Every year the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
This season I continued my fieldwork as a team member of the On the Wampum Trail Project. Unlike an archaeological project, rooted in the ground of one site or landscape, our ethnographic research project covers many places, spaces, and people, brought together through a series of excursions to explore the interconnectedness of wampum in communities (and museum collections) as material and meaning.
Over the course of a single week, Dr. Margaret Bruchac, undergraduate research assistant Sarah Parkinson, and I spent approximately 30 hours in a car together driving across the Canadian territories of Ontario and Quebec. We had time to ponder research questions, share and discuss potential insights, and soak in our surroundings. We passed innumerable roadside blueberry stands, calling to us despite our arrival before prime blueberry season. Wetlands and waterways were our constant roadside companions, sprinkled with beaver dams, which help make this landscape so fertile. Our eyes strained in the twilight searching through the trees in hopes of seeing a moose—but alas! No moose was to be spotted.[i]
This portion of my field season led us northward to visit the collections at the Royal Ontario Museum, Canadian Museum of Civilization, and McCord Museum. We also visited with members of the Anishinaabeg community at Kitigan Zibi and Rapid Lake, Quebec. I flew from Philadelphia to Toronto to join the team, who had already been on the wampum trail for the previous two weeks. Our first stop together was the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.
We were met at the Museum by Curator Emeritus Trudy Nicks and Database Technician Molly Minnick, who led us into collections to examine an array of wampum that included objects with both shell and glass beads. The first object we studied was a belt that looked strikingly similar to the Penn belt in Philadelphia[ii], but with the colors reversed: two white figures on a purple background instead of two purple figures on a white background.
The construction technique was dissimilar to anything we had seen before, and unusual additions to the belt, such as fur stitched to the ends, led us to consider the possibility that this was not a traditional[iii] belt. By this stage in the project, I had examined more than 70 wampum belts and many other woven wampum objects. It was interesting to experience my mind sifting through a mental catalogue of comparanda that had grown larger than I even realized. This new ability—drawing on such a large array of comparative samples—helped us to collectively deduce that this belt contained something unexpected, yet based in material evidence. We observed a number of anomalies: light purple beads filling in for white beads; horizontal rows of beads at the edges; irregular ties and twists in the wefts that created an uneven structure. It was nothing like what we had seen before.
These observations suggested that this weaver had little training in traditional weaving techniques, or perhaps was more interested in creating a visually appealing belt, or even yet, may have intentionally created a belt that no one would confuse with a traditional belt. At least one of these possibilities suggested that this belt was made by a non-Native enthusiast or to appeal to 19th century fascinations with the Native. Enthusiasm about Native peoples, which sometimes inspired appropriating Native culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries was common (and unfortunately, is still quite common to this day) and manifests itself in a myriad of ways[iv]. We wondered if, and how, this unconventional wampum belt should be interpreted. Should it be situated within that conventional narrative, which tells of using Native imagery and material culture, among other things, for Western entertainment and hegemony?[v]
That very history is addressed, in part, in the galleries, in the the form of a clever display case entitled “Living Cultures” in the exhibit Sovereign Allies/Living Cultures: First Nations of the Great Lakes.
The installation re-purposes American Indian mannequins from an old museum display into, essentially, a contemporary art piece critiquing outdated museum representations and romanticizations of the Native. This was one of the most successful decolonizing museum displays that I have ever seen. It confronts and deconstructs static cultural representations, museum authority, and the voyeurism to which most museum-goers feel entitled when they visit museums of anthropology. Furthermore, it is representative of the progress that museums have made in self-reflection, collaboration, and in responding to indigenous priorities in a manner that is transparent and detectable to the public. The display catches you off-guard, at once appearing to be a familiar scene reminiscent of classic life-group displays common in the early 20th century. Then, traces of the modern encroach on your mental image: Hmm, that mannequin is wearing a t-shirt. Did the exhibit team leave an electric drill in the case? Is that an SLR camera mounted on a tripod? Okay, wait just one second, that mannequin is listening to an iPod! Notions of the static: BE GONE! As any technophile knows, digital cameras and Apple products are some of the fastest changing technology of our era. The only thing that seems to be missing is the latest gaming console!
Unexpected encounters like these—with unusual wampum belts and provocative displays—expand my mental catalogue, forcing me to think more broadly and steering me in new directions, while preparing me to consider other creative ways to challenge expected stereotypes.
After the ROM, we visited the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, the Anishinaabeg communities at Rapid Lake and Kitigan Zibi, and the McCord Museum in Montreal. From Montreal we made the long drive back to Philadelphia. However, I will leave those experiences for later entries. If you are interested to hear more about the On the Wampum Trail project, please check out our blog and our Facebook page.
I am grateful to the Penn Museum for funding my fieldwork this summer as a team member of the On the Wampum Trail project. I would also like to thank the museum professionals who facilitated our visits and the Native communities, scholars, and knowledge keepers with whom we closely work.
[i] This is not entirely true: I “spotted” moose meat in our meal at Rapid Lake. It was delicious and I thank our hosts for feeding us so generously!
[iii] The term “traditional” is a complicated word, but I use it to mean that this belt was unlikely part of a long indigenous weaving tradition, considering its unusual production. As I allude to, non-traditional does not equate to non-Native, but carries a different message.
[v] Dr. Bruchac is currently researching the history of this belt. Check the blog soon to find out what she uncovers.