal of body proportions that no healthy person could have, and luxury fashions that most people cannot afford. Instead, this doll projects a sturdy and healthy female body, dressed in surprisingly accurate and detailed proper Inuit clothing. Her choices of traditional fabrics and furs not only keep her warm, but they also display her access to trade connections and ability to choose select exotic goods for ornamentation.

NOTE: For more information about this Arctic doll and these clothes, see the related blog article— “Ladies in Fur, Traveling through Time“—by Margaret Bruchac.

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Ladies in Fur, Traveling through Time

Eskimo (Inuit) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

The Penn Museum holds a variety of dolls from Arctic environs, including those collected by William Van Valin, George Byron Gordon, Captain George Comer, and the Peary Relief Expedition. Most of the items classified as “dolls” are small wooden figures; only a few represent realistic renditions of Arctic clothing. This Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Greenland (object number 37-14-7) stands out in that she reflects a meticulous level of detail from the minuscule stitching on her kamiks to the precise mode of styling and wrapping her hair to signal marital status. As noted by Monica Fenton in her blog, “The Lady in Furs,” the construction of this doll’s clothing matches the construction of adult Inuit women’s clothing. Who made this doll, and what was her purpose? Her dress is said to represent a married Inuit woman, but does she also represent a specific individual? Whose hair is on her head? How did she make her way to the Museum?

Questions of Provenance

The history of the doll’s accession reveals an interesting chain of provenance. A note housed in collections storage indicates that she was originally: “…made by an Eskimo of Arsuk, Greenland, and given to Governor Korse’s wife and then given to me,” during the Peary North Greenland Expedition in 1894.[1] The artisan who created this doll and the Governor’s wife are unnamed, but the “me” (written on a note curated with the doll) happens to be Eivind Astrup (1871-1894), a budding scholar who left Philadelphia in 1892 to join the Peary Relief Expedition mounted by Angelo Heilprin, Curator of the Academy of the Natural Science in Philadelphia.[2]

Detail of Greenland Inuit doll's hand. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.

Detail of Greenland Inuit doll’s hand. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.

Astrup is legendary in the annals of Arctic exploration. He assisted Peary in mapping northern Greenland, and was second in command while mapping Melville Bay in 1893-4, with the assistance of Inuit guide Kolotengva. He described his encounters with Inuit people and practices in his book, With Peary near the North Pole (1898, published posthumously).[3], Yet, he was not an ethnographic collector. Why, then, was this doll “given” to him by the Governor’s wife? Was the doll intended as a gift for a young girl, or for another woman? Was she collected as a tourist curiosity? There are some curious scratchmarks on her left hand; these might be a date and signature, but they are illegible. The collection of objects attributed to Astrup (donated to the Penn Museum by Samuel Ingraham) is sparse—a few tools, a few items of clothing—with virtually no contextual details that shed light on their origins. It’s likely that those objects, along with this doll, were found among Astrup’s possessions after he perished during a solo ski journey in 1894.

The Penn Museum holds a few similar items associated with another expedition to Greenland: a suit of life-sized Inuit women’s clothing collected from Godhaven. The collection card reads: “Made by order of the Governor of the Peary Relief Expedition 1892.” There is no indication, however, who these clothes were for or from. These clothes are clearly not new; they show marks of use and fading that suggest everyday outside wear. The shoulders and arms of the parka are faded from exposure to the sun over time (while the underarm colors are still bright), and the boots and trousers show creases from walking. The name of the Inuit artisan is not recorded, but close material examination reveals that she used precisely the same dyes, same threads, and same patterns as the maker of the doll. This suggests that these items reflect, if not the same maker, then the same regional tradition, with shared materials and techniques. Eivind Astrup noticed this marked conformity in Inuit clothing, writing, “Not one of them has a single dress which is not cut exactly from the same pattern, and made of skins from the same source.”[4]

Ladies in Fur: World Travelers

Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 805, sold at Cowan's American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004. Formerly in the collections of the First People's Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo.

Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 805, sold at Cowan’s American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004. Formerly in the collections of the First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo.

Although her history is somewhat mysterious, the doll herself is not unusual. Similarly detailed miniature representations of Arctic people and clothing survive in other museum collections. One stunning pair of dolls, in winter and summer dress (shown here) was de-accessioned from the First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo and sold at a Cowan’s auction in 2004. The sheer volume of these dolls, in public and private collections, suggests that they were likely made for home use and for trade. Over time, they acquired meanings that served multiple purposes. In their home communities, they provided cultural role models and training in techniques of sewing for Inuit girls. Outside of Greenland, they communicated authentic representations of Greenland’s Inuit women to the rest of the world.

Two Greenland Eskimo Dolls. Sold at Cowan's American Indian and Western Art Auction, September 15, 2007.

Two Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 44. Sold at Cowan’s American Indian and Western Art Auction, September 15, 2007.

The Greenland tourism site notes that this style of clothing (with some modern adaptations) is also a form of cultural performance when donned for special occasions (including the arrival of tourist ships).[5] Today, some Inuit girls and women wear sealskin and leather with appliqués and parkas of trade cloth and glass beads; others don elaborately beaded multi-colored collars and lacy kamiks in bright colors that nod to the aesthetics of the past while celebrating the vibrancy of the present.

In all of these iterations, Greenland’s “traditional” garb combines Inuit and Euro-American materials in ways that reflect Indigenous aesthetics: Native ivory, leather, and fur; Euro-American cloth, silk ribbon, and glass beads; and thread and stitching techniques that indicate the use of a small metal needle.[6] This syncretic style was, in fact, made possible by the abundance of trade objects offered to the Inuit by Arctic explorers. The Peary Relief Expedition from Philadelphia, for example, brought the following goods to repay Inuit people for their services and assistance: “…pots, kettles, knives, scissors, thimbles, and needles for the women, and for the men, lances, saws, gimlets, knives, timber and other hardware items.”[7]

With all of this in mind, the Arctic doll given to Eivind Astrup is more than a toy, and more than a mere tourist collectible. This doll, when presented to an outsider (under the right circumstances) held the almost magical potential to reproduce herself by attracting (and transacting for) more of the valuable trade resources that were, and could be, used to dress her and her kin.


Footnotes:

[1] From notes on the collection card and a typewritten note in the Penn Museum storage area, curated with the doll in collections.
[2] See Eivind Astrup – An Arctic Pioneer—a 2014 documentary by the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway.
[3] Astrup, Eivind. 1898. With Peary near the North Pole. Translated from the Norwegian by H.J. Bull London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.
[4] Ibid. P. 89.
[5]  “Greenland Eskimo Dolls” Lot 805. Ex First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo. Cowan’s American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004.
[6]  “Traditional Dress.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[7] Ethnographic photos show the persistence and uniformity of these material and designs. See, for example, the garb worn by these two teenagers photographed in 1930 by Henry Iliffe Cozens, during the British Arctic Air Route ExpeditionFreeze-Frame: Historic Polar Images. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.
[8] Henderson, Bruce. 2005. True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York, BY: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 77.

NOTE: For more information on traditional and modern Greenland Inuit dress, see J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, and Robert Storrie, eds. 2005. Arctic Clothing of North-America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland. Montreal, Quebec: McGill Queen’s University Press.

 

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Into the Field: The Smith Creek Archaeological Project

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project is a new Penn Museum research project, conducting its first season in the field during the late spring of 2015. The Penn Museum’s social media coordinator, Tom Stanley, is blogging about the project.


For more than 125 years, researchers from the Penn Museum have been digging on excavations throughout the world, and this year is no different. A variety of Museum-sponsored excavations are in progress during 2015, and one project will be in its first season this year: the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, led by Dr. Megan Kassabaum.

This particular project focuses on a site known as Smith Creek, situated along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River—specifically, near a town called Woodville in southwest Mississippi. The site is significant due to the presence of three large, earthen mounds made completely of soil and created by hand more than a millennium ago.  The largest mound is a flat-topped platform about 10 meters tall.

One of three earthen mounds at Smith Creek. Photo by Megan Kassabaum.

Mound A, one of three earthen mounds at Smith Creek. Photo by Megan Kassabaum.

Smith Creek was occupied as early as about 600 CE and the mounds were created by a group known as the Coles Creek Culture. This culture flourished in the Lower Mississippi River Valley between about 700 and 1200 CE and many mound sites were constructed throughout the region during this time. Most of these sites show an architectural pattern consisting of two to four platform mounds arranged around an open plaza.

Today, our knowledge about the people who created the mounds is limited. The connection between Coles Creek people and contemporary Native tribes is complicated, and few Coles Creek sites have undergone extensive excavation.

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Photo by Penn Museum.

But the director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, Dr. Kassabaum—who goes by Meg—is well qualified to head up this expedition. Meg has been conducting fieldwork at Coles Creek sites since 2006, the majority of which took place at a site about 45 miles north of Smith Creek, called Feltus; this site has much in common with Smith Creek, from its physical layout to the types of artifacts discovered therein. Aside from directing this new project, Meg also serves as the Weingarten Assistant Curator in the American Section here at the Penn Museum, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology for the University of Pennsylvania.

The first season of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project kicks off on Sunday, May 24. The main goals of the project will be to survey the landscape to gain a broad view of the site overall and determine just how much of the site was modified by its ancient designers; and to excavate at various points across the site with the intention of uncovering artifacts like ceramics, lithics, and plant and animal remains that may represent evidence of ancient food consumption, and unique features that can speak to a very big, underlying question: why was this mound center created in the first place?

The project will be assisted by an excavation team of a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, most of whom are enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Also tagging along will be the Penn Museum’s Social Media Coordinator, Tom Stanley (that’s me!)—I’ll be on site for close to two weeks in the middle of the excavation season, snapping photos, taking notes, getting my hands a little dirty, and documenting the adventure right here on the Penn Museum blog.

Stay tuned for much more on this fascinating project in the weeks and months to come! For now, if you’d like to learn more about the monumental grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, I highly recommend this video of Meg’s lecture of the same name.

To learn more about the Coles Creek Culture, see this article authored by Meg and Dr. Vincas Steponaitis, Director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and John O’Hear, another Mississippi archaeologist.

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Inuit Kamik from Greenland

Fashion: Fur, Flowers, and Flannel

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Elizabeth Peng

Elizabeth Peng examines Eskimo (Inuit) women's boots from Greenland, in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.

Elizabeth Peng examines Eskimo (Inuit) women’s boots from Greenland, in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 30-5-1A-D.

The clothes that we put on our bodies are rarely simple: they are imbued with cultural and aesthetic purposes that cannot be easily disconnected from the materials from which they are constructed. A myriad of factors come together to create the clothes that people wear, now and in the past. This is especially clear in the Greenlandic Inuit boots and stockings I examined at the Penn Museum (object numbers 30-5-1A to 30-5-1D).

The catalog card identifies them as having been made by the “Eskimo” culture in Greenland. The boot consist of sealskin leather, with a walrus hide sole. The tops of the boots are appliqued with leather bits arranged in a geometric pattern of Native design. The stockings, in contrast, consist of sealskin with fur on the inside, flipped over at the top to expose a fur border. On the top half of the stocking, under the fur border, a piece of red flannel cloth is loosely tacked to the furless backside. On top of the flannel, the lower leg of a Euro-American-style linen woman’s pantalette has been attached upside down, exposing its lacework border and embroidered floral motif. The only severe signs of wear on the garments are large brown droplet stains on the outsides of the linen. These stains, located at the same height on each boot, might have been caused by mud splashing onto the sides of the stockings, or dampness that rotted the linen. The wear patterns on the soles and creases are consistent with everyday use of the boots and stockings.

Detail of Eskimo (Inuit) women's boots, showing linen, embroidery, and stains. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission

Detail of Eskimo (Inuit) women’s boots, showing linen, embroidery, stains, and wear patterns. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.

According to the Penn Museum, the boots were a gift from Constantin Dumbrava, a Romanian polar explorer. He made two scientific expeditions to Greenland in 1927 and in 1930 to study meteorology and topography, the latter trip with the intention to gather data for the establishment of transatlantic flight routes.[1] Perhaps it was on one of these trips that he collected ethnographic materials from the Indigenous people with whom he came into contact. A search of the Museum’s collection shows that he also collected caps, trousers, parkas, pouches, and moccasins, among other objects, from Greenland.[2]

These boots and stockings appear to be traditional Greenlandic kamiks, or waterproof boots and liners made from either seal or caribou skin.[3] Seal skin, as seen in this example, is more lightweight than caribou and ideal for year-round wear, especially for wet snow, as it is more waterproof than caribou. A combination of skin stockings, slippers, and boots are worn; the number and type of layers vary with weather, terrain, activity, and cultural group. Two to five layers could be worn, in the following order: inner slipper, outer stocking, boot, and over slipper.[4]

It is clear that kamiks are imbued with cultural significance: the construction and decoration communicate the maker’s lineage, abilities, gender, chosen activity, and even regional relationships. For example, men’s kamiks often have vertical patterns on the shaft, while women’s kamiks have horizontal ones, as seen in this example.[5] Even the production of the boot consists of a lengthy and complex process spanning from the preparation of skins to cutting and sewing a specific set of patterns, using tools personal to the maker.[6] Traditionally, kamiks are sewn together with dried sinew, which swells when wet and therefore acts as a waterproof barrier—here, while the boots seem to be sewn together with sinew, the decorative fabrics are tacked on with cotton thread.

Elizabth Peng and Karen Thomson, Curatorial Assistant at the Penn Museum, examine the lining of these Eskimo (Inuit) boots.

Elizabth Peng and Karen Thomson, Collections Assistant at the Penn Museum, examine the lining of these Eskimo (Inuit) boots. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The making and wearing of kamiks appears to be a common circumpolar tradition, shared by the Inupiat, Inuit, and Inuvialuit peoples. In many of these regions, it seems that the creation of kamiks takes on the role of a generationally transmitted tradition. According to Ulayok Kaviok, an Inuit elder from Nunatsiavut, Canada:

During the skin boot production process, elders pass on oral traditions to young seamstresses who are interested in traditional rituals and sharing systems. The first pair of skin boots sewn by a young sibling is a symbol of her bond with the traditional lifestyle and the importance of sharing Inuit and Inuvialuit culture.[7]

Indeed, in a scene depicted in “Kamik,” an episode of the documentary series Unikkausivut—Sharing Our Stories (1989) detailing kamik making, Ulayok Kaviok’s daughter Elizabeth prepares and softens the sealskin by chewing on it while Ulayok sews the skins together.[8]

Ally Mitchem, Elizabeth Peng, and Bill Wierzbowski in the Penn Museum collections storage area, with multiple examples of adorned Inuit women's boots from Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Ally Mitchem, Elizabeth Peng, and Bill Wierzbowski (American Section Keeper) in the Penn Museum collections storage area, with multiple examples of adorned Inuit women’s boots from Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

However, it is important to note that, although there are similarities in the processes of creating kamiks among circumpolar Arctic peoples, the creation of Greenlandic kamiks is very particular to that region. Thus, it should not be surprising that the boots and stockings would combine indigenous Greenlandic and European sensibilities. When Europeans arrived in Greenland, they often brought with them fabrics and other trade goods. These materials came to be incorporated into Inuit dress, especially for festive attire.[9]

These fashion choices by Indigenous women in Greenland—to have combined European embellishments with Native materials, symbols, and construction—suggest the complexity of Native relations with trading posts and with Euro-American settlers. These exchanges can be interpreted not only materially, through the acquisition of non-Native goods and their physical combination with Native garments, but also symbolically, through the adaptation of European fashions to Indigenous ones and vice versa. In fact, it seems that this specific intermixing of forms—the interposition of floral embroidery and lacework on sealskin boots—is unique to Greenland, based on a cross-cultural analysis of other Arctic boots in the Penn Museum collections and in photographs from the Museum Archives.

High-heeled and traditional versions of kamiks. Photo courtesy of Mads Pihl. Photo - Angu Motzfeldt - Visit Greenland.

High-heeled and traditional versions of kamiks. Photo courtesy of Mads Pihl. Photo – Angu Motzfeldt – Visit Greenland.

Today, kamiks are incorporated into the Greenlandic national costume, worn on special occasions and at celebrations such as “Christmas, Easter, Greenland’s National Day, confirmations, and weddings,” according to the Official Tourism Site of Greenland.[10] They consist of long boots made with sealskin at the bottom and floral embroidery sewn in silk thread at the top.[11] Kamiks also became a subject of controversy a few years ago, when a pair of “modernized” kamik boots were presented at London Fashion Week by Danish designer Peter Jensen. Protestors saw the white, leather thigh-high heeled boots with floral embroidery at the top that were clearly inspired by Greenlandic national attire as offensive, and they demanded that the boot be taken off the market.[12] The case for cultural appropriation continues to be debated, and on this, Greenlandic writer and artist Jørgen Chemnitz offers these insights:

Ironically, this ignores the fact that the Greenlandic national costume is actually an imaginatively put together amalgam of new and old materials from all corners of the globe: sealskin, pearls, [and] silks.[13]

Thus it seems that the fur, flannel, and floral embroidery used in the creation of traditional kamiks represent the continuing synthesis, reorganization, and interpretation of differing cultural traditions in Arctic Greenland.

Footnotes:

[1] International News Service. “Greenland Trip to Study Storm Danger for Atlantic Flyers.” The Deseret News 2 July 1927: Section 4, Page 8; “Paris to Montreal Flight Projected: Romanian Scientist and Explorer Will Gather Parliamentary Data.” The Montreal Gazette 28 March 1930: Page 2.
[2] See objects collected by Constantin Dumbrava in the Penn Museum Online Collections Database.
[3] “Our Boots, An Inuit Woman’s Art: Skin Footwear.” All About Shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum, 2008.
[4] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Protective Clothing of Seal Skin and Caribou Skin.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[5] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Patterns and Styles.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[6] “Our Boots, An Inuit Woman’s Art: Tools and Preparation.” All About Shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum, 2008.
[7] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Protective Layers of Footwear.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[8] “Kamik.” Unikkausivut—Sharing Our Stories. Dir. Elise Swerhone. National Film Board of Canada, 1989.
[9] “Traditional Dress.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Deconstruction and Date.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[12] Holmes, Rachel. “Designer Death Threats.” Fashion. The Guardian US Edition. 26 March 2009.
[13] “Deconstruction and Date.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.

NOTE: For more information on traditional and modern Greenland Inuit dress, see J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, and Robert Storrie, eds. 2005. Arctic Clothing of North-America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland. Montreal, Quebec: McGill Queen’s University Press.

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Potato Stamps and Ash Splints

Potato Stamps and Ash Splints:
A Narrative of Process and Exchange

Object Analysis for Anthropology of Museums
by Elizabeth Peng

Mrs. Michel Buckshot (whose personal name was Mackosi’kew, also spelled Meshkosikwe, meaning “Beaver Meadow Woman”) was well known as an Algonquin herbalist and artisan who made a variety of traditional crafts. These included puzzle pouches, a craft taught to her by her grandmother at Golden Lake, where she was born. She and her husband befriended University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank Speck and his student, Frederick Johnson, who was extremely interested in capturing the “traditional” culture of the River Desert Band of Algonquin (also spelled Algonkin or Algonkian) at Maniwaki (now called Kitigan Zibi). At the time, Mrs. Buckshot was the only person in the Band practicing ash splint basketry.[1]

During the 1920s, a collection of potato die stamps illustrating the process of stamping baskets, along with the corresponding stamped ash splints, entered Johnson’s possession. He commissioned Mrs. Buckshot to create these potato die stamps, in order to show the traditional use of vegetable stamps and herbal dyes to decorate ash splint baskets. The dies, which are now preserved (likely in alcohol) inside a glass jar, consist of chunks 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 at least one of the stamp surfaces. Because the organic material would shrivel if exposed to the air for extended periods of time, these would have been made immediately preceding use. Collected at the same time were illustrative stamped ash splints, to serve as proofs of the dies used.

Figure 2. Elizabeth Peng in the Penn Museum Study Lab, with jar of potato stamps and ash splints from River Desert. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Elizabeth Peng in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room, with a jar of potato stamps and ash splints from River Desert. Photo by Margaret Bruchac. Museum Object Numbers 29-10-79A and 29-10-79B.

A variety of colors and shapes can be found on the stamped pictures. On one splint, red (now faded to pink), brown, and blue dyes were used to stamp shapes in the form of flowers, leaves, beavers, shells, hands, feet, and what appears to be either a mask or a face. On another, pink and brown dyes were used to stamp shapes in the form of flowers, leaves, beavers, birds, and a round shape that appears to have spokes, much like a wheel. These ash splints were meant to be woven into basket form using what Speck described as “the simple under-and-over twill,” better described as plaiting or checkerboard weave. 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 (Six Nations Iroquois) and Algonkian territories.[2]

Figure 3: Coiled ash splints from River Desert, Quebec. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Coiled ash splints from River Desert, Quebec. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 29-10-79B

Johnson eventually sold these objects to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where they are now curated as objects 29-10-79A and 29-10-79B, as part of the Frederick Johnson collection.

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, canes, 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.”[3] Yet they also express the relationships embodied in the material exchanges between the River Desert Band, Speck and Johnson, and the Penn Museum.

NOTE: For more information about these stamps and splints, see the related blog article—“Mack0si’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships”—by Margaret Bruchac.

Footnotes:

[1] Speck, Frank G. 1939. “More Algonkian Scapulimancy from the North, and the Hunting Territory Question.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 4(1): 21-28. Also see Penn Museum notes on collection cards re: Purchases from Frederick Johnson (#1-93) / Gifts of Frank Speck (#94-99).
[2] 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.
[3] 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.

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