I had the great fortune in graduate school to visit and study at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. That museum houses more than 1.2 million individual cultural items, 500,000 photographic images, and many other records. It is one of the museums at Harvard University.
"The cultural material of many diverse peoples in the long history of North America from more than 15,000 years ago to recent decades are included in the collections."
Collections of North America from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
The massive collection from the indigenous people of North America and specifically the Great Plains pulled me in. Objects related to women’s work, women’s roles, and childcare, always intrigue me. I feel a sisterhood to other mothers, and especially those from the Great Plains. I grew up in Nebraska and it always feels like home.
The women of the Great Plains have been a formidable force for millennia. Women are described as...
Those who cultivate our lands, kindle our fires, boil our pots, produce the family food, butcher, store and cook the meat brought in by the men, as well as their roles as healers, midwives, and for their skills in crafting material goods for ceremonial and trade objects including boats and shelters.
Brave Hearts and Their Cradles, Richard Janulewicz, 2006, p 1.
In addition, of course, it is the women who become pregnant and gave birth to all the members of the tribe.
For example, this comment from the 1800’s...
“Among all Native cultures, no force was considered more sacred or more powerful than the ability to create new life.”
The Girl Who Married the Moon, Tales from Native North America by Joseph Bruchac and Gale Ross. 1994, 2006, BridgeWater Publishers.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Papoose Carrier, Accession Number: 38-44-10/12821
This is a "soft cradle" (not intended to be used with a cradle board). This handmade swaddle, as we would call it, is for babies as they are carried in arms or resting on the ground inside the family's home.
This specific example was an object I studied from the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. It was created by a Lakota woman for an infant in the late 1800s. It has detailed quillwork on the hood part of the garment. It also has bells, feathers, hide, tassels, and is composed mainly of "trade fabric," which in this case was loomed striped flannel broadcloth.
The bells that sit along the forehead are sometimes referred to as "tinklers." They are there to entertain children and to quietly announce the approach of a baby, typically carried by her mother.
This soft cradle reminds me of the hooded towels infants and toddlers use today. But how much more fun they would be if we added tinklers to them 😊
For it is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.
Land of the Spotted Eagle, Luther Standing Bear, 1933.
Women were also the matriarchs of many tribes, meaning they were in charge. The clan lineage is generally passed on the mother's side, rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition of following the father's lineage. In some tribes, such as the Chickasaw, property belonged to the women.
White aristocracy, European explorers, and others who interacted with the Native people of the Americas, assumed on contact with the indigenous communities, that the highest-ranking member would be a man. So therefore, all important interactions were with male members of the Native community. I’m just guessing, but I’m sure there were tribes who found this humorous and puzzling: Why would white traders or explorers cut out half of the decision makers in the negotiation
Native Women's Tradition of Honoring their Elders
History Nebraska, Object: 11894-1. Lula red Cloud Hermosa, South Dakota
In the theme of women honoring their elders to uphold the traditions, this is a Morning Star quilt created in 2001 by the Great Great Granddaughter of Red Cloud, Lula Red Cloud, Hermosa, South Dakota.
The hand-pieced and hand-quilted quilt was used as "Red Cloud's Contemporary Robe" to cover the bust of Red Cloud when he was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. Red Cloud, (Lakota: Maȟpíya Lúta) (1822 – 1909) was one of the most successful and strategic foes to the US government in attempting to retain the homelands of his people. He was chief of the Oglala Lakota.
The Moment of My Introduction to an Native Chief
Understanding my respect for the Native women of the various tribes of North America, you can imagine how memorable it was to meet a female Indian Chief.
Chief Glenna Wallace, Chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is also referred to by her Native name Ni ni le wi pi mi, which is derived from the Eagle or Chicken Clan, meaning “eagle watching over everyone.”
Ni ni le wi pi mi identifies her role in her tribe; watching over everyone.
I met Chief Wallace at a museum in Ohio. I was the manager-in-charge of the museum that day. We often had important visitors; sometimes scheduled, sometimes unexpected. I was not expecting a visitor of her prestige or rank, but I was notified that she was in the lobby and awaiting a representative to greet her.
I was overcome with being “star-struck.”
To backtrack a bit, you need to know that Ohio was one of the states or territories of the US that drove all the indigenous tribes from their own land via "removal."
Various Native tribes had historically been living in or navigating through Ohio for thousands of years. Really: thousands.
With the passage of the 1832 Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson, the indigenous people were forced to make an 700-mile journey on foot to Oklahoma. Almost one out of three people, including children and the elderly, died on the trek.
Image from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma Informational Video, Miami University.
They were removed to unfamiliar, barren, desolate patches of ground in Oklahoma. I don’t think we can imagine the difficulty in moving from the rich river valley soil, and glacially fertile earth in Ohio, to the flat arid lands of Oklahoma. How could their traditions adapt, or how would they even survive?
After "removal" from Ohio, Kansas, and other states, they were considered the “Mixed Band,” and were composed primarily of the Eastern Shawnee and the Seneca Cayuga.
As they were forced from their traditional homeland in Ohio, they were promised 60,000 acres of land in Oklahoma, and actually were congregated on only about 58 acres.
Back to that morning about 10 years ago in Ohio, since I knew this history and, sadly, so much more about the treatment of the Native people during westward expansion, I approached with reverence toward Chief Wallace, and the small group of women with her.
I said, “Chief Wallace, I am honored to have this remarkable opportunity to meet you. I admit I don’t know the proper way to greet you.” I didn’t know if I should shake her hand, bow to her…. What? Since she is the head of a sovereign state, I didn’t know what was the appropriate protocol for me to respectfully greet her. And, I didn’t want to offend her with my ignorance.
I remember this moment with much joy. She smiled and walked the few steps between us and gave me a big hug.
I was so honored. She put me at ease. Even now it is emotional to remember that moment that was so powerful to me.
The rest was a happy blur. She introduced the women with her, and I gave them the tour of the museum.
As I said, it was one of the distinct honors of my life.
I recommend an article by Lindsey Crawford, Fort Pitt Museum Chief Glenna Wallace (May 11, 2016), as well as a video by Miami University (Ohio) students to provide historical background and culture of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. The video, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Informational Video, includes music of the tribe. It is worth watching specifically to hear the music, in addition to a very well scripted and edited story of the tribe.
* Note: I am presenting this story as a personal reflection of an important day in my life. I don't understand cultural appropriation with the point of view of an Indigenous person. I am not clear as to what might be offensive. I aim to be respectful and share some American history and art history. Please correct me if I have gotten any of the facts wrong. And let me know if something I have included is offensive or protected, and I will remove it, with my apologies.
I don't receive any remuneration for this blog. It is written to share my thoughts, opinions, and understanding of art and art history in an accurate way. Naturally being human, white, middle class, and having privileges that others don't, I have my recognized and unrecognized biases.
I am familiar with the complicated history of the archeologists, directors, and early enthusiasts of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. They had a sense of hubris and superiority that led to a policy of basically, whatever they found, they could claim and take back to Cambridge, MA for the Peabody collection. They executed many troubling practices. This is not an essay on the morality of those practices. Harvard has an active protocol following NAGPRA (National American Graves and Repatriation Act.) Here is information on these policies at Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
There are many magnificent objects in the collection. I felt it would be worse to let objects, which currently exist in the collection, languish unseen, rather that providing an opportunity through my study and writing, to share them with a broader audience.