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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Arctic Bow Drill

Getting a Handle on the Past:
An Arctic Bow Drill

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Ally Mitchem

After several years at two different colleges, I’m good at research. I can find my way around online journals like a pro. You have an object in museum collections you’d like to know more about? Great, tell me who collected it and when and I’ll be back in a little while with all of the information I’ve found. Except, that’s not always the best strategy.

Last month, my class went into the Arctic collections in the Penn Museum’s American Section to survey materials collected from arctic expeditions. The Keeper, Bill Wierzbowski, brought a selection of objects into the Collections Study Room for a closer look. This is a great exercise for us as students, to get a sense of what we need to look for when examining objects, and a chance to actually discover something new. I was gearing myself up for a massive research project, imagining tracing the acquisition of an artifact through various museum records, like an academic super sleuth, but I had overlooked an important step.

Getting ahead of myself, I had forgotten to actually stop and look at the object first. So, as per the instructions of our teacher, before googling anything or even touching the artifact, I sat down to look. The photograph gives you an idea of the artifact as I first saw it.

Arctic Bow Drill. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number 86-35-364.

Arctic Bow Drill. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number 86-35-364.

On the most basic level, this is a bow drill (86-35-364). I knew this going in, because I had seen them before. As I would later learn, this is one of the items we know relatively little about. It came to the Museum in 1986 from the George Vaux III and Henry Vaux Jr., prominent Philadelphia collectors, but the records of which native group it came from aren’t known. It’s not clear how this drill came to be in a private collection, and the Museum’s Registrar’s Office has no further information.

The Penn Museum has a large collection of bow drills, and a number of the Arctic ones are made of walrus tusk ivory, with incised animal imagery. Many of these drills utilize not just wood and rawhide, but metal introduced to the area by trade. This bow drill appears to be the only one in collections containing jadeite (rarely found in Arctic tools), so it clearly signals access to jadeite, either from deposits in the region or through trade. Bow drill technology is common among Arctic and other North American Indigenous peoples, used to drill shells, soft metals, and, in some cases, stone.

While I wasn’t exactly sure where every piece fit, I knew that the purpose of this object, practically speaking, was to bore holes in other materials. Right, got it. The accessions card identified the materials: wood, ivory, rawhide, metal, and some kind of stone. The kit included two apparently interchangeable spindles to use with the same stabilizer and bow. Upon further investigation, it became clear that one of the drill bits was metal, an old nail, adapted to fit its wooden handle. This is interesting, because bow drills are ancient Native technology, but nails were only introduced after European contact. The other drill has a stone (jadeite) bit, representing both an older method of drill-making, and a practical means of drilling a different hole.

Iñupiaq Bow Drill from Port Clarence, Seward Peninsula, Alaska. From the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Museum ID Number E260132.

Iñupiaq Bow Drill from Port Clarence, Seward Peninsula, Alaska. From the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Museum ID Number E260132.

A similarly etched bow drill—identified as Iñupiaq from the Seward Peninsula, Alaska—is housed at the National Museum of Natural History. The Penn Museum has another example from Indian Point, Siberia. A Smithsonian Institution website—Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledgeprovides information about the use of this tool:

“The traditional drill was a wooden spindle wrapped in a turn of leather cord and twirled by the back and forth motion of an ivory bow. The upper end of the spindle was held by a mouthpiece inset with a cupped bearing of smooth stone. Craftsmen kept sets of spindles with different sized bits made from stone or iron. Drill bows were engraved with life scenes, like this these showing hunting and dog sledding.”

The most notable details of the bow are the carvings on the ivory. If you look closely, you can make out shapes and figures: people hunting, and animals being hunted…whales, caribou, maybe a snow goose. These animals make sense, they’re native to the Arctic where this was made. What is interesting, though, is that this object does not seem to be made for hunting, or for rituals associated with preparing for hunting. Why the intense emphasis on the act of successfully predating on an animal? If you look more closely, these are not depictions of people getting ready to hunt, they are in the midst of the act of killing their prey.

Close-up of whaling on Arctic bow drill.

Close-up of whaling on Arctic bow drill.

Close-up of hunting scene on bow drill.

Close-up of hunting scene on bow drill.

The whale, which is being pursued by a beautifully detailed canoe (look at those tiny paddles) has a harpoon in its back. The caribou has an arrow about to pierce its back. Whoever was carving this was not simply playing around with images, accidentally ending up with a hunt. This bow drill is imbued with powerful iconography, and clear intent. It is beautiful, in a very simple, but very powerful way. Staring at it for a while, you can imagine it becoming animated and moving, the  people chasing down their prey, dogs pulling a sled across the snow, a hunt in full action.

And yet, this is not the part of the drill that captivated me most. The stabilizer for the drill is attached to the bow with a rawhide strip that looks to be loosely tied. How convenient would it be to be able to untie it when you needed to use it, then attach it back while you stored it? The wooden mouthpiece and stabilizer itself is fascinating.

Close-up of wooden stabilizer for bow drill.

Close-up of wooden stabilizer for bow drill.

It is carefully carved, all in one piece. There’s metal attached to the bottom to hold the drill. At first I couldn’t tell if it was metal or stone, due to how dark it was, but it felt very cold through the nitrile glove in a way that the jadeite did not. My favorite observation is this: it is designed to be held in the mouth, but on one side, there is a worn down section in the precise shape of a thumb or a finger, where the person using it would put pressure to hold it steady. This was the smallest and most amazing detail—an actual mark left by someone using this. This left me with an overwhelming sense that I was not the only person to have held this tool, that it is not simply a part of an exhibit, and that museums do more than simply show you interesting objects…they show you things other human beings have created with their hands.

Sources:

Arctic Studies Center. Website: Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Martin, Paul S. 1934. The Bow-Drill in North America. American Anthropologist, 36(1), 94-97.

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Arctic Dance House Model

Kuskokwim Dance House

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Michele Belluomini

This Inuit (Eskimo) Model Dance House (object #NA1522) in the Penn Museum’s Arctic collections drew my attention because it seemed very mysterious, but also like something I “knew.” The more I studied it, the more I realized that much more was going on within in it, than if it were just a “toy.”

Yup'ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska, Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska,
Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

I have so many questions: What are the materials? Wood, but what kind of wood? There are cross-wrappings on the two back cross-poles, but not on the front. What are the lighter colored pegs for? Could something be strung from the pegs over the poles to create a roof? Are the figures carved of whale bone, seal bone, or walrus tusk ivory? Why have the figures been placed into small holes in the structure? There is a hole in the floor near two prominent standing figures; is this a spirit hole of some kind? What is missing?

And then there are activities within the structure. Some figures are holding items: frame drums, rattles, and a rope (for what purpose?). Some figures appear to be singing; one appears to be calling out, and one is “answering,” perhaps. Two “lead” figures in this house have markings, tatoos of some kind; perhaps they are shamans or ritual leaders. Perhaps this is a ceremony of some kind, or an initiation? One figure smaller than the others appears to be a young boy? Is this a ceremony for him?

Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska, Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska,
Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

The animal being held by one figure has the same markings as the two prominent figures; it is not clear whether it is alive or dead, intended to be released, or meant to serve as food or sacrifice. This animal looks very much like a large weasel (given the long tail) or a sea otter. In Inuit mythology, animals are significant in hunting rituals and shamanic practices. What is the purpose/meaning of this animal in this dance house?

Locations and Connections

Preliminary research led me to the Kuskokwim River in Alaska. The name derives from a Yup’ik word—Kusquqvak–meaning “big, slow-moving thing.” This river is approximately 702 miles long, connecting multiple Indigenous groups: the Yup’ik Eskimo on the lower river, the Deg Hit’an Athabaskan in the middle; the Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan on the upper part; and the Koyukon Athabaskan on the North Fork.I wondered about the possibility of widely-held beliefs among these different groups, since the Yup’ik and Athabaskan languages are two very different tongues.

According to Susan Kaplan, Native people in this region, “developed a sophisticated technological and religious system. They focused on the exploitation of highly seasonal resources found throughout the region. Hunters ventured out in carefully constructed kayaks. . . . They wore amulets and charms that protected them from dangerous supernatural beings, and sang songs that attracted the game.”[1]

Kuskokwim umiak identified as “Happy Traveler Canoe.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1521.

Kuskokwim umiak identified as “Happy Traveler Canoe.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1521.

Another Museum object, labeled as “Happy Traveler Canoe” (object # NA1521) originated from the same area. This object—which is technically an umiak, not a canoe—also appears to have spiritual or ritual implications, given that the upright figure (perhaps a shaman) is pierced through with a spear.

These two objects—the Dance House and the Umiak—were collected during the same Alaska Ethnological Expedition, and accessioned with sequential numbers, leading me to wonder if they came from the same source or were both used ceremoniously. There does not appear to be any data about their maker (or makers), or any indication how Gordon came by them.

A similar model, identified as an “Iñupiaq model qasgiq (men’s house),” survives in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, collected from Point Barrow, Alaska around 1900 by Frank Wood (item # 5/3662). This model is described as follows:

“This complex and beautifully constructed model depicts a dance scene in a qasgiq (or qasgi or qaygiq—communal men’s house). Traditionally used by men for eating, bathing, and sleeping, the qasgiq was also a place where all community members gathered for performances of masked dancers. This model shows a highly detailed tableau of spectators watching dancers perform one of a series of winter festivals that take place around the time of the winter solstice.”[2]

Patterns of Collecting

Between 1875 and approximately 1925, a massive quantity of material – both sacred and secular – was collected from native craftspeople of the Northwest Coast for the private and public collections of the European world. The major demands came from the museum, which coincided with the enormous growth of museums of all kinds; anthropology museums like the Penn Museum were a significant part of this movement.[3]

George B. Gordon, Director of the University Museum at this time, embarked on expeditions to the Northweast Coast in 1905 and 1907, for the purpose of collecting as much as possible from Alaska natives. His career as Director was marked by, “…a formidable number of additions to the collections. Early on he set about purchasing as many items of high quality as funding would allow.” Artifacts NA1521 and NA1522 were most likely acquired during the 1907 trip to Alaska, when Gordon traveled with his brother MacLaren. They began in the Yukon, and traveled by canoe down the Yukon river to the Kuskokwim river. He made substantial collections among Yup’ik people living in the interior and along the lower reaches of the river, revisiting many of his 1905 locations. [4] Gordon believed that Native American cultures and lifeways were disappearing, and so he urged other field collectors, like Van Valin, to assist in making the Museum, “…an instrument for the preservation of the truthful records of the aboriginal people of America.”[5]

Interestingly, according to Dorothy Jean Ray, Alaska’s Native people were eager at the time to produce “market art,” especially in the Kuskokwim – Nunivak area. The Southwestern Yup’ik, “. . . went joyfully to their knives and their needles at the first opportunity to sell their ‘art’.” In 1936, ethnographer Hans Himmelbeber suggested that the younger generation was just beginning to earn money from the souvenir business, but Ray suggests that the making of “souvenirs” was an older practice. Other observers, like signal corps officer Edward William Nelson, noted in 1882 that the Native people in this region, “still retained their ancient customs [and] their character is but slightly modified by contact with whites…they retain their complicated system of religious festivals and other ceremonies from ancient times. Their work in ivory and bone bears evidence of great skill.”[6]

Does this mean that artifact NA1522 was created solely for sale as a souvenir? The grace and beauty of this artifact suggests that it could have been a teaching tool, or it could have had some other Yup’ik purpose. It is difficult to know, given that Gordon’s field notes are sketchy at best. My assessment is that this Dance House model is more than a simple ”toy,“ as it is currently identified. The level of detail suggests that it could be what might best be called a “ceremonial remembrance.” This (and other questions) could likely be answered by consulting Yup’ik experts in mythology, ceremony, and cultural practices.

Sources:

[1] Kaplan, Susan A. and Kristin J. Barsness 1986. Raven’s Journey: The World of Alaska’s Native People. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, p. 129
[2] Infinity of Nations. Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. The National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, New York, NY.
[3] Cole, Douglas 1985. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, pp. 286-287.
[4] Gordon, George B. 1917. In the Alaskan Wilderness. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co. See Kaplan pp. 32, 39.
[5] Gordon to Van Valin, 24 October 1912, North America: Arctic, Point Barrow-VanValin, B4, F2, UMA, in Kaplan, Susan A. and Kristin J. Barsness 1986, p. 39.
[6] Ray, Dorothy Jean 1981. Aleut and Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in South Alaska. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Himmelheber, H. 1987. Eskimo Artists. Fieldwork in Alaska, June 1936 until April, 1937. Stuttgart: Kassel, 1938, 1953 (enlarged ed.). Nelson 1882 is cited in Ray 1981, p. 15.

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Cree Coat

Quillwork-Embellished “Cree” Coat

Object Analysis for Anthropology of Museums
by Pauline Saribas

This delicately adorned fringed Cree coat (item #NA3635) was procured from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1915 by George Byron Gordon, who was then the Director of the Penn Museum. Sewn out of three pieces of elk hide, it is embroidered with porcupine quills in beautiful geometric motifs, and trimmed with a warm, golden-brown fur that looks to be muskrat. The texture of the hide (soft and pliable, with a slight smoky odor) suggests it was prepared through brain-tanning and smoking. The coat displays European influence in the tailoring, the scalloped edges of the bottom hem (cut with special pinking shears), and the use of velvet and cotton to make the pockets. Yet the elk hide, fringing and trimming with fur, and ornamentation with quillwork designs, are essentially Indigenous.

Quillwork-embellished leather coat collected by George Byron Gordon. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.. Museum Object  Number: NA3635.

Quillwork-embellished leather coat collected by George Byron Gordon. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: NA3635.

The porcupine quillwork that makes this coat beautiful is common among the Native peoples of the Northeastern, Northern Plains, and Subarctic regions, including the Cree. Porcupine quills are stiff, pointed, modified hairs, up to three inches in length, that were dyed and flattened. Native Americans and First Nations people had ingenious ways to color and use porcupine quills for decoration, stitching them through bark or hide, or wrapping them around a piece of fringe.[1]

The shoulders, front placket, and sleeves of this coat are decorated in this way. The Cree historically attributed power and meaning to certain kinds of adornment; perhaps the quillwork has protective as well as decorative effect.[2] The dyes used for the quillwork designs could be a starting point for determining the age of the coat. Before the 1850s and the invention of aniline dyes, plant-based dyes were used for coloring.[3] Perhaps the dyes could be analyzed to see if they were aniline or plant based? The purple color in the neckband is particularly vivid, and the range of colors is similar to other quilled objects from the subarctic found in other North American ethnographic museums.[4]

Detail showing intensity of of purple and red dyes on quillwork. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Detail showing intensity of of purple and red dyes on quillwork. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

There is little information about how this coat was obtained by the Museum, except to record that it was collected from the Hudson’s Bay Company. No clues appear to have survived in Gordon’s correspondence, photos, or bills of sale, and there are no publications describing this coat.

In searching for comparable objects, I found some Cree coats in other museums, and learned that fringed leather coats—cut to European patterns and embellished with designs made from paint, porcupine quills, and/or beads—became common on the Canadian frontier during the 18th and 19th centuries. The style began when settlers gave military-style frock coats to tribal leaders as a way to reinforce trade and convey status. Some Native people made their own versions of these tailored coats out of various hides. A description of a Cree frock coat from 1832 in a Christie’s auction catalogue notes that these coats were common among the Ojibway, Cree, and Red River Métis who demonstrated:

“…artistic ability, technical accomplishments, and keen ingenuity in their ability to replicate things alien to their respective cultures. Trade goods, especially ready-made garments, were expensive items during the era, yet they exerted strong appeal. Resourceful Indian artists created remarkable facsimiles of prized items such as frockcoats, giving them a decided Indian twist.”[5]

Yet, this is not a frock coat. It is cut in a squarish jacket style, suggesting that it may date to a later period, perhaps the late 19th century.

There is a Cree coat in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), identified as misko takiy (hide coat). The quillwork motifs are geometric, but the coat is also painted, and it is made from moose hide, not elk hide. Sherry Farrell Racette notes that it is cut along the traditional lines from a single large moose hide: “the coat wraps around a man’s body as it once wrapped around the animal.” There is a coat in the NMAI collection labeled “Cree Métis,” but the quillwork motifs are curvilinear and it is patterned on a Euro-American style frock coat. A second square-cut leather coat can be found in the Penn Museum collections—identified as Alaskan Tlingit, item # NA9478)—but the decoration is very different from this “Cree” coat.

When I could not find an example of a Cree coat similar to this one, I wondered, based on the extent of decoration, if it was Métis, a blend of European and Native culture? The use of velvet on the pockets appeared to date it to the 19th century, and I found other Métis coats with velvet and quillwork from that era, but none of these resembled the one at Penn. Métis motifs for quillwork tended to be overwhelmingly curvilinear and floral, rather than geometric.[6]

Pauline Saribas and other Museum Anthropology students in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Pauline Saribas and other Museum Anthropology students in the Penn Museum’s Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

It is hard to know what this particular coat meant to its Native maker and wearer. There is only slight evidence of wear on the inside and sleeve ends, suggesting it was rarely worn. Perhaps it was made specifically for a collector? Since the quillwork displays such careful symmetry, perhaps it was regalia to be worn on a special occasion? Although this coat was made to fit a man’s frame, the delicacy of the quillwork leads me to suggest that this finely embellished coat was decorated by a woman. Perhaps it is in the category of museum objects that are:

“…encoded with knowledge, although they are sometimes impenetrable and difficult to understand. Most often sleeping on a shelf in a museum storage room, completely decontextualized from their cultures of origin, they are the raw materials of women’s history.[7]

This coat has a story to tell, and I continue to wonder at its meaning.

 

[1] Orchard, William C. 1916. The Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration among the North American Indians. The Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation.

[2] Miranda, Caroline A. June 18, 2014. “Object Lesson: Rare Cree Coat a Window into America’s Complex History,” Los Angeles Times.

[3] Feest, Christian F. 1992. Native Arts of North America. London: Thames and Hudson.

[4] Cole, Christina, and Susan Heald 2010. “The History and Analysis of Pre-Aniline Native American Quillwork Dyes.” Presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010.

[5] A handsome example of a Cree leather coat cut in a frock style was auctioned at Christie’s in 2003.

[6] For a gallery of clothing examples and more information, see Métis Textiles, a website gallery at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, in Eugene, Oregon.

[7] Farrell Racette, Sherry 2009. “Looking for Stories and Unbroken Threads: Museum Artifacts as Woman’s History and Cultural Legacy,” in Gail G. Valaskakis, Madeline D. Stout, and Eric Guimond 2009. Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community and Culture. University of Manitoba Press, p. 287.

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  • Penn Museum

Beneath the Surface at the Penn Museum